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Is There An Alternative To Nuclear?

by Michael Levi
March 22, 2011

I have a new piece in Slate that looks at the consequences of moving away from nuclear power. The climate policy analysis has attracted some thoughtful pushback. Let me address a few of the more important concerns.

I noted that DOE and EPA simulations of the next couple decades tend to find that a moderate carbon price boost nuclear significantly but does little for other sources. I also observed that we basically have three (not exclusive) options for near zero carbon power generation, which is what we’ll eventually need: nuclear; carbon capture and sequestration (for coal or gas); and renewables with storage. (Over the nearer term – lets say a couple decades – we also have gas without CCS.) I argued that if the United States eventually adopts a serious carbon constraint, the choice will ultimately be “between the devil [we] know and a technological prayer”.

The first line of opposition was to the DOE and EPA modeling of the Waxman-Markey bill (which I used as a proxy for a generic price on carbon). In particular, many argue that DOE modeling consistently underestimates plant construction costs. Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists posted a helpful chart of DOE nuclear cost assumptions versus actual costs of real nuclear plants. I have a couple thoughts. First, the chart suggests that real costs could be lower or higher than the ones used in EIA 2010, though I’d agree that the high-end risk seems more substantial. Second, as Alan notes elsewhere, the EIA 2011 model is better. Yet the early release of the 2011 AEO suggests that the nuclear projections are similar to those from 2010. (The modelers see five new nuclear plants by 2035 rather than six, though it’s impossible to tell how much of this is due to higher capital costs, and how much is due to the assumption of cheap natural gas.) To really dig into the full consequences of the capital cost updates, of course, you’d need to remodel a carbon price using the 2011 NEMS code.

The second line of skepticism came from George Hoberg at the University of British Columbia. (Yes, for those of you who are clicking on these links, I now conduct all of my serious technical debates over twitter.) He flagged a paper from Energy Policy that suggested ways to get all global energy from wind, water, and solar by 2050. That paper does not rely on centralized energy storage to match supply to demand. Instead, it argues that a combination of demand management, hydropower for gap filling, long-distance grid integration, and the use of surplus power to produce electrolytic hydrogen would probably suffice. It also notes that the use of electric vehicle batteries for storage might be necessary – and that centralized energy storage might even be required. Relying on a hydrogen economy to materialize, or betting that centralized energy storage either will be possible or won’t be necessary, strikes me as qualifying for the label “technological prayer”. That is not to say that I dismiss the possibility – far from it – but it’s far from something we can count on.

The last challenge comes from David Roberts at Grist, who asks whether, in a world of limited resources, “variety” and “all of the above” are actually real options. (He points me to a thoughtful recent article in which he fleshes out his ideas.)  I have mixed feelings about this. My guess is that the answer depends on a few things. If we have a hard, black and white emissions goal, where if we hit it all will be ok, but if we miss it we’re doomed, we might want to concentrate all our (limited) firepower on one technological bet and hope that it turns out ok. If, on the other hand, various degrees of success all count, we might want to adopt a more resilient investment and innovation strategy, even at the expense to lower odds of delivering a big bang. The answer also depends on exactly how constrained the innovation budget is. And it depends on the timelines we have in mind for steering money into the system: yes, there are increasing returns to scale up to some point, but beyond that, simply pumping more money into one area will yield declining results, and perhaps even backfire through cost inflation. (For more on all that, this paper by Varun Rai and colleagues is great.)

Bottom line? I certainly wouldn’t put all my bets on nuclear, but I’d be wary of putting all my bets on some other technology too.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Alan Nogee

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, as well as the original post. Just to be clear, neither UCS nor I would argue for taking nuclear off the table. It would certainly be helpful to have a viable nuclear option.

    My comment was only to point out that the EIA and EPA projections that show dozens of new nuclear plants built under Congressional climate legislation depended on nuclear construction cost assumptions which were two to three years out of date during a period where nuclear construction costs increased much faster than other technologies(see the IHS/CERA graph available under “more media” in the 1st link in Michael’s third paragraph). Based on the industry’s recent (and long-term) track record, currently proposed nuclear designs seem highly unlikely to contribute an affordable climate solution. Studies by UCS and others have found that energy efficiency and renewables could supply most of the needed power sector reductions through at least 2030. Having additional cost-effective options before and by then would be very valuable, of course.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Here in the Pacific Northwest there is zero interest in the nuclear option. What is already happening is increased reliance on burning natgas to generate electricity [along with the modest contributions from wind power].

