Nuclear power rated as necessary, but not sufficient, for impact on global warming
A rapid ramping up of nuclear power isn't the whole answer to the problem of global warming caused by fossil fuels, but it's a start. That's the conclusion of a Colorado think tank known for bringing together people with very diverse views on controversial issues.
The Keystone Center, based in Denver, issued a report this week that said the rate at which nuclear power generating electricity would have to grow is likely beyond the means of the industry at this time. Still, this assessment didn't stop the group from saying it "in a carbon-constrained world, the relative economics of nuclear power will improve."
To make a real difference in the near-term, e.g., next 50 years, of global climate change, the nuclear power industry will have to build at a phenomenal rate of 14 new plants (1,200 to 1,600 Mw each) per year for the next half century. During that time the global industry would also have to build six-to-eight new plants the same size per year to replace older facilities being retired.
The assumption by the Keystone group is that nuclear plants would replace carbon-fueled plants such as those burning coal or natural gas. The report says the likely economics of nuclear power, or its rate of growth, improves if carbon taxes or carbon trading programs are taken into account. Energy experts generally agree without a price for carbon, there is no mechanism that can guide the energy system and market demand towards a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Given the number of nuclear plants on the drawing board for the next two-to-four years, about two dozen or so, the Keystone study concluded that the 50-year scenario was "too optimistic," and unlikely to be achieved. Under the best circumstances, nuclear electricity will be expensive, the group said, with costs delivered to the grid of between 8 and 11 cents per kilowatt hour.
If you want to add that up, using the Keystone scenario, its about 20,000 Mw per year for 50 years for construction of the new plants and another 10,000 Mw per year for 50 years for replacement plants. In terms of employment, the numbers are equally fantastic. A single nuclear plant could employ upwards of 4,000 people a year during the construction phase, which lasts at least five years, and then another 1,500 people per year for the next 40 years of operations. On a global scale a huge number of people would have to become nuclear engineers to make this scenario plausible. It would put an enormous strain on universities worldwide to train them. Finally, the question has to be asked how the materials and components would be produced, and at what cost, to build the plants?
It's a good thing the study group had a bunch of folks with very different ideas about nuclear power because they took on every hot button issue that lives in the problem areas that keep managers awake at nights. Here are some other highlights.
- Spent Nuclear Fuel
The Keystone Study took a close look at reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and the Bush Administration's GNEP program. Short and sweet the group said reprocessing isn't cost effective, but Yucca Mountain won't be ready anytime soon. So, the group says, store spent fuel at the reactors that burned it. Decommissioned plants could send their debris to a central interim storage facility.
- Nuclear Proliferation
It said nuclear proliferation challenges increased with growth of the industry. If growth in commercial nuclear power plants also resulted in construction of fuel cycle facilities in countries that do not now possess nuclear weapons, the risk of proliferation would increase. Proliferation could occur by the actions of national governments and non-state, possibly terrorist, organizations.
A consensus is that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards had “critical shortcomings” and were currently insufficient to provide timely detection when weapon quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium were diverted. Translation - "we're worried about Iran."
- Global Nuclear Energy Partnership
On GNEP the group swung with a broad axe. It said, "the program is not a credible strategy for resolving either the radioactive waste problem or the weapons proliferation problem. Critical elements of the program are unlikely to succeed." No one from the Department of Energy was part of the study group. So far there's no reaction from the Bush Administration. Idaho Senator Larry Craig and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar briefed their colleagues on the report on Friday June 15th.
Financial support for the study came from a broad cross-section of the nuclear electric power industry, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study group included nuclear industry executives, advocates and critics of nuclear power, former government officials, and university experts. The executive summary of the study is here