Contrary to industry propaganda, nuclear power plants are not an essential tool in the fight against climate change, but an increasingly dangerous drag on the deployment of more practical renewables and energy efficiency, Rocky Mountain Institute Chair and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins declares in a recent post for Forbes.
Though the recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019 shows the global nuclear industry clearly “dying of an incurable attack of market forces,” writes Lovins, American support for the technology remains tenacious, with proponents across the political spectrum promoting nuclear as indispensable in the effort to lower carbon emissions.
And yet, “building new reactors, or operating most existing ones, makes climate change worse compared with spending the same money on more climate-effective ways to deliver the same energy services,” Lovins says.
The critical mistake among climate-focused supporters of nuclear generation is to look solely at the matter of carbon, he explains. The problem with that approach is that, with so much ground to catch up in so little time, “we must save the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time, counting all three variables—carbon and cost and time. Costly options save less carbon per dollar than cheaper options. Slow options save less carbon per year than faster options. Thus even a low- or no-carbon option that is too costly or too slow will reduce and retard achievable climate protection.”
Lovins makes clear that nuclear fails resoundingly on both cost and turnaround time: “Being carbon-free does not establish climate-effectiveness,” he declares.
Well-intentioned nuclear proponents aside, Lovins writes scathingly of industry magnates who “milk” the system, taking “multi-billion-dollar bailouts from malleable state legislatures for about a tenth of the nuclear fleet so far, postponing the economic reckoning by shooting the market messenger.” He warns that “such replacement of market choices with political logrolling distorts prices, crowds out competitors, slows innovation, reduces transparency, rewards undue influence, introduces bias, picks winners, invites corruption, and even threatens to destroy the competitive regional power markets where renewables and efficiency win.”
Lovins cautions against accepting the findings of a late May report by the International Energy Agency, which claimed that abandoning nuclear power would make climate action “drastically harder and more costly,” as well as the still widely-held assumption that the climate emergency “demands every option, including preserving nuclear power at any cost”. Invoking the “bedrock economic principle of ‘opportunity cost’,” he notes that “you can’t spend the same money on two different things at the same time. Each purchase foregoes others. Buying nuclear power displaces buying some mixture of fossil-fueled generation, renewable generation, and efficient use.”
At an estimated cost of US$118 to $192 per megawatt-hour in 2019, he adds, nuclear stands no competitive chance whatsoever against utility-scale solar power at $32 to 42/MWh, onshore wind power at $28 to 54/MWh, or energy efficiency at $0 to $50, but typically around $25/MWh. “Efficiency, being already delivered to your meter, also avoids roughly $42/MWh of average delivery cost that all remote generators incur,” he adds.
With new U.S. nuclear development off the table, Lovins adds, “today’s hot question” concerns the fate of “the 96 existing reactors, already averaging about a decade beyond their nominal original design life.” Operating costs exceed $40/MWh for the costlier half of the grouping, and $50/MWh for the “costliest quartile”, while wind farm maintenance costs come in “as low as $11/MWh” in 2018.
All the operating cost data swirling around the energy marketplace points to “an important climate opportunity”, Lovins observes. “Customer efficiency costs utilities only $20 to 30/MWh on average—less if they shop carefully. Therefore, closing a top-quartile-cost nuclear plant and buying efficiency instead, as utilities could volunteer or regulators require, would save considerably more carbon than continuing to run the nuclear plant.”
Those calculations show that “while we close coal plants to save carbon directly, we should also close distressed nuclear plants and reinvest their large saved operating cost in cheaper options to save carbon indirectly. These two climate-protecting steps are not alternatives; they are complements.”
And that doesn’t even address the glacially slow pace at which conventional nuclear plants are sited, approved, and built.
Even as the World Nuclear Association touts its product as “the fast track to decarbonization”, real-life experience shows that “nuclear plants take many years to build, typically around a decade, while renewable projects can take a year or less—even months or weeks,” he writes. “Further, national nuclear power programs need three times as much lead time for institutional preparations as modern renewables need. For both reasons, renewables can start saving carbon many years sooner.”
None of which has stopped the U.S. nuclear industry from pushing a new federal tax subsidy on nuclear fuel and maintenance costs, in a bid to “help level the playing field with other clean energy sources”. The legislation would cost $22 to $26 billion in the first decade, or $33 billion “counting the crowding-out of cheaper competitors,” Lovins notes. And “every billion dollars thus bilked from taxpayers is unavailable to provide more electrical services and save more carbon by cheaper means.”
Meanwhile, “unlike renewable credits that have helped to mature important new technologies, the nuclear credit would elicit no new production, capacity, or innovation,” but rather “simply transfer tens of billions of dollars to the owners of uncompetitive nuclear assets bought decades ago.”
This kind of “anti-market monkey business cannot indefinitely forestall the victory of cheaper competitors,” Lovins concludes. “But it can delay and diminish climate protection, while transferring tens of billions of unearned dollars from taxpayers and customers to nuclear owners.”
Which means the climate emergency and market health both demands vigilant attention, “not only to carbon but also to cost and time,” in tandem with a vigorous defence of “markets’ ability to choose climate solutions that can save the most carbon per dollar and per year.” Ultimately, Lovins says, “our best climate strategy would be to start taking economics seriously.”