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Donald F. Boesch
President, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Donald F. Boesch

Donald F. Boesch, an oceanographer, is president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Vice Chancellor for Environmental Sustainability for the University System of Maryland. ALL POSTS

Not for avoiding dangerous climate change

Nuclear power can play some role in America's sustainable energy future in the long run, but don't count on it to slow climate change. Science is increasingly clear that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak within the next two decades and decline by at least 50 and as much as 80 percent by 2050 in order to have a reasonable chance of averting dangerous climate disruption. For the United States, a disproportionate emitter, the reductions will have to come sooner and be at the high end of that range.

Life-cycle emissions of greenhouse gases from nuclear power are greater than for sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar, but substantially less than from power generation based on fossil fuels. However, nuclear power is highly unlikely to replace very much fossil-fuel power in the U.S. during the next few decades because of the length of time required to design, permit, construct and bring next-generation nuclear power plants into operation; high costs even in contrast to renewable energy; and the high risk of delays that dissuades investors. While the U.S. should try to resolve these barriers as well as the difficult long-term waste storage problem, nuclear power can't be the silver bullet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the time frame required.

The European experience with nuclear power is instructive from several perspectives. The wisdom of investments in nuclear power by the French during the 1980s is widely touted. Seventy-eight percent of their electricity is generated from nuclear power with relatively low costs to rate payers. However, not much new nuclear capacity has been added in France or elsewhere in Europe during the present decade as more efficient but more demanding technologies evolved. The first European Pressurized Water Reactor under construction in Finland was scheduled to come online earlier this year, but is at least three and a half years behind schedule and more than 50 percent over budget, in part as a result of difficulties in meeting the exacting construction standards for this new technology.

Great concern about the high costs and construction uncertainties associated with expanding nuclear power has caused investors and utility commissions to pause, for example just this week in San Antonio. This may require substantial underwriting or assumption of risks by the Federal government to break the logjam. Curiously, though some of the political leaders who are the strongest advocates of nuclear power are also among the most vocal critics of the costs to the public of cap-and-trade legislation.

By Donald F. Boesch  |  October 29, 2009; 8:36 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I have nothing against nuclear power plants, but we now have the technology available to supply our energy needs without nuclear energy. The November 2009 issue of Scientific American magazine has an excellent article on how we can replace ALL of the fossil fuels with renewable energy with out resorting to nuclear. I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in the future of our planet read the SA story.

Posted by: garysmaxwell | October 31, 2009 8:42 PM
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Do we really have a choice? Yes nuclear is presently costly, but much of this is due to excessive regulation. I believe that our country must decrease its reliance on oil simply because we get so much from overseas, it is an unreliable supply and will become even more expensive in the future. Coal generation is filthy and pumping the gasses underground seems like a weird solution to me. Anyone with experience with gasses can tell you that eventually they escape into the atmosphere. The one advantage of coal is that we have an abundant supply at home. I am convinced that electric cars are the wave of the future and much of this power needs to be generated by nuclear means. Nuclear fusion is a great theoretical idea but appears to be a practical non starter. Solar and wind will not produce enough power and are not as reliable as nuclear in inclement weather conditions. Nuclear can use the existing power grid and would require very few changes in homes and factories. The French have demonstrated that it is safe and waste can be stored at Yuca mountain in Nevada. Much of the cost and objections to Nuclear are politically based. We can no longer afford not to act; We are running out of time economically and environmentally.

Posted by: gvelanis | October 31, 2009 6:32 PM
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Brozenblit's figures point to the need to make stronger efforts to improve efficiency and cut down on energy waste through both behavioral and technological channels.

The best way of providing incentives for both conservation and new energy source is to raise the price of energy to reflect the externalities of environmental degredation and economic risk.

However, the entrenched industrial interests are doing their best to lock in their current business model. Their public relations campaign is working. The percentage of US residents who believe climate change is happening is falling.

Perhaps the best justification of nuclear is that it is viable within the old business models and can generate buy-in from the energy industry, reduce their opposition, and ease the transition to a new energy infrastructure.

Posted by: j2hess | October 31, 2009 3:44 PM
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What the Finnish nuclear power plant is experiencing is not at all unusual for a first-of-a-kind plant. The same is true of many renewable electric power plants: should we give up on those as well? Consider recent geothermal plant construction in which drilling has either failed to penetrate the cap rock or led to earthquakes. Boesch is a great benthic ecologist, but on power systems. . .

Posted by: someguy7 | October 31, 2009 3:26 PM
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With the large subsidies, budget overruns and long and uncertain construction delays, in all energy sectors, it is becoming more apparent that the biggest leverage we have against climate change is energy conservation and efficiency programs. Carbon capture must follow on quickly. It really is our only short term solution. Everything else is a mid to long term solution, which needs to be started now.

Posted by: Mugwamp | October 31, 2009 10:28 AM
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Most people don't comprehend the magnitude of the energy problem. Making a simple comparison by calculating the energy content of a barrel of oil at 5.8 million BTU, it would take 1500 one gigawatt nuclear plants running 24/7 to replace the 22 million barrels of oil we consume each day. There are only about 110 (approx.) nukes in operation in the US now. At a cost of 10 billion each, we are talking about 15 trillion dollars which is greater than annual GDP. This does not replace the energy produced by coal or gas or satisfy increased future demand. We will need another three or four hundred to replace coal.

Solar can be harvested at about 2 watts per square foot. That's would require 27,000 square miles of collectors. The land area would be double that with space between the arrays just to get to 1500 gigawatts. Who knows what that will cost? Storage for night power and cloudy days is another huge cost hurdle.

Looking at these numbers, it becomes clear that the task of eliminating fossil fuels is the biggest infrastructure build out human society has ever faced. We spent 150 years building an advanced civilization powered by fossil fuels and it will take another century to get off them. The problem is that big.

Posted by: brozenblit | October 31, 2009 9:27 AM
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