Monday, January 9, 2017

Should the Trump Administration Build New Nuclear Power Plants?

Nuclear power plants aren't getting any younger. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average nuclear power plant is 35 years old, and licenses last 40 years with the possibility of a 20-year extension. 20 percent of the United States' electricity, as well as two-thirds of zero-carbon electricity, comes from nuclear power, which is more than the combined 7 percent from hydroelectricity and 6 percent from other renewable sources. The Center of Energy Economics at the University of Texas estimated that 40 percent of nuclear power plants are to close over the next decade due to becoming too old. Due to aging nuclear power plants, there is a distinct possibility that nuclear power undergoes a revival in the U.S.A., especially since he mentioned it on the campaign trail. The question is whether Trump should revive the nuclear power sector. While I'm a bit time-constrained to cover every last aspect of the nuclear power debate, I figured that I ought to cover a few here.

Safety: By and large, nuclear power has a good safety record. There are three main nuclear accidents that have occurred: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Three Mile Island is actually an example of how to contain nuclear accidents with proper concrete containment structures, especially since there were no long-term adverse health effects. An explosion such as Chernobyl wouldn't repeat itself since it didn't have the safety features found in Western nuclear power plants. Even with Fukushima, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that a) there are no discernible health risks for those living outside of Japan, b) there was a small absolute risk of cancer in the Fukushima prefecture, and c) there were no fatalities linked to short-term radiation exposure. In the big picture, NASA found that coal and natural gas are actually more unsafe than nuclear power.

Carbon Reduction: According to the IPCC, nuclear energy would need to double or triple to part of feasible carbon reduction, which would need to entail the construction of 29 to 107 new nuclear power plants a year (p. 564). The EIA also found that the 2040 levelized cost, i.e., the cost of all inputs, for nuclear power are less than wind power and solar thermal energy (p. 17).

Cost: One of the biggest gripes I have with nuclear power is the cost. Looking at levelized costs for plants entering service in 2022, nuclear power is cheaper than wind or solar power, but still more expensive than natural gas (EIA, p. 7). Similar to wind power, nuclear power needs a lot of subsidies to stay afloat. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found in its World Economic Outlook that 21 percent of nuclear power costs are supported by nuclear power, which is only second to wind power at 41 percent. Capital and operation costs remain high without subsidies, which makes me wonder how well it can pass a market test. See more on economics of nuclear power here.

Footprint: A 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor only needs a square mile to operate, whereas solar power and wind power requires much more land, 75 times and 360 times the land, respectively. When looking at the amount of building materials used on a per-megawatt basis, nuclear power also surpasses other zero-carbon options. In contrast, if we were to switch over to wind and solar to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent, we would need an infrastructure the size of Texas and West Virginia combined, as well as tens of thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines.

Postscript: I could go into other factor such as uranium mining, radioactive waste disposal, terrorism, energy security, or other factors, but on the whole, my view on nuclear power is more ambivalent than it was once was. I see its great to potential to be a zero-carbon form of energy with high capacity. On the other hand, it is quite expensive. Even so, nuclear power has a certain reliability that many other energy sources do not. I don't suspect that nuclear energy is going to be removed from the energy portfolio anytime soon, especially given its positive characteristics. As for whether we should construct more plants, that one I am not so sure about, especially with the low cost of natural gas. Since the average plant takes five to seven years to build, if Trump does opt to build new plants, he should get started shortly after Inauguration Day.

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