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Nuclear Energy and Oil Dependence

by Michael Levi
March 18, 2011

I have a new essay up at the Washington Post that challenges five myths about nuclear power and provides some basic facts. (It will be published in print on Sunday.) I discussed it in an online chat on Tuesday; you can find the transcript here.

The myth that seems to attract the most pushback is this one: “Nuclear power is the key to energy independence”. I argued that oil is largely for transport while nuclear is for electricity. A large number of people have responded by insisting that electric vehicles change that equation. Once we can plug our cars in, they argue, we can fuel them with nuclear power. Let me explain quickly why that logic is wrong.

Imagine three worlds. In the first, we have affordable electric vehicles, but don’t generate nuclear power. In the second, we generate acceptable and affordable nuclear power, but we don’t have electric vehicles. In the third, we have both.

The first and third cases would lead to lower oil consumption. The second? It’s hard to see why. It’s the electric car that’s the key element of the equation here, not the place that it gets its power from.

I guess if I push myself I can see two other arguments against my bottom line. One might argue that nuclear plants could be used to make hydrogen for fuel cells (a point that has been around for decades). One might also claim that nuclear can back out natural gas in the power sector, freeing it up for use in transportation. I think that these are both big stretches, but it’s worth flagging them.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Greg A. Jamieson

    Agreed that the electric car is THE key to energy independence. But all that says is that the equation for reducing energy dependence necessarily includes an electric surface vehicle factor. Once that factor is included, one must include a factor for the power source for these vehicles. Thus, while nuclear power may not be THE key to US energy independence, it is A key enabling technology for THE key.

    Moreover, barring nuclear power, what is the alternative “acceptable and affordable” power source? In other words, what are the other keys to your THE key? Burn more coal and natural gas? Cover the landscape with windmills? I think that you’ll find that nuclear power is the only scalable and sustainable source.

  • Posted by Christopher Beaver


    You’ve begun touching on the many myths of nuclear power. One myth that continues to intrigue me is that the production of nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases.

    You touch on this myth regarding the issue of oil for transportation versus the production of electricity.

    Still it would be fascinating to learn the quantity of greenhouse gases produced in the entire chain of industries that produce nuclear power and nuclear power plants from uranium mining through construction and maintenance of backup safety systems.

    Many thanks,

    Christopher Beaver

    [ML: Good question. NEI has a useful compilation of analyses here. There are obviously not an impartial source, but the set of references includes some pretty authoritative ones.]

  • Posted by Ulrich Decher

    If the charging of electricity cars is done at night, it is the peaking generators which will be run longer to charge them. Peaking generators now use mostly natural gas, so that would definitely save oil.

    However, if load management helps to smooth out the demand for electricity, more nuclear power could be used for baseload capacity thus helping reduce emissions.

    Nuclear could also be used for peaking to a certain extent, but it is cheaper to use them for base load.

    Ulrich Decher Phd Nuclear Engineering

  • Posted by Mark McKenna

    Dear Michael Levy,

    Read your “5 Myths” — I notice you didn’t include the half-life of plutonium as a myth.

    No one, I repeat, no one can guarantee the safe storage of a substance that will be around — and toxic — for a million years.

    A very dangerous degree of hubris is behind our embrace of nuclear power and weapons. The human race has already added several hundred pounds of plutonium into the biosphere via weapons testing, satellites burning up upon re-entry, submarines imploding, and, oh yes, “safe” nuclear reactor accidents.

    All the best,

    Mark McKenna

  • Posted by Gotchya

    2 things.

    1. You mention the cost of nuclear construction as a negative in terms of cost vs. coal and gas. No arguement there, but why did you not site the operational costs beyond construction? My understanding is that nuclear is vastly more efficent, economically, once operational.

    [ML: Yes — nuclear is cheap once operating. My per-kWh hosts included fuel and O&M. Nuclear still generally comes out behind coal and gas, at least for now.]

    2. No one is discussing the dependence of our grid system on nuclear “base” load. It has instead been described as an intergral part of our energy mix. Not only is there an ignorance regarding the process of nuclear power generation, there seems to be at least an equal lack of understanding for how the light actually is lit after the switch is thrown.

    [ML: Good point. I should I been clear about baseload. In particular, shouldn’t have carelessly listed wind as an alternative, at least in the near term.]

  • Posted by Douglas Castro

    I appreciate your article on nuclear energy and agree with most of your points except one. Regarding terrorist attacks, this most certainly can happen from air with ease. The problem today is that there is no security at general aviation airports. A Beechcraft Baron can carry more gross weight than an Mitsubishi zero from world war II and those aircraft were penetrating over 1 inch steel ships with ease if they were able to reach them. A terrorist or criminal would never go after the reactors but instead the cooling pools especially like Indian Point which has easy access. Most people do not also realize that it is legal for any aircraft to fly over nuclear plants as long as they are at least 3,000 feet above them.

    [ML: Nuclear plants are protected by more than the equivalent of 1 inch of steel.]

  • Posted by Andrew MCKILLOP

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