The Nation magazine this morning published my essay, The Case Against Closing Nuclear Power Plants. I’ve cross-posted it here to allow comments and offer context.
The piece had its genesis in a more expository post I published in 2020 in the NYC-based Gotham Gazette, Drones With Hacksaws: Climate Consequences of Shutting Indian Point Can’t Be Brushed Aside. In that essay, I dismantled the assurances of reactor-shutdown advocates that bountiful infusions of efficient and renewable energy will take the place of the nuclear-powered Indian Point plant’s carbon-free electricity. The problem wasn’t simply the slow rate at which new green energy is being added, but that when green energy sources must replace a standing power source that itself replaces fossil fuels, their effective climate value is zero.
I believe my essay in The Nation is noteworthy on several grounds.
First, it adds the weight of my long experience questioning nuclear power’s economic viability to a Feb. 1 letter from climate pioneer Jim Hansen, Nobel laureate and former U.S. energy secretary Steve Chu, and 77 other distinguished personages to California Gov. Gavin Newsom that, in effect, urged the state to avoid duplicating, on the West Coast, the grievous error of shutting a similarly questionably-sited reactor complex (Indian Point) on the East.
Second, the essay advances a more systemic view of the climate consequences of extinguishing extant zero- or low-carbon energy facilities whose operation is already keeping fossil fuels in the ground and carbon emissions out of earth’s atmosphere.
Third, it implicitly embodies a hope that my willingness to examine my own deeply-held convictions in a new light may encourage others to do likewise with their own climate dogma. Reconsideration of ideologically-based objections to carbon pricing by self-proclaimed progressives would be a good place to start.
— C.K., April 4, 2022
The Case Against Closing Nuclear Power Plants
On a bright spring day in 1979, before thousands who were propelled to Washington, D.C., by the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown, I pronounced nuclear power’s rapid expansion disastrously unaffordable. My remarks drew on years of work chronicling reactors’ skyrocketing capital costs.
Forty-three years later, in February, in the wake of the failed Glasgow climate summit, I wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging him to defer the planned shutdown of the state’s last nuclear plant. Closing Diablo Canyon, a Reagan-era complex near San Luis Obispo, would damage the state’s climate leadership as it strives toward zero-carbon energy, I argued.
I sent my letter just days before Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine and thrust nuclear power back in the news, in typical ambiguity.
On one side are legitimate fears that Russia’s seizure of the giant Zaporizhzhia reactor complex in southern Ukraine, the largest in Europe, and the stricken Chernobyl plant in the north, near Belarus, could precipitate massive releases of radiation.
On the other is the stomach-churning awareness that Germany’s reactor closures over the past decade deepened its dependence on Russian gas, helping keep the Kremlin supplied with Western cash while slowing its own progress to climate-safe energy.
In America, meanwhile, the nearly one hundred nuclear plants that have ridden out the post-Three Mile Island cancellations and post-Fukushima shutdowns operate under the radar, their climate and pocketbook benefits taken for granted. It’s time we paid attention.
Electricity rates in New York City were jackknifing even before Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The blame is falling on spiking prices for fracked natural gas. Left unsaid is that, as in Germany, the closure last year of the area’s lone nuclear plant, Indian Point, is making utilities draw more heavily on the very gas-fired generators whose costs are spiraling. Also largely unremarked, amidst hosannas over wind and solar power’s falling costs, is the halting pace at which green power is actually filling the breach, belying promises by “safe energy” advocates who helped engineer Indian Point’s closure.
Worse, it is illusory to say that by ramping up renewable energy and energy-efficiency we can pick up the climate slack from closing Indian Point. Why? Because with climate chaos bearing down, every green-energy addition needs to bring about the demise of equivalent fossil fuels. If those additions replace a standing power source that itself replaces fossil fuels, their climate value is zero.
These considerations dim the glow from last month’s record leases for ocean wind farms off Long Island and New Jersey. The need to make up for Indian Point’s energy output will nullify half or more of the hoped-for 7,000 megawatts of offshore wind, badly undermining the legislative commitment to rid the New York grid of carbon emissions by 2040.
On the opposite coast, the twin Diablo Canyon reactors have for decades provided 2,200 megawatts worth of round-the-clock climate benefit by obviating the need to draw on fossil fuel generators. Shutting them down by 2025 will relegate California’s next 7,000 megawatts of renewables and efficiency (the higher figure is from differences in operability) to stand-ins for Diablo’s lost climate benefit.
