Monday, July 25, 2016

The Nuclear Option

I will start with a little context. I grew up about five miles from Indian Point nuclear plant. My parents and their friends were protesting Indian Point when I was 9. I remember the leakage scares, the meltdown worries and heard about every event. As I made my way through my biology and law degrees, nothing I encountered was in conflict with that understanding. In fact, as to Indian Point, I am quite sure that the failures of oversight are dangerous and that Indian Point very likely should be shut down.
However, I am also keenly aware of carbon emissions. And the impacts, climate and otherwise, of gas, oil and coal. By 2030, we will have locked in 2C warming. That will result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of living creatures, many of whom will be human. There will be great starvation, thirst and war, as well as the destruction wrought by sea level rise and extreme weather events. On top of that, coal, oil and gas kill many through their own wastes and extraction. The sheer numbers far outweigh the numbers of fatalities from every nuclear accident totaled.
My first looks at climate change made it appear that the solution was simple: 100% renewables. In fact, Jacobsen out of Stanford says we can get to 100% renewables.
Unfortunately, he does not represent 97% of energy experts. He doesn't even represent a plurality of experts. Many of his colleagues question his conclusions as overly optimistic. He may be right, but there is a chance he is wrong. If he is, our futures may require us to rely on something other than renewables. That's either fossil fuels or nuclear. Even more unfortunately, when we close down a nuclear plant, the decommissioning is permanent. So if we must change our minds, we will have to build from scratch, requiring time we don't have.
Let's say we assume Jacobsen is right though.
Even still, we are facing a serious issue in the transition. Every time we close a nuclear plant in the northeast, we replace it with gas. Percent for percent. In real time. Gas is reported as lower emissions. However, it is increasingly apparent that the fugitive methane (a potent greenhouse gas) from fracking is under reported. Fracking has other problems too--more destruction of water than ever seen from Indian any measure.
So we are facing a very difficult set of choices.
I believe we are facing three separate questions. First, should we shutter currently running plants, if they are to be replaced by gas (which is what is happening, since gas is so cheap). Indian Point is rife with issues. However, Fitzpatrick is not. Yet it is being closed because the owners cannot afford regular maintenance work on it. Why not? Gas is so artificially cheap, it's driven down the cost of electricity. The choice we are making is to frack rather than continue to use an already existing nuclear plant. Fracking-with it's wanton destruction of water and land, fugitive emissions and weighty carbon footprint.
The second question is whether we want to invest in new plants. The plants that we could build now would be vast improvements over Indian Point. But the expense, and current unsolved issues make this a question that reasonable people could easily differ on.
The third question is whether we should invest in developing gen 4 reactors. If we develop fast reactors, we could use old stockpiled waste as fuel, killing two birds with one stone. Fast reactors exist in the world. The development questions are ones of developing commercially viable fast reactors. Likely a matter of investment rather than chance.
We face a stark reality. Nuclear is nearly carbon emissions free. Nuclear has had far fewer casualties (even problematic ones like Indian Point) than gas oil and coal, even before accounting for climate change.
At the very least, we must take seriously the question of how we will ensure shuttered nuclear is not replaced with gas.

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