  • Posted by Tim Bott

    I wonder if the question should not be “is there an alternative to nuclear,” but instead, we should consider alternatives to light-water uranium reactors. Every nuclear plant currently in use in the United States uses uranium fuel, and they were all built at a time where the spent fuel was actually desired for further refinement into weapons-grade material. Meltdown, proliferation, and waste disposal concerns are all built into the design of our current fleet of nuclear reactors, and engineering against the unanticipated problems has turned uranium fission into its own game of engineering one-upsmanship. Building the next uranium reactor to overcome currently known risks does little to comfort me against future, unknown risks.

    Perhaps the NRC needs to look more vigorously at Liquid Thorium Fluoride Reactors (LTFR). Oak Ridge Labs, back before the build-out of our current fleet nuclear power plants, had demonstrated the feasibility of such a system, and the advantages are quite compelling.

    Proliferation risk is extremely low. Thorium by itself is not weaponizable, and you would have to steal an entire reactor, with an active fission run, to be able to obtain any amount of fuel that would have to be substantially refined into plutonium.

    Efficiency is extremely high, and fuel cost is (currently) very low. One gigawatt of power production requires one ton of raw thorium, compared to 200+ tons of raw uranium. Estimates I have read price thorium out at $10,000.

    Liquid Thorium Fluoride fission reactions is self-regulating (i.e., no meltdown risk). The liquid thorium expands as it heats, which naturally spreads apart the thorium atoms, slowing down the fission reactions and cooling the material back down. No control rods, no cooling towers.

    Finally, this is an alternative to light-water uranium reactors that could actually be retrofitted to work with our existing nuclear generation fleet.

    I think the prospects for LTFR in the United States and elsewhere (with the US lagging behind other nations in rediscovering the benefits of LTFR power) is at a critical juncture. We are on the brink of reacting adversely to the hastily recalculated risk assessments, where the immediate alternative brings us back to the fossil fuels of the 19th century, rather than the alternative forms of nuclear power more suited for the 21st century.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Yes, there are non-fossil fuel alternatives to nuclear. Here is a simplified cost comparison.
    A Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) comparison exercise

    WindCo runs a big wind turbine farm while AtomCo run nuclear power plants; both are independent generating companies. PumpCo runs a big pumnped hydro facility as backup to the intermittent wind power. DistCo distributes the wheeled power to the retail customers; the same amount of electric power is assumed to be required at all times, just for simplicity.

    WindCo sells power @ 9.2 cents/kWh[1]. This power is wheeled to DistCo and PumpCo, both receiving at the same price. The Capacity Factor (CF) is 32%[2], so 32% of the time PumpCo is pumping and 68% of the time, PumpCo is generating and selling to DistCo @ 18.8 cents/kWh[3]. So the levelized cost to DistCo is the average of 0.32×9.2 + 0.68×17.1 = 14.572 cents/kWh.

    AtomCo sells to DistCo @ 11.8 cents/kWh[4].


    Having a very large WindCo means a lower average CF which requires ever more pumped hydro, a dis-economy of scale.

    External costs should be added for policy formation purposes. From
    one finds (approximately)
    wind: 0.242 cents/kWh
    hydro: 1.41 cents/kWh
    nuclear: 0.423 cents/kWh
    but see the FAQ.


    [1] This is an actual contracted price from a new wind producer selling to Idaho Power. It is in good agreement with the EIA estimated LCOE for on-shore wind. The price includes the transmission charge.

    [2] The CF of 32% is from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) 6th Power Plan, Chapter 6, for the Columbia Basin wind location.

    [3] Existing pumped hydro stations in the USA have an incremental cost of around 1 cent/kWh. However, costs have dramatically increased since the last pumped hydro was constructed. A recent study by Doty Energy indicates an incremental cost of 5.6 cents/kWh. The “fuel” cost is the cost of electric power from WindCo of which but 80% is recoverable, that being typical of pumped hydro stations. That means the selling price is 5.6 + 9.2/0.80 = 17.1 cents/kWh.

    [4] Using the NREL simplified LCOE calculator with a 30 year 10.8% loan and as technical data: CF of 90%, $5850/kW as the guaranteed loan capital cost of Vogtle 3 & 4 including interest costs during construction [see link below], full O&M, etc., charges from Nuscale of $252/kW-yr, and transmission fees of $17/kW-yr the LCOE is 11.8.

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