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Clean Energy.  Part 1.  Nuclear.


Nuclear energy has been, and still is, a vital part of the current US energy picture. It has provided a steady baseload energy source for decades, and this may continue - it is projected that US nuclear plants will last another 50+ years. If you’re interested in clean energy generation, then at least nuclear isn’t a dirty fossil fuel like coal, oil or natural gas. Nuclear seems like a viable consideration. Could nuclear be the foundation of clean energy?

Is nuclear clean? Let’s compare it to benchmarks like renewable energy.

Before we begin, you should know that at my house, I have kids, chickens, a garden and solar panels. I am as biased as anyone working in their respective industry (mine includes RE); however, as most people know, just because someone is biased, doesn’t guarantee they’re wrong. Even a biased person can be both actually and coincidentally correct.

Why the discussion about nuclear and clean energy? Over the last few years, nuclear policy has been discussed along with renewable energy. The message is clear: attract those interested in renewables by showing a mutual disinterest in fossil fuels. Usually, coal is especially highlighted as a point of mutual contention. Supporters of nuclear and renewables can both hate coal, right? And after all, if nuclear is promoted as a clean solution, then it’s almost common sense to go nuclear. [Google “Nuclear policy” renewables]

Is nuclear common sense? Of course not.

Is nuclear clean? This question is also the most important. The energy decisions we make today will impact all future generations. If we agree to ditch fossil fuels in favor of “cleaner” energy, then should nuclear be considered as a clean solution?

You might be wondering - is nuclear as clean as benchmark renewables like wind, solar and geothermal? Should we consider nuclear waste? I think that is obvious. What about environmental impact from natural disasters or terrorism? What about the rest of nuclear’s carbon footprint versus wind and solar’s - the materials and construction required?

Here are several points to consider:

- The resources that go into a 10 year nuclear plant construction project include: 400,000 cubic yards of concrete (amount used to build the Pentagon) and 66,000 tons of steel (amount used to build the Empire State Building). All those materials need to be mined, manufactured and transported.

- The need to run fossil-fuel burning heavy equipment during the 6 to 10 year construction process for a nuclear plant.

- Although rare, an accident or a natural disaster can be catastrophic. Currently, Japan’s Fukushima plant is dealing with a cleanup that will include dumping nuclear waste into the ocean starting in 2017. How will that affect Japanese fishing and other jobs, and especially, their ocean? Natural disasters will continue to happen with or without our help.

- Proposed recycling / reprocessing nuclear waste plants (available in 10 to 20 years) would not reduce overall waste inventories. Recycling / repurposing nuclear waste creates a 20+ times increase in overall volume. Although less radioactive, it’s a diluted material that must be stored for at least 500 years. That’s 20 generations.

- Hacking the power grid and crippling a nuclear power plant is a real and growing threat. Iran and South Korea nuclear plants were recently hacked. It is widely believed that many global nuclear plants and power grids may already be infiltrated by foreign interests.

- Terrorists storming a nuclear power plant or getting their hands on spent fuel are real threats, especially in unstable regions, which are currently expanding in parts of the Middle East. There have been 18 known incidences of theft or loss of uranium and plutonium worldwide and this threat is growing.

No, nuclear is not clean, and distributed nuclear material is not even close to clean. Nuclear has shown the potential to be far worse.

To be fair, nuclear proponents will say that renewables have a supply chain - things like mirrors, PV panels or wind turbines - and that supply chain is not immaculate. Nuclear proponents also talk about the amount of land usage of solar and wind, but they forget about rooftop and canopy solar, and solar plants that are typically located in parts of a desert. Meanwhile, a nuclear plant must be located near a large body of water, and it can negatively affect land prices for miles. If you consider the supply chains of fossil fuels and renewables, then you must consider the nuclear supply chain as well - and that includes nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is not clean for a very, very long time.

Nuclear Economics

What about the economics of nuclear when compared to clean benchmarks like wind and solar? Should we include the costs of nuclear waste storage and environmental impact? I think that is obvious. Should we consider job and economic development?

Here are several considerations:

- A standard uranium nuclear plant would cost between $6 to $10 billion dollars and take over six years.

- Of the renewables, the solar industry alone already employs more full-time workers in the US than nuclear, and solar jobs are growing 20 times the national average. *

- When you add the cost to remove, transport and store radioactive waste, plus the costs of building secure, very long-term storage facilities, nuclear is not nearly as cheap as promoted. These and other costs are typically removed before calculating nuclear’s cost of energy generation.

- When you consider the real potential for taxpayer-dollar cleanups, nuclear can become quite expensive. Japan’s government will pay over $105 billion USD for one cleanup, and the costs are still rising. Natural disasters will continue to happen with or without our help.

- You can build 1,100 MW of power produced by solar plants cheaper and much and faster than 1,100 MW of a nuclear plant. That’s without including the cost of nuclear waste management.

- Nuclear technologies like SMRs and recycling plants are 10+ years away. Nuclear waste recycling plants could cost $40 billion each, and would require additional tens of billions of taxpayer funds even before construction.

- It would cost over $100 billion dollars to reprocess / recycle current nuclear waste stockpiles. Then, we would still have to store the “recycled” nuclear waste. Plus, the current 100 nuclear plants would still add to existing stockpiles.

* A side note on jobs: they are important, but in my opinion, they are a desirable byproduct of making responsible energy policies. For example, increasing coal production and building coal fired plants would create more jobs in the coal industry. Should we therefore increase coal production?

