Nuclear power is essential to countering climate change
November 30, 2015 12:00 AM
By Edward H. Klevans
Momentum is building around the world for nuclear power to play a larger role in slowing climate change. This comes at a critical moment. Countries are meeting in Paris this week to negotiate a new global agreement on global warming.
The expectation is that the United States will urge other nations to give explicit credit to nuclear power as a major weapon against climate change — and that this change will be incorporated in the new accord. Energy experts warn that without increased use of nuclear power in global electricity production, it will be impossible to hold the increase in global warming to 2 degrees centigrade by 2100.
Currently, 394 nuclear power plants operate in 30 countries, supplying 11.5 percent of the world’s electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Seventy new nuclear plants are under construction and another 489 are planned or proposed.
Even with additional nuclear power — the best source of zero-carbon base-load electricity — meeting that global-warming goal will be extremely difficult. But Christiana Figueres, a top U.N. climate-change official, says we’re no longer on a path to a 5- or 6-degree centigrade increase in global temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels — and that’s a huge turnabout.
Here in the United States, no amount of effort to reduce carbon emissions to safe and acceptable levels will succeed unless nuclear power winds up with a larger share of the nation’s electricity supply. It now accounts for 19 percent of electricity-generating capacity. The problem is that many nuclear plants are struggling to compete in states where electricity is deregulated.
Over the past two years, nuclear plants have either closed or near-future closures have been announced in four states — Wisconsin, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York — and plants in several other parts of the country are considered at risk. The issue is not safety but rather competition from cheap natural gas and heavily subsidized renewable energy.
Yet amid this uncertain state of affairs is a historic opportunity. The United States leads the world in the development of innovative nuclear technologies, with companies, universities and national laboratories working on more than 50 designs for advanced nuclear reactors. Given the surge expected in global demand for emission-free energy, the need for advanced nuclear plants that cost less to build than today’s conventional light-water reactors will definitely grow.
Significantly, the China National Nuclear Corp. recently reached an agreement with a small Seattle-based startup nuclear company to develop a prototype for a new type of reactor called a traveling-wave reactor that runs on depleted uranium. The startup, TerraPower, is financed largely by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who is investing in new energy technologies capable of producing large amounts of electricity without emitting carbon.
The plan calls for building a 600-megawatt prototype reactor in China, with the start of operations possible by 2020, followed by a 1,150-megawatt reactor for worldwide commercial use. China is also working on a molten-salt reactor based on a design by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Nothing is more difficult than turning energy prototypes into models that are commercially competitive on the global market. But the status quo is not an option for China.
China is the world’s largest carbon polluter — soot from its coal plants is harming the health of millions of people and despoiling the environment. China plans to almost triple its nuclear-generating capacity by 2020. And it has pledged to have its carbon emissions peak by 2030 and to launch a national carbon-trading system.
Recently the White House held a summit meeting on nuclear power, providing a high-level endorsement of nuclear technology as a key weapon in the battle against global warming. At the meeting, nuclear-industry officials were buoyed by the announcement that Dominion Virginia Power will be the first utility to apply for renewal of its license to operate two of its reactors for 80 years. That’s good news for electricity users, the economy and the environment. It will encourage the continued use of existing nuclear plants and the construction of new plants.
Nuclear power is part of the solution to climate change. So far, 157 countries have submitted climate-change pledges in preparation for the Paris meeting. The consensus is that the accord will produce tangible results, with provisions to verify that countries meet their pledges every five years. It will be left to each country to determine the speed and scale of its reductions.
We must quickly turn the fast-growing climate-change problem to the advantage of the world’s people by providing safe and dependable nuclear technology that countries can rely on because of the quality and rigor of reactor designs they have asked us to provide.
Edward H. Klevans is professor and department head emeritus of nuclear engineering at Penn State University.
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