The deficit won’t be transitory. Not until every kilowatt on the West Coast comes from zero- or ultra-low-carbon sources can Diablo’s canceled climate benefit be considered superfluous. Until then, the California grid will continuously emit more carbon than it would with Diablo operating.
That moment is approaching but it remains far away. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration, 50 percent of California’s electricity still comes from burning carbon fuels. Hearteningly, this share is 12 points less than it was in 2015, with most of the carbon shrinkage coming from increased solar-photovoltaic supply. But that solar rise, amounting to more than 15 billion kWh annually, is no greater than the amount of carbon-free electricity that shutting Diablo Canyon will take away (17 billion kWh a year, based on 2016-2020 production).
We cannot assume that California’s next solar wave will replace Diablo’s climate benefit, for the simple reason that those solar gains are counted on to push out fossil fuel-burning in buildings, vehicles, and the state’s power grid.
I can hear the objections. Diablo Canyon needs to run at full bore, whereas demand fluctuates. But any excess output can be put to use recharging the millions of batteries California is adding to anchor its grid. Diablo lies atop an earthquake fault. But much of its huge sunk cost went for unprecedented seismic protection that the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, failed to budget. (I know this from serving as an expert witness for the California Public Utility Commission’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates in the 1989 proceeding that barred the company from fully recovering its cost overruns.) Guarding Diablo against mishaps or malfeasance takes money. But going forward, the cost of staffing and fuel will be much less than the climate damage its operation prevents.
As an energy-policy analyst, advocate, and organizer for fifty years, I have fought for bicycle transportation, congestion pricing, wind farms, and carbon taxes, in large part to reduce the destructive imprints of coal, oil, and gas.
The climate crisis has exploded ahead of schedule, not as distant warnings but as actual fires, floods, and the global sea-level rise. Meanwhile, Diablo and other US nuclear plants long ago shed their teething problems to become solid climate benefactors, faithfully churning out electricity without combusting carbon fuels.
Others can debate whether to build new nuclear plants to combat the climate crisis. But no one can deny that letting existing reactors like Diablo Canyon remain in service keeps fossil fuels in the ground and their carbon emissions out of our atmosphere. We ignore that benefit at our peril.
Komanoff, author of the treatise Power Plant Cost Escalation, represented New York State and California consumer agencies in opposing rate hikes to pay for reactor cost overruns in the 1970s and 1980s.
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Note: The day after posting this, I talked about my Nation article with Left Business Observer’s Doug Henwood on his weekly podcast. (My part starts at 30:18 and goes for a little over 20 minutes.) The conversation is lively and adds further context to the importance of and rationale for continuing to run functional U.S. nuclear power plants.
Drew Keeling says
Amen to this.
The risks of nuclear power are diminishing only slowly, and more research is needed to accelerate such improvement, but an end to the gradual phasing out nuclear power is needed now because of our disastrously inadequate action to curb carbon fuels. Our generation has failed to move decisively against entrenched systems subsidizing fossil fuels (from “free” parking to “free”ways) largely neglected public transit, and failed to enact widespread basic revenue neutral carbon pricing to promote non-carbon alternatives, and energy efficiency. We have left far too much “low hanging fruit” to rot on the branch or fall unretrieved to the ground.
Continued reliance on nuclear power going forward now is thus part of the price of our collective past failures.
Al Butzel says
I agree 100%. Always have once we got beyond the Three Mile Island paranoia.
Lorna Salzman says
Any research, no matter how well sourced or reasoned. that does not address in detail the vast potential of energy efficiency and conservancy to reduce demand, is incomplete and dishonest. Tomes have been written by experts demonstrating that stringent reduction in energy demand would eliminate the need for the small proportion of electricity provided by nukes. The American Architectural Institute did a report demonstrating that energy efficiency measures in construction could reduce demand by 30-50%.
The major omission in Charlie’s report is his failure to demonstrate how such measures could offset
the loss of nuclear electricity..which by the way provides a fraction of total energy consumption and is not the major concern (liquid and gaseous fuels are the main concern). The overconsumption and waste in this country due to cheap energy and goods is what has caused the climate crisis. To omit the need to reduce consumption through price, taxes, rationing or policy is dishonest and misleading. Charlie and the CTC need to do more extensive research on these broader policy and ecological issues rather than relying on standards establishment sources whose major concern is maintaining the high consuming materialist society. The crises of energy, biodiversity, agriculture, transportation and industry are interrelated. Anyone who thinks we can avoid collapse just by keeping nukes open is living in a very small dream world. The climate crisis is due to overconsumption. Period. Deal with this.
