In May, Germany announced plans that it would be phasing out all of their nuclear power plants by 2022.
Some in this country would like to see America pursue a similar path. But, shutting down existing nuclear power plants in the U.S. would do more environmental harm than good and should, therefore, not be pursued.
As I’ve argued elsewhere on this site, energy decisions are not made in a vacuum nor in a world of only good choices; rather, every choice of energy source reflects tradeoffs – economic, social, political, and environmental. In the case of nuclear power, the tradeoffs are at once frustratingly obvious and illusorily tantalizing.
The tantalizing tradeoff is the replacing of America’s nuclear power production with wind, solar, and other alternative energies. For environmentalists of every breed, this is an attractive future. It is also an unrealistic one.
Today, nearly 20% of U.S. electricity generation comes from America’s 104 nuclear power plants. Today, geothermal, solar thermal, solar PV, and wind combine to make up less than 4% of electrical production. The Energy Information Administration – an independent research body – expects non-hydro renewables to grow by 50% in output in the decade leading up to 2022 – to 631 billion kWh. At that level of production, renweables would still provide only 70% of the existing nuclear production, which today sits at 803 billion kWh and is expected to grow modestly to 877 billion kWh by 2022. To meet the void created by shuttering nuclear reactors would require increased renewable production 130% above the EIA’s most optimistic projection.
One might argue that shuttering nuclear plants would provide the impetus for radically increasing alternative energy production, far above and beyond the EIA’s projections. But, recent history has shown that increased energy demand incentivizes not only alternative energy production, but also unconventional fossil fuel production.
The frustrating, realistic tradeoff, then, is not shuttered nuclear plants replaced by windmills, but, rather, replaced by increased coal- and natural gas-fired conventional power plants. Increased demand for such fuels would create a viable economic market for the marginal reserves – like natural gas accessible only by “fracking” or the explosively controversial Alberta Tar Sands – that, with reduced demand for fossil fuels, would never be used.
This tradeoff would be a carbon catastrophe. We would be trading a power source that, for all its drawbacks, is carbon-free, for resources that are some of the worst sources of carbon. In Germany, the nuclear phase-out is expected to increase carbon emissions by 40 million tons per year.
However, the rise in CO2 levels in Germany is less worrisome than a similar rise would be in the U.S. German firms are governed by the European ETS, thus partially ensuring that increased emissions will be offset elsewhere. In the U.S., where no such system exists, increased emissions in electricity generation would not be offset elsewhere.
There are good reasons not to increase America’s nuclear power generation. Nuclear is terribly expensive, the challenges of dealing with spent nuclear fuel have never been solved and no good solutions appear on the horizon, and the downside risk of catastrophe is greater than for other energy sources.
However, the costs of shuttering America’s nuclear plants before they reach their natural expiration date would be great and the benefits slim. Following Germany’s lead would be a mistake.
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