Nuclear: Why even think about it?

Last week, RMI Chairman and founder Amory Lovins discussed where nuclear energy fits in a low-carbon electric system as part of Rocky Mountain Institute’s “Day in the Life Event.” A lively conversation ensued between Lovins, RMI Electricity Principal Lena Hansen and invited guests, centering on what role the technology could play in the Reinventing Fire framework.

“In order to develop a realistic and credible vision of a future low-carbon electric system, we had to look at all technologies available—with a fair and objective lens—at every option,” Hansen said.

“There are multiple reasons why intelligent experts support nuclear,” she continued. “With an increasing global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, nuclear is usually the first option considered because nuclear generated electricity is largely carbon free. Also, because its generation capacity is so huge, you can displace more carbon per plant compared to wind and solar.”

But, said Lovins, “Nuclear power actually retards climate protection because it is so expensive and slow to deploy that you ultimately get less climate solution per dollar and per year. Each dollar spent on a new nuclear reactor yields 10 to 40 times less carbon savings per year, and two to 10 times less per dollar based on relative prices and deployment rates as compared to the same dollar spent on efficiency and renewables. We need to buy the biggest solution per dollar, per year.”

Read on for additional highlights:

LH: “Electricity cost is another important factor we explored. Nuclear proponents argue that although it is capital intensive to build a nuclear plant, once it is up it puts out very low cost electricity. This fits our mental framework of a good baseload resource.”

AL: “Economics is the first hurdle that any energy option needs to overcome. Capital cost is the main component of nuclear—which have gone up by a factor of three—and although running cost of a nuclear plant is low, it is not as low as renewables, whose costs continue to go down. Many nuclear advocates claim that if we build a lot of identical plants, economies of scale would make them cheaper. Turns out, the opposite is true, and plants are actually getting more expensive to build. There is an ‘unlearning-curve.’ France, for example, has suffered cost and time overruns similar to what the U.S. has observed, with a 2.5-fold increase in overall cost.”

LH: “The sheer quantity of power that can be produced by nuclear is attractive to nuclear supporters, especially as the industry looks toward future load growth in electricity demand as electric vehicles and new buildings come on line. But, meeting supply and demand can be done in more intelligent ways. While renewables are variable, we do need both balance and flexibility in our electric system, and there are multiple ways to achieve this that don’t require a one-to-one backup.”

AL: “Our electric system already copes with variability. The grid is designed to do so because plants don’t always work 24/7—they tend to go out of commission or break periodically. Therefore, a diverse supply portfolio is actually more reliable. Many smaller units are not likely to break at the same time. We explain supply-side diversity benefits how they effect utilities and grid operators in a recent journal article.”

Now tell us your thoughts: Do you think nuclear should play a role in our future electric system?