On April 30th, the Indian Point Energy Center in New York permanently closed. In 2017 Indian Point generated 10% of the state’s electricity needs and 25% of the electricity used in the New York City metropolitan area. The Indian Point nuclear facility was controversial for two reasons: (1) its proximity to New York City was considered a safety risk, particularly after the September 11th terrorist attack, and (2) its perception as dirty energy in a state that pledges full conversion to renewable energy. Indian Point’s proponents highlight nuclear power’s advantages, namely it is carbon-free, low-cost, and extremely reliable. So, should nuclear power be considered part of the solution to climate change?
An interesting approach to the nuclear power debate is to analyze the different labels people use to summarize how they would fix energy. Some call the movement an energy transition, a green revolution, or de-carbonization. Each of these labels mean different things to different people. Nuclear energy is carbon-free. Nobody debates that. It is therefore part of the “de-carbonization” solution, but probably not part of the “green revolution” solution because nuclear waste is nasty stuff.
For those focused on “de-carbonization”, nuclear power is the only carbon-free solution that can match the reliability of fossil fuels. The intermittency of wind and solar is well-documented, so to have a reliable, emissions-free energy source in a world fixated on lowering emissions is a big deal. Among the other positives are nuclear power’s efficiency, energy density, and scalability. There is also debate on whether standardization of nuclear designs could materially lower its construction costs, and thereby allow nuclear energy to regain its title of cheapest overall energy source. Like many things in life, a little bit of incentivization can go a long way.
On the other hand, the “green revolution” label is about protecting the environment, promoting a clean, sustainable humankind. For nuclear energy, it’s two biggest problems always make headlines. First, nuclear waste is nasty stuff that can’t be disposed of easily. Second, when accidents happen, the world is reminded of just how foul nuclear waste can be from an environmental perspective. Just saying the names Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and Fukushima elicits harsh reactions from the general population. Some would also argue it’s not even renewable! Uranium is mined, and so in a way it’s more akin to fossil fuels than wind or solar that depend on naturally recurring forces.
Source: Department of Education
The juxtaposition of France and Germany provides an interesting case study. Many years ago, France built a large number of nuclear power plants that utilized a single design from a single manufacturer. The result is France’s nuclear generation delivers inexpensive power and contributes roughly 70% of the country’s electricity needs, a figure that has declined only modestly over the last 19 years. For a variety of reasons, France considers nuclear energy to be a major part of their emissions solution and is in no rush to phase out what it considers to be a clean, carbon-free energy source.
Source: International Energy Agency (IEA)
In contrast, Germany has a different view of nuclear power. The country had a visceral reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and at the same time a national green awakening. This led to plans to shutter its nuclear facilities and dramatically increase its renewable energy footprint. Over the same 19 years (2000-2019), Germany cut its nuclear power by 56% and expects to be 100% nuclear free by 2022. In addition, the country has invested an enormous amount of capital in building renewable generation and expanding its electric grid. However, some would highlight that despite Germany’s leadership the country in 2019 still generated 30% of its electricity from coal (France: 1%).
Source: International Energy Agency (IEA)
Nuclear energy’s environmental benefits are both impressive and scary. We think investing in all forms of renewable infrastructure, and batteries, and carbon sequestration, and of course nuclear energy is necessary. This collective drive, fostered by competition, will increase the probability of technological breakthroughs. Which brings us back to the closing of New York’s Indian Point Energy Center. We understand the reasons the decision was made, but certainly hope our political leadership has thought this through. There is nothing that will throw cold water on people’s support for the “energy transition” than rolling blackouts during a New York heat wave.
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