Despite competition from cheap natural gas and taxpayer-subsidized wind and solar energy, nuclear power has no equal.
Among sources of electric-power generation, it dominates the production of carbon-free power, and is likely to do so well into the future.
With nuclear power accounting for more than 60 percent of the country’s zero-carbon electricity and a new generation of technologically advanced reactors on the horizon, the power source is playing a crucial role in the battle to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Even environmentalists should welcome nuclear power’s benefits.
“The bottom line is that nuclear is the only 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week source of power that does not result in the emission of greenhouse gases,” says Eileen Claussen, former president and founder of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It’s hard to believe we can limit temperature increases, and their associated impacts, without a vastly expanded use of nuclear energy.”
Contrary to the assertions of those who disparage it, nuclear power has an excellent safety record. In more than a half-century since the first commercial nuclear reactor began producing electricity under the leadership of Adm. Hyman Rickover, there has not been a single fatality or injury from a radiation-related nuclear power plant accident in the United States. No other major industry has a comparable safety record.
Nuclear power has endured because it has proved reliable, effective and affordable. The basic facts are not in dispute among energy policymakers.
In America, the performance of nuclear plants has improved significantly since 1990. In 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration, the capacity factor — how often a power plant actually delivers power to the electric grid — for about 100 operating reactors was 90 percent.
The average capacity factor in 1998 was 80 percent, compared to only 66 percent in 1990. Despite a reduction in the number of plants, the U.S. nuclear industry actually generated more electricity last year than it did in 2005.
Globally, with 439 operating reactors around the world, nuclear power is meeting the annual electrical needs of more than a billion people. Almost 70 reactors are under construction, including five in the United States, and another 159 are on order or planned.
In France, nuclear supplies 75 percent of the electricity, with enough to spare to provide almost a quarter of the electricity in Europe. But in China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, nuclear provides only 2 percent of the power. Coal remains China’s energy mainstay, and its use is increasing not only in China but throughout Asia.
Now, in the aftermath of the Paris climate agreement, nuclear power is expected to take on increasing importance. The climate accord calls for net carbon emissions to be effectively brought down to zero “in the second half of this century.”
This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you consider the speed with which France and Sweden ramped up their use of nuclear power.
In a study of the growth of the French and Swedish nuclear programs from the 1960s to the 1990s, a team of European energy experts noted that if the world were to build nuclear reactors at the same rate as the French and Swedish did, then electricity from coal and natural gas, in a politically conservative scenario, could be replaced in 25-34 years.
During this period, electric vehicles powered by nuclear-generated electricity could dramatically reduce the need for oil. These changes would have a huge impact on global carbon emissions and avert dangerous climate change.
The challenge to meet the new climate control goals is daunting. If present trends continue, the world’s population will increase to more than 9 billion by 2040, with global electricity demand nearly doubling.
Effectively meeting this dramatic rise in future energy demand while simultaneously trying to avert dangerous climate change will likely be nearly impossible unless zero-carbon nuclear is up-scaled to meet those twin goals.
Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the University of Michigan-Flint. He holds two graduate degrees in economics from Virginia’s George Mason University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. Readers may write him at 2111 Riverfront, Flint, MI 48502.