Agree with all the points above. We do not have the luxury, right now, of delaying suboptimal solutions to getting rid of fossil fuels. Getting FF out of the picture should be our highest priority, buying time for other technological and complementary approaches (such as reducing consumption). This will be a complex and at times painful transition, but we have to consider all possible alternatives — keeping DC open now does not mean we will rely on nuclear power forever. I speak as someone who grew up near the San Andreas Fault (but in Northern California).
Would appreciate some guidance re: who to address these concerns to in California, and how.
Charles Komanoff says
@dh: I’ve just posted my Feb. 22 letter to Gov. Newsom on my website’s nuclear power page. (Links are in page’s opening paragraph.) The letter has the governor’s address. You might also considering writing to the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped broker the Diablo shutdown and stands firmly behind it, per their March post in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Good luck!
Charles Komanoff says
This comment is from Russell Lowes, longtime safe-energy activist (and friend) from Tucson, AZ. I’m posting it on his behalf after CTC’s server, somehow, rejected it. — C.K.
I am very disappointed in your post.
It seems like you may not be keeping your eye on the ball. I know you were surprised when Fukushima had major hydrogen explosions and meltdown issues in 2011. I, along with many, was not surprised. I had expected this type of problem since the 1970s. Future meltdown events like this will happen. It is difficult to predict how, but here are some possibilities.
Palo Verde, the largest operating reactor complex in the U.S. is west of Phoenix, as you know. You testified about it after I helped get you the consultation before the Arizona Corporation Commission in the 1980s. If there is an event that goes beyond design basis, it could cause either a meltdown or a shutdown when the units are most needed. . . Consider this set of events. August 1 of some year in the late 2020s sees a condenser issue at Unit 2. Engineers are bamboozled by a problem at Unit 2, by what is causing the problem but for some reason it starts functioning again. The three units of the nuclear plant are at near 100% capacity factor, as they are heavily relied on when the week ahead is predicted to experience highs of 122-126 degrees Fahrenheit, lows of 97-102. A strange phenomenon occurs where the Southwest Monsoon brings in bouts of above normal humidity, this time at 40-80%. Weather forecasters change their prediction and say that the monsoonal activity should cool things off. But, while the moisture increases, for some reason the temperature range only goes down to 120-125 for the week. Meanwhile the Unit 2 problem recurs and the reactor shut down is necessitated. In fact, because of the extreme combo of temps and humidity, the whole plant is shut down. This could cause heat stress for hundreds of thousands or millions in the Phoenix area, now approaching a population of 5 million. Heat strokes and heat-caused deaths could be extremely high. If this triggered system-wide blackouts and/or brownouts, even more could be affected during an extreme event heat wave.
Another example, what happens when a reactor undergoes major renovation or simple refueling? The large doorways are opened up. When this happens, there are vulnerabilities to the reactors and the spent fuel cooling pools. An accidental or intentional plane crash occurs, or drones are configured to carry small amounts of explosives and convene once inside near the cooling ponds or near the open vessel being refueled. They unite their explosive material and cause an explosion resulting in a meltdown.
You may dismiss such possibilities. That does not make them go away. Humans are not infallible and neither are their inventions. There will be more meltdowns from one or more of these reasons: from war, from human mistakes, from terrorist actions, or from beyond design-basis conditions. Someday the U.S. might be in a war, civil war or otherwise.
Then there is the issue of mine and mill tailings. The fueling of a reactor is front-ended by the mining and milling of uranium. The typical situation for mining leaves mine and mill tailings that have to be stacked into a pit. This pit is lined, but the lining only lasts about 40 years before the linings break down and become breached. The tailings then need to be moved to a new pit that is newly lined. Then the tailings have to be moved back and forth between the first and second pit every 40 years for the rest of human civilization, as U238 has a half-life of over 4 billion years. That means that every million years, the tailings have to be moved 25,000 times. The CO2 associated with that alone could exceed the total emitted by coal. Or if the piles are not moved, there will be breaches that cause groundwater contamination which causes kidney disease and cancer.
It is important to keep your eye on the ball, to see what is most important in the short and long run and not wander from that. It is looking that by association, Citizens Climate Lobby is now in sync with promoting nuclear energy. I know that some in CCL are pro-nuclear, at least here in Arizona, not just pro-old nuclear, but pro-new nuclear. The Phoenix CCL group had a rabid (and very deceptive) pro-nuclear spin-doctor present. I tried to get them to let me do a counter/follow-up, but they were not interested. That guy lied his ass off. While your approach has followed a logic and truthfulness, it is not complete or holistic.