No nuclear, no net zero
May 4, 2021
May 4, 2021
When I talk to my clients about their role in the energy transition, the conversation generally turns to investments in renewables like wind and solar.
And of course, renewables have a real and important role to play as we collectively look to net zero over the coming decades. But operationally, there are limitations based on rated capacity (average wind turbines only run 30% of the time), curtailment, congestion and battery storage availability.
This all means nuclear has and will continue to have a vital role to play in the energy transition. And it’s time for a more open, neutral conversation about exactly that.
Here are three reasons why.
For my utilities clients, resilience remains a major challenge. Load and demand changes are the perennial problem, and increasingly so.
And across the board, with changes to cyclical weather patterns on the rise, the need for a diversified power supply is increasingly apparent. In these scenarios, power sources that rely on environmental factors like wind and solar see impacts to capacity, potentially contributing to more power blackouts and all the consequences of those. For example, the recent Texas blackouts would have been worse without nuclear—the nuclear facilities either continued to operate normally or returned quickly to service at the industry-leading capacity factor of greater than 92% while other power sources went down for days on end.
On a more daily basis, grid fluctuations come at times of peak demand, such as on a hot summer day when whole neighborhoods turn up their air conditioning. So how do grid operators prevent the lights from flickering due to those demand peaks? In these scenarios, nuclear plants are often called on by the grid operator to provide reactive power at short notice, when conditions change. Nuclear is therefore essential for providing the flexibility to “smooth the peaks” and add the needed stability.
Nuclear power plants continue to run in the background, with no fanfare, but contributing significant amounts of power to the grid, about 20% of the US electricity produced. One reason we never hear about them is this: nuclear is a close-to-net-zero technology, producing greater than 55% of the carbon-free electricity in the United States.
There is a mining element required for nuclear fuel, which does contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, let’s remember that solar panels or wind turbines also need to be manufactured, which generates some level of GHG emissions. The thing is, nuclear plants need very small amounts of fuel, and that fuel is replaced around every 18 to 24 months For example, one uranium fuel pellet the size of the end of your finger creates as much energy as one ton of coal. And modern safety controls and systems have layers of safeguards that minimize risk like never before. The chances of an incident are vanishingly small, and lessons have been learned from those incidents that have occurred, meaning nuclear has never been safer.
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Prematurely pulling the plug on nuclear would be tantamount to pulling the plug on net zero, and that’s something we can’t afford to do.
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Let’s imagine nuclear keeps pumping out steady power for the next 40 years, while renewables challenges are solved (think fuel cells, hydrogen, etc.). It’s already becoming a reality, with regulators already approving life extension projects for up to 40 years (buffering beyond the 2050 net-zero date everyone is working toward).
And existing nuclear plants may only require select equipment upgrades and maintenance activities over those 40 years. Their workforces are highly skilled and trained constantly, meaning they are important to retain in the war for talent.
And this is not to suggest we should not consider decommissioning in the light of economic challenges as a conversation or possibility. The closer society gets to net zero, the more active a discussion/decision we can have about decommissioning, with a strategy that maintains grid stability and meets demand. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that decommissioning is a one-way street, and so should be driven by a clear rationale.
Here and now, prematurely pulling the plug on nuclear would be tantamount to pulling the plug on net zero, and that’s something we can’t afford to do.
Nuclear is essential to, and entirely compatible with, the road to net zero. Contact me to talk more about why and how.