Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Challenges to Nuclear Power:

Not Always the Obvious

Most conventional wisdom has looked at the rising use of solar and wind power and concluded that these are the primary reasons that nuclear power plants have been shutting down in recent years.  There is a growing body of analysis, however, that refutes that claim.  A recent study by MIT has reinforced the findings of a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, showing that solar and wind aren't the real problems.  Natural gas is.

It's easy to see how such misperceptions have arisen.  Multiple changes have been occurring in energy markets in recent years--various incentives to encourage the use of solar and wind power, a reduction in some of the initially high costs of building solar and wind systems, the movement away from regulated energy markets.  And the growth of fracking, which has flooded the market with cheap natural gas.

Of all these things, solar and wind power have gotten the most press, so at times, it has seemed as if so-called renewable energy systems and nuclear power plants were enemies.

These studies show that this is not the case.  Looking at energy supply geographically, there was little correlation between where coal and nuclear plants were retiring and where new wind and solar capacity was located.

Rather, the closures seem to be correlated with cheap natural gas.  In the short term, that may look good to a lot of people.  After all, who doesn't like a bargain? 

But haven't we all fallen for something that looked like a bargain, only to find that it wasn't?  The cheap shoes that didn't last.  The bargain appliance that broke down quickly.  

Natural gas may well be the type of bargain that looks great now, but can cost us dearly later on.  First of all, cheap prices are only good if we can rely on them to remain cheap in the long run.  History has shown us that is a bad assumption.  Oil and gas have fluctuated dramatically in price before, and could do so again.  

Secondly, when natural gas plants replace coal plants, there is a net reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  But when natural gas plants replace nuclear power plants, the result is an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  So our glee at our short term bargain may have health and environmental ramifications in the long run.

Cooler heads have always argued for maintaining a mix in our energy supplies, including renewables, nuclear power and natural gas.  A recent report by Jim Conca in Forbes looks at the recent "bomb cyclone" and shows the value of diversity.  A mix of sources offers a kind of resilience that no single source can offer.  It offers a buffer against short-term weather outages or transportation problems.  It offers some disincentive to any one source manipulating prices.  It offers some flexibility when bad things do happen. 

The MIT and national laboratory studies come at a critical time, when a number of nuclear power plants have closed due to financial pressures, and more closures are threatened.  Hopefully, they will help point the way to measures that can be taken to assure that the benefits of nuclear power are appropriately valued in the marketplace.