Nobel prize winner debates future of nuclear power

Nobel prize winner debates future of nuclear power

Nobel prize winner debates future of nuclear power
Rhett A. Butler,
June 7, 2007

Two renowned energy experts sparred in a debate over nuclear energy Wednesday afternoon at Stanford University. Amory Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank, argued that energy efficiency and alternative energy sources will send nuclear power the way of the dinosaurs in the near future. Dr. Burton Richter, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics, said that nuclear would play an important part of the future energy portfolio needed to cut carbon emissions to fight global warming.

Lovins: micropower and negawatts will kill nuclear power

Lovins opened by noting the global decline in nuclear power plants, a trend he attributed to two powerful market forces: energy efficiency (i.e. “negawatts”) and supply competition.

“Global nuclear expansion is coasting to a halt,” he said, noting that the last nuclear rector was completed in the U.S. was in 1973 and that even under China’s most ambitious targets for nuclear expansion, it would displace only 10 percent of the nuclear capacity that will soon go offline. Lovins said the reason for the decline is cost: on an even playing field with no hidden subsidies, nuclear is simply more expensive than other options, especially co-generation.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy (DOE).
Lovins argued nuclear plants are currently being financed only in places where they are either mandated by governments or supported with generous subsidies.

“The global market is going in a different direction,” he said. “Risk-taking capitalists are concluding that nuclear power is not an attractive option compared with other technologies” including distributed power from co-generation (combined heat and power generation), next-generation biofuels, solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal energy.

Lovins said that micropower (i.e. distributed energy generation) now accounts for one-sixth of world power, surpassing nuclear as a source of electricity for the first time in 2006. He noted that in 2005 micropower added four times as much output and eleven times as much capacity as nuclear added.

“Nuclear is dying of incurable attack of market forces despite what the industry wants you to believe,” he remarked, adding that micropower offer more climate solution per dollar spent than nuclear.

Lovins sees the biggest benefit from the death of nuclear as making it easier to stop nuclear proliferation since suspect nations could no longer claim they were just making electricity. The only explanation for interest in nuclear would be for military use. Lovins said the U.S. could then focus its intelligence efforts, making the world safer.

Richter: carbon-free nuclear will meet energy demand without warming climate

Richter said that both he and Lovins agree that the greenhouse effect is real, human-induced, and needs action. He noted that there aren’t any real constraints on fossil fuels–the only limitation on future energy use will be the environmental impact (i.e. global warming). Therefore Richter argued that we need to change our energy mix for both the environment and mankind.

Richter said his biggest disagreement with Lovins was in energy storage and the need to meet peak load demands versus base load demands–neither solar nor wind can meet energy demand all hours of the day. He said that nuclear could help meet the world’s growing needs for energy without generating carbon dioxide emissions. Richter pointed to France as an example. It produces only half the amount of CO2 emissions per unit of GDP relative to the rest of the world thanks to nuclear.

Referencing Pacala and Socolow’s paper in Science (305: 968), Richter presented a chart showing the primary power requirements for scenarios that stabilize carbon dioxide levels at 450ppm and 550 ppm, enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5-4 degrees Celsius by 2050. Global energy demand will double by then, but “carbon free” energy sources will need to expand by nearly 7-fold to keep CO2 levels below 450 ppm and by 5-fold to limit CO2 to 550 ppm.

“How are we going to stabilize climate?” he asked. “China is not going to turn off its coal-fired power plants. Next year it will be the biggest CO2 emitter, while in ten years China will pass the United States.”

Richter said that neither wind nor solar can meet projected growth targets due to energy storage limitations. He said that solar has the greatest potential but is not there yet.

Richter said the world is in the midst of a nuclear renaissance with 60 nuclear power plants in planning stages, 28 under construction, and 150 under discussion around the world.

Richter claimed that radioactivity is not a health risk with nuclear power plants only producing a fraction of the radioactivity the bones of living humans generate. He said safety improvements and new technology will make nuclear plants safer than ever before.

Regarding proliferation concerns, Richter said “the cat is already out of the bag.” He noted that every state that has developed nuclear weapons has done it with research reactors not power reactors.

“The world is not just us,” he said. “We must consider the developing world. Developing countries will be the problem with climate change. During transition from poor to industrialized, they are going to have to make major contributions to reducing carbon dioxide. Nuclear will play an important role in this effort.”

Back and forth: Carbon Tax, Energy Storage, Etc

Lovins said that Richter was understating energy efficiency gains. Lovins expects the market to reach 2050 targets 75 percent through efficiency and 25 percent through supply. He noted China has made energy efficiency its top strategic priority for development.

Richter said we need a $60-100 fee per ton of carbon and that policymakers should skip cap and trade schemes. Lovins responded that Carbon pricing will hurt centralized energy producers, including nuclear plants, and give an advantage to solar, co-gen and wind.

Richter said Lovins’ projected costs for solar, co-gen and wind were too low; they didn’t have enough installed capacity to make up for intermittency of the energy sources.

Lovins replied that a diversified portfolio of distributed power sources would reduce intermittency and help mitigate the storage problem. Biomass, tidal, wave, geothermal all work at night while there is always wind blowing somewhere. He noted that nuclear energy isn’t dependable, with regular down time for maintenance and said that it took two weeks to get nuclear plants up running at full speed after northeastern blackout. He said no renewable has this limitation. Besides, he said, 98-99 percent of power failures originate in the grid. Distributed power is simply a more reliable energy source. He compared distributed energy to distributed (network) computing.

Poor countries

To which Richter responded he didn’t see how these solutions are easily applicable in developing countries, where most growth in energy demand is going to occur in the future. Storage is still a big problem, he said. He said “co-gen” was a fantastic idea but wouldn’t work on the scale Lovins was proposing in the developing world.

Lovins said there’s 100GW of potential for co-gen in the U.S.–the same amount as nuclear power currently provides.

“Nuclear is grossly uncompetitive with options I’ve mentioned,” he continued, adding that in India wind power is growing fast with investment in nuclear is flat.

“We need a workable energy storage option for the globe,” said Richter. “For much of the world solar isn’t viable.”

“The poorest countries should be allowed to do anything they want to increase their energy supply and take any path they want in order to develop,” Richter continued. “It’s rich countries that are in continued state of denial.”

“Atoms for peace is a stupid idea,” said Lovins. “Sunbeams for peace is better and it undercuts proliferators. I’m all for making solar technology freely accessible.”

“I observe that nuclear plants are choice are not made by markets,” Lovins continued. “Micropower and efficiency are backed by risk-taking capitalists.”

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