Wired Pushes Nuclear Power

Nuclear Now! by Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss in the latest online edition of Wired is unabashedly pro-nuclear, curiously in line with some of the pro-nuclear elements in the just-released 2006 US budget proposal. But the authors gravely mischaracterize the status of renewables, and seem not to have fully appreciated the enormity of what they are actually proposing.

Let's start with the repeated contentions that solar power and renewables have been well-funded (compared to nuclear?) to little effect. From the article: "pouring billions of dollars into windmills, solar panels, and biofuels", "Despite all the hype, tax breaks, and incentives, the proportion of US electricity production from renewables has actually fallen in the past 15 years, from 11.0 percent to 9.1 percent."

While those numbers may be correct, they're wildly misleading. There has certainly been egregious waste in the name of renewables - the "hydrogen economy" hype that we've dealt with elsewhere here. But government spending on nuclear power dwarfs that spent on renewables, even now in the US with no new plants for the last three decades. In fact, the authors of the article propose roughly $10 billion in new spending and tax incentives (spending that coincidentally seems to already be in the US budget proposal) to get 6 new nuclear plants built in the US in the next 10 years.

On the fraction of electric production attributable to renewables - almost all of that, and the reduction in recent years, is from hydro-electric and bio-mass production; the hydro contribution can shift significantly from year to year depending on rainfall levels, and obviously word burning is no longer a major energy source in the US.

In the renewables areas the article seems to imply are shrinking, solar photovoltaics and wind, in fact there has been tremendous growth of 30% or more per year in recent years. Solar PV now adds a good fraction of a new nuclear plant to the world's energy supply every year, and wind turbines add another GW-size plant or two, even after accounting for the much lower capacity factors from wind and terrestrial solar installations.

The article also makes the common mistake of conflating percentages of electric supply with meeting a nation's full energy needs - speaking in one sentence of matching France's 77% of electricity from nuclear power, and then in the next of "barrel[ing] down the freeway in a hydrogen Hummer with a clean conscience as your copilot". Electric, even after the big heat-rate factor adjustment, actually accounts for only 2/5 of world energy use, so France's 77% from nuclear is really only about 30% of energy needs.

In a further example of real innumeracy, the authors glowingly quote an analysis of hydrogen production: "a single next-gen nuke could produce the hydrogen equivalent of 400,000 gallons of gasoline every day." - 400,000 sounds big, but the usual unit for large-scale is barrels, not gallons, and that's less than 10,000 barrels of oil equivalent (bboe) per day.

Total US energy needs are on the order of 42 million bboe/day - are they seriously proposing construction of some 4000 new "next-gen nuke" plants here in the US? If we're talking about energy independence, say, the US imports over 10 million bboe/day right now - so we need at least 1000 new "next-gen nuke" plants for that!

And, as the authors point out, world energy needs are likely to triple by 2050 (see our notes on the likely ranges). So we're not talking about just multiplying the world's nuclear capacity by a factor of 10 to substantially meet world energy needs - more likely it will be two orders of magnitude more plants than we have now.

Schwartz and Reiss seem to at least partially realize the need for such a vastly bigger scale, in talking about fuel reprocessing and extraction of uranium from seawater. Those could well work. But, if the world will likely need 20,000 or more GW-scale nuclear power plants by 2050, why don't they explicitly mention that sort of number?

Unless the full scale of the nuclear option is put before the public and accepted, this sort of pro-nuclear hype only serves to undermine support for real long-term sustainable solutions. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the hydrogen economy hype of the past few years, which has ended up strengthening the position of the fossil fuel dinosaurs on the world stage.

There are real solutions to the energy problem, but nuclear fission is not now, or likely ever to be, one of them.

Created: 2005-02-08 05:37:45 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2005-02-08 06:11:45 by Administrator