Nuclear power seems to be a recurring opinion topic in the Guardian lately, and I think the discussion could be simplified by considering the question of present-day technical practicality.
Nuclear power has its merits. It is a reliable baseload electricity source and has significantly lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than fossil-fueled power generation. Closing existing nuclear plants prematurely and making up the difference with natural gas or coal doesn’t do the climate any favours. However, when it comes to installing new low-carbon generation, there is a reason that only one new nuclear plant has entered service in the U.S. in the last 20 years.
I'm not an expert on nuclear power; I can't provide an informed opinion on nuclear waste safety or the likelihood of future reactor technology breakthroughs. But I am literate in the topic of energy systems, and the evidence I’ve seen suggests that, relative to other low-carbon energy sources available today, nuclear power is significantly more expensive, less flexible, and impractically slow to build.
Nuclear power is expensive compared to modern renewables. The most recent cost of energy assessments from Lazard, a very reputable source, show nuclear coming in at roughly three to four times the cost of utility-scale wind or solar power. Three to four times. If this comes as a surprise, it might be because nuclear projects end up on average more than 100 per cent over budget (according to a peer-reviewed survey of 180 nuclear plants). Though next-generation reactor designs promise significant improvements, that technology is still in the works. In contrast, wind and solar power are already mature technologies, widely deployed at utility scale, and more affordable than almost every other option.
It’s commonly argued that nuclear plants provide reliable baseload generation. This is accurate, but of decreasing relevance. The challenge with electricity supply is meeting the peak load, not the base. This calls for flexible generation that can ramp up or down when needed, energy storage (of which there is an expanding array of options), and demand response (e.g. Summerside’s smart grid). Furthermore, as our energy mix becomes increasingly renewable, the need for flexibility increases and the space for always-on baseload generation decreases. Current nuclear technology, which is inflexible and relies on full-time operation to be economical, becomes increasingly impractical.
The urgency for decarbonizing our energy system has never been greater. Last year’s special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pushes for a halving of global net greenhouse gas emission by 2030. This involves switching the majority of our energy use to electricity, and providing that electricity from low-carbon sources. The 2030 timeframe means we need to use technologies that can be deployed quickly. While wind and solar power plants can be installed in a single year, nuclear plants typically take 10 years. Even if nuclear power were cost-effective and compatible with the future of the electricity grid, nuclear plants simply take too long to build to be a significant part of the energy system’s evolution.
We are lucky that the abundant and quickly-deployable low-carbon energy sources we need are also now the cheapest form of electricity generation on the planet. Wind and solar are remarkably safe; the main risks are killing birds and bothering local land owners if siting isn’t done properly. Criticisms about space and resource utilization fly in the face of most evidence. If there is a genuine challenge, it is that wind and sunlight are intermittent rather than available 24/7. However, researchers around the world have done work showing how renewable energy can reliably provide even 100 per cent of our electricity needs if we intelligently leverage existing storage and smart-grid technology. We are already working on that research for P.E.I.
The energy system benefits from diversity. Existing nuclear plants may provide a valuable supply of baseload low-carbon electricity for many years to come, and next-generation nuclear technology might one day be a sensible addition. But wind and solar, supported by storage and demand response, are the leading solutions for new electricity generation in the present. And, when it comes to acting on climate change, it’s the present we need to work with.
Matt Hall is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering at UPEI.