The Future of Nuclear - SMRs Including MSRs, Thorium and Reprocessing / Recycling Nuclear Waste

If you get into a discussion about nuclear energy, you will most likely receive responses from nuclear advocates that, on the surface, sound like realistic solutions for nuclear’s future. Recycling or reprocessing nuclear waste, breeder reactors and thorium are some examples. If you’re not a nuclear engineer or in the industry, then you may think these are viable solutions.

You may hear about France and other countries that reprocess their nuclear waste and wonder, why doesn’t the US follow suit? Dig, even just a little, and you’ll find that SMRs, MSRs and thorium are billions of dollars and at least ten or more years away. The real hurdles with these technologies are time and money.

Here are several considerations:

- Thorium must typically first be converted to thorium dioxide. This is costly and energy intensive.

- With thorium, uranium or plutonium must still typically be added to the reactor.

- Recycling / Reprocessing nuclear waste creates a 20 times increase in overall waste volume. Although much of the waste is less radioactive, it still needs to be stored for 500+ years. That’s 20 generations and a lot more storage space.

- Reprocessing nuclear waste for energy costs much more than it's worth. If the US were to go this route, they would need to spend over $40 billion USD per plant. To recycle 6,000 metric tons of waste per year, the US would need 2 plants - well over $80 billion USD. Even before construction began, the US would still need to invest tens of billions in research, development, regulatory and policy issues and permitting, just to name a few.

- Reprocessing plants, if built, would be at least 15 and most likely 20 years away from operation.

- Reprocessing is more expensive than producing energy from freshly-mined uranium.

- By the time any of these options are working, they would most likely be even less economically unattractive. Trends show that nuclear generation is becoming more expensive (cleanups like Fukushima, plant life extension costs, nuclear waste management are some examples) while costs for renewable generation and storage are decreasing.

While some countries like India are moving forward with new nuclear plants, here in the US and countries like Japan, the future for increasing nuclear energy generation is bleak.

Nuclear: Not Clean and Not Green

If you’re a fan of nuclear, then so far, you probably don’t like this article - especially because it favors renewables. The reality is that although fans of both nuclear and renewables can pretend to share a hate for coal, renewables are a big threat to nuclear. If you’ve read your nuclear trade publications, then you already know this. (Nuclear News - www.ans.org/pubs/magazines/nn/y_2015/m_1 - click on “Meetings - Nuclear: The foundation of clean energy”)

Nuclear isn’t really clean, and the wider economic picture shows that when you consider waste disposal and disasters, nuclear no longer makes economic sense. Plus, it’s risky. With the current nuclear plant inventory lasting another 50+ years, should we discuss building more nuclear plants? Should we consider phasing them out over the next 50 years along with fossil fuels? After all, 50 years is a long time to tweak or invent new ways of generating or harnessing energy, without the byproducts of CO2 and nuclear waste.

Now what? If nuclear is not clean and possibilities are 10 years away, what can we do?

That’s another conversation - "Part 2: Can renewables work over the next 10 years?"

(Hint: Actually, they work now. Sustainable home designs and rooftop solar installers already create net positive homes that produce more energy than they use. On the commercial scale, companies like Whole Foods, Kohls, Dannon, HSBC and Deutsche Bank are all net positive companies that make more energy than they use. Apple is building a $2 billion dollar global, data-hungry data center that will be 100% powered by renewables.)

More to come soon...

—> Follow me on LinkedIn for Part 2 www.linkedin.com/in/tomderosa

About the Author: Prior to 2000 and before Google, Tom DeRosa was a hands-on techie that configured LAN/WAN data networks and built websites with a text editor. He entered the energy industry in 2000, as an engineering recruiter for utility-centric communications equipment. In 2002, he began marketing residential rooftop wind turbines, and by 2005, he was recruiting once again for the telecom and cleantech industries. In 2009, Tom founded an executive level retained search firm, Renewable Search Group. RSG represents clean technology companies in the solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart building, smart grid and energy storage markets.


www.nei.org - Nuclear Energy Institute - Nuclear energy statistics, job info, plant construction info, funding

www.ans.org - American Nuclear Society

www.google.com - Search criteria: “Nuclear policy” renewables

www.google.com and www.ans.org - Search criteria: nuclear “foundation of clean energy”

www.thesolarfoundation.org/solar-jobs-census - Solar jobs info

www.bls.gov - US Bureau of Labor Statistics

www.wikipedia.org - Search criteria: Vulnerability of nuclear plants to attack

www.google.com - Search criteria: nuclear power plant cyber security threat

www.google.com - Search criteria: cost to reprocess nuclear waste

www.wikipedia.orgwww.google.com - Search Criteria: Concentrated solar power, solar thermal, photovoltaic system, solar tower

www.google.com - www.wikipedia.org - Search criteria: nuclear energy, MSR molten salt reactor, thorium, SMR small module reactor, repurposing nuclear waste, nuclear waste recycling

www.google.com and www.wikipedia.org - Search criteria: TEPCO Fukushima, Chernobyl, Nuclear and radiation accidents

www.4thmedia.org/2014/12/the-fukushima-endgame-the-radioactive-contamination-of-the-pacific-ocean - Map of Fukushima Radiation in Ocean

www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_and_radiation_accidents_and_incidents - Nuclear Accidents and Incidents


www.wikipedia.orgwww.google.com - Search Criteria: Net zero home, smart grid, energy efficiency

10 companies that create more energy then they use: www.forbes.com/sites/oshadavidson/2011/05/17/ten-companies-using-100-renewable-power