The Mae West of energy sources
By Scott Sumner
The New Yorker has a good article on nuclear power, which discusses the imminent shutdown of a nuclear power plant in California that produces 9% of their electricity, with zero carbon emissions:
Today, the looming disruptions of climate change have altered the risk calculus around nuclear energy. James Hansen, the nasa scientist credited with first bringing global warming to public attention, in 1988, has long advocated a vast expansion of nuclear power to replace fossil fuels. Even some environmental groups that have reservations about nuclear energy, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, have recognized that abruptly closing existing reactors would lead to a spike in emissions. But U.S. plants are aging and grappling with a variety of challenges. In recent years, their economic viability has been threatened by cheap, fracked natural gas. Safety regulations introduced after the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in 2011, have increased costs, and, in states such as California, legislation prioritizes renewables (the costs of which have also fallen steeply). Since 2013, eleven American reactors have been retired; the lost electricity has largely been replaced through the burning of fossil fuels. At least eight more closures, including Diablo Canyon’s, are planned. In a 2018 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that “closing the at-risk plants early could result in a cumulative 4 to 6 percent increase in US power sector carbon emissions by 2035.”
I’ve always found it to be ironic that environmentalists are often the ones that protest against nuclear power, given how good it is for the environment. It would almost be like community housing advocates opposing new housing construction. (Oh wait . . . ) Or public health experts opposing first-dose-first.
Some point to the risks of a catastrophic accident, such as occurred at Chernobyl. In fact, while nuclear power is very good for the environment when working safely, it’s even better for the environment when there is a major disaster. Chernobyl created a vast nature reserve in northern Ukraine, full of wild animals that have disappeared from much of Europe.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be building more nuclear power plants—there may be sound economic or safety reasons for not doing so. But we should not move away from nuclear for “environmental” reasons, as this energy source is extremely good for the environment. And it seems rather foolish to shut down clean energy power plants that have operated safely for decades, and where the high construction costs have already been incurred.
PS. The post title is a reference to one of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age: