What’s Left for Nuclear?

War is one driver of innovation. After WWII scientists who developed nuclear weapons hoped to redeem the technology in peacetime by bringing us electricity too cheap to meter. That never quite materialized, and now the real cost is becoming impossible to deny.

From the Financial Times via CNN–

(Financial Times) — Nuclear power is so expensive compared with other forms of energy that it has become “really hard” to justify, according to the chief executive of General Electric, one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment.

“It’s really a gas and wind world today,” said Jeff Immelt, referring to two sources of electricity he said most countries are shifting towards as natural gas becomes “permanently cheap”.

“When I talk to the guys who run the oil companies they say look, they’re finding more gas all the time. It’s just hard to justify nuclear, really hard. Gas is so cheap and at some point, really, economics rule,” Mr Immelt told the Financial Times in an interview in London at the weekend. “So I think some combination of gas, and either wind or solar … that’s where we see most countries around the world going.”

This would have developed faster if we had not had huge economic and political investment in nuclear power– artificially protecting and subsidizing a technological dead end. Diversification and smart technology are obvious answers that are becoming harder to ignore.

It was in the 70’s that I sat in a circle of Clamshell Alliance activists while a kid from Brown read us an industry financial report– in his translation of the technical terms, “the economics really suck too.”

Nearly forty years later, despite the power of a massive industry and the politicians it owns, the arguments against nuclear power are being made on the highest levels.

Natural gas will not solve the problem of carbon emissions, and mining it is a dirty process. Moving away from centralized energy and an economy based on endlessly expanding demand for more things is inevitable one way or another. We are already leaving a nuclear waste hazard for future generations. It will be good if we don’t create more.

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7 thoughts on “What’s Left for Nuclear?

  1. There is silly and there is sillier, and this qualifies as both. There are about 430 nuclear generating stations in operation around the world, already built and functioning. France gets about 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy; Belgium about 55%; Slovenia, Ukraine, Hungary, Switzerland, Sweden, Korea, all around 40%. The U.S. has stayed at about 20%. Nuclear plants produce about 370,000 megawatts of electricity every day, 24/7, weather the wind blows or the sun shines. There are about another 70 nuclear power plants under construction that will produce and 60,000 megawatts or so. A new nuclear power plant construction project in Georgia was recently permitted by the Obama administration. There are perhaps another 200 reactors for military purposes (ships) or research, operating around the world.

    Gas is certainly cheap, but does not occur everywhere and needs pipelines. Pipelines can be a point of contention. Coal fired power plants comprise perhaps 50% of all generating facilities around the world, and are continuing to be built on an unprecedented scale, especially by China and India. The modification of coal plants to gas is expensive and frequently not practical. Solar and Wind are very expensive per kilowatt hour. Geothermal is not practical in most places–it does not exist. Hydroelectric power is clean, and very cheap, but very localized.

    If we have learned anything, a mix of power sources is the only practical solution to providing reliable and affordable electric power to most anywhere in the world. Nuclear energy will certainly continue as a source, and may well be the only rational alternative in many parts of the world.

  2. How many nuclear reactors are operating on submarines and some surface vessels?I have no idea,but it’s more than a few.

  3. There are about 105 military reactors as a published number, almost all ships, surface or submarine. I suspect there may be 10-15 more so far unpublished.

  4. I don’t think Donald’s response speaks to the point that nuclear is simply too expensive to attract investment on any significant scale in the US. On the other hand, he is right about the limitations of various other power souces, and his list doesn’t even include the substantial environmentsl costs of coal, and gas. And even solar or wind is not completely “clean” energy as we environmentslists like to call it. Best to work on efficiency first, then encourage life-style changes (e.g. take stairs, not elevator) then work to reduce population growth that is still skyrocketing to cut future demand even though that might offend the religious zealots and self-appointed spokespeople for some ethnic or national groups

    • I can’t “take the stairs”-if you get to join my club you’ll understand that elevators aren’t a luxury.

  5. Two items:

    first, the military numbers were for U.S. only and do not include Russia, India, Britain, France, China, etc., military reactors…but I suspect at least another 50 total and increasing.

    second; the operational nuclear plants built, are built, cost nothing to build, and the kwh prices are very low, although coal and hydro are still cheapest. i do not know if the new permitted facility starting up in Georgia got the permits because they are big Dem donors, but I do wonder. Newer technology in plant design makes the waste issue go away, and the water as coolant issue go away. It is no accifent that France will be almost totally nuclear in 10 years.

    The real point is of course that there is a huge amount of coal in the world, much of it good steam coal, and China and India start up a new coal plant every week. We have zero influence on this except that we will likely see unused U.S. coal to China dnd India.

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