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Nuclear Power Is Economically Obsolete
By Grant Smith
Last year the Trump administration's Energy Department announced the launch of a media campaign to counter what an official called "misinformation" about nuclear power. We haven't noticed an upsurge in pro-nuclear news—because there is none to report.
On the first day of 2019, the energy industry trade journal Power asked whether new technology can save nuclear power by making new reactors economically feasible—not only to replace coal and natural gas but also to compete with the rapidly dropping cost of renewable energy. The verdict from Peter Bradford, a former member of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
. . . [N]ew nuclear is so far outside the competitive range. . . . Not only can nuclear power not stop global warming, it is probably not even an essential part of the solution to global warming.
His bleak outlook is shared by the authors of a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors—an engineer, an economist and a national security analyst—reviewed the prospects for so-called advanced designs for large nuclear reactors, and for much smaller modular reactors that could avoid the billions in construction costs and overruns that have plagued the nuclear energy industry since the beginning.
They concluded that no new designs can possibly reach the market before the middle of the century. They cite the breeder reactor that, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, received $100 billion in public development funds worldwide over six decades and still did not get off the ground.
The authors say there may be an opening for small modular reactors but that it will be very difficult to find a market for these reactors without—as is always the case with nuclear power—a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars. "For that to happen," they argue, "several hundred billion dollars of direct and indirect subsidies would be needed to support their development and deployment over the next several decades, since present competitive energy markets will not induce their development and adoption."
Despite the past failure and poor future outlook, support for more nuclear funding persists. In a recent study, the Energy Department pointed to the $50 billion in federal incentives provided to renewables like solar and wind power between 2005 and 2015, implying that such policies can have a similar impact on modular nuclear reactors. But unlike nuclear power, the costs of wind and solar have dropped dramatically, to the point where the cost of new, unsubsidized utility-scale wind and solar power investment can now compete with that of existing coal and nuclear power plants.
The bigger question is whether nuclear power is needed at all.
Nuclear advocates' claims that nuclear power is required to fight climate change falls short. California met its climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 four years early by turning off its nuclear plants and setting policies that prioritize renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage investments over natural gas plant additions.
An argument advanced in the Energy Department report is that, to ensure that power can be delivered 24/7, large coal and nuclear power plants designed to run day and night—also known as baseload plants—need to be replaced by small nuclear units that run day and night. However, mounting, real-world evidence refutes this assertion.
Recent studies from New York and California show that it is cheaper to invest in renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage in order to replace aging nuclear plants than it is to keep the existing plants running. Savings range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars—achieved without any impact on electric system reliability.
Nuclear power belongs in a museum. We shouldn't continue to squander public dollars on a technology that will never make economic sense. We should divert resources into improving and deploying wind, solar, energy efficiency and energy storage technology that we know will keep the lights on, effectively reduce carbon emissions and cost what we can afford to pay.
Grant Smith is senior energy policy advisor at Environmental Working Group.
- Nuclear Energy in the U.S.: Expensive Source Competing with ... ›
- High costs and renewables challenge the case for nuclear power ... ›
- Barriers to Renewable Energy Technologies ›
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This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.
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In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.
This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.
If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.
"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."
The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.
The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.
The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.
"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."
Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.
"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."
Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.
"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."
- Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change ›
- How working less could solve all our problems. Really. | ›
- Needed: A shorter work week – People's World ›