A new era of nuclear power wouldn't be "up to the job" of shrinking America's greenhouse gas pollution fast enough to stop the most damaging consequences of global warming, according to a new report from Environment America.
Nuclear power advocates in the United States have championed the idea of constructing at least 100 new nuclear plants by 2030 as a strategy against climate change.
Not only would that timeframe be logistically nearly impossible to meet, but building a new generation of reactors would be far more expensive and far less effective at reducing emissions than other sources of carbon-free power, Environment America said in its report, "Generating Failure."
The up-front capital costs of 100 new nuclear reactors would be roughly $600 billion and could leap to $1 trillion.
If that same money were "invested in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy instead," it "could prevent twice as much pollution over the next 20 years," the report said.
Blueprints for Nuclear Expansion
The report came as Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) introduced legislation laying out a blueprint for how 100 new nuclear plants could be built in 20 years. Their proposed Clean Energy Act of 2009 would be an alternative to the Boxer-Kerry cap-and-trade-based climate legislation wending its way through the Senate.
The Alexander-Webb bill would provide $100 billion in taxpayer-funded loan guarantees to the nuclear industry, on top of the $47 billion in federal loan guarantees already approved.
Alexander has argued for "100 new nuclear plants" at every opportunity this year, claiming that "nuclear is our best source for large amounts of cheap, reliable, and clean energy." In a Congressional hearing, however, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) questioned the value of his approach for U.S. taxpayers. Under Alexander's plan, the costs of those new nuclear plants would fall heavily to taxpayers, whereas a price on carbon via cap-and-trade would encourage private investment, likely resulting in even more nuclear over time without dedicating as much taxpayer money, Boxer said.
Currently, the U.S. has 104 nuclear reactors, which provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity and 72 percent of its low-carbon energy supply. No new reactors are under construction, but this will soon change: The nuclear industry estimates that as many as three could be up and running by 2016, and a few more by 2018.
But that timeline may be "too optimistic," according to Environment America.
If construction delays follow historical patterns, the first plant may not be up until the 2020s. That means 10 years from now, new nuclear power may be making no contribution toward reducing U.S. emissions, despite hundreds of billions of dollars being plowed into the sector, the report found.
A quick look to Europe shows some of the challenges nuclear construction is facing right now. Areva's Olkiluoto 3 reactor, being built in Finland, is three years behind schedule, and its cost estimate has jumped from 3 billion euros to 5.3 billion. In the UK, the government intends to build 10 new nuclear power stations, with the first online by 2018, but government safety regulators last week raised serious questions about the safety of the reactor designs. Another concern in Britain is the loss of technical experience in a field that has seen little movement for several decades and could now see cuts in research funding.
The latest climate science says that if global warming is to be limited to a maximum rise of 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times, global emissions must peak between 2015 and 2020, and then drop dramatically.
Even if the industry completed 100 new reactors by 2030, "it would be too slow to make a difference," Environment America said.
"These reactors would reduce cumulative power plant emissions of carbon dioxide over the next two decades by only 12 percent below business as usual, when reduction of more than 70 percent is called for," according to the report.
The researchers assert that nuclear is indeed an important low-carbon choice for America's energy future. But without fast action, nuclear "will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation."
Environment America accepts that nuclear is a climate-friendly source of electricity. The group's gripe is with cost and time. By 2018, nuclear power will be among the costliest options for reducing global warming pollution, the authors said.
Alternatives, Starting with Efficiency
There are better solutions available. Energy efficiency leads the pack.
According to a 2009 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., pumping $520 billion into energy efficiency would cut $1.2 trillion in waste from the U.S. economy and save citizens and businesses nearly $700 billion.
"Energy efficiency could provide the same level of impact as building 160 nuclear reactors in the next 10 years — at net savings," Environment America said.
In terms of preventing climate pollution, efficiency would deliver up to five times more progress for the money.
By 2018, solar photovoltaic (PV) power should be on par with a new nuclear reactor in terms of its "per-dollar ability" to stop global warming pollution. Wind energy will be more than twice as effective by that time. And offshore wind will be on the order of 40 percent more effective. That's all without help from the current production tax credit.
For Environment America, when it come to nuclear and renewables, it's an "either-or" proposition.
"In the real world of public policy, governments must make choices about how to allocate limited resources," the authors write. "Any up-front investment in nuclear power would lock in additional expenditures across decades. ... For 100 reactors, these costs would add up to additional trillions over a period of decades."
Not so with renewables. Wind and solar have zero fuel costs. And none of the clean technologies have to account for the expensive handling and decommissioning of nuclear-like waste.
Already, clean energy is "fully capable of replacing coal-fired power plants – particularly if we make necessary investments to improve the electric grid," the authors wrote.
Sen. Alexander would disagree.
"If we were going to war, we wouldn't mothball our nuclear navy and start subsidizing sailboats. If addressing climate change and creating low-cost, reliable energy are national imperatives, we shouldn't stop building nuclear plants and start subsidizing windmills," he said.