Extending The Lives Of Nuclear Energy Plants Will Help To Combat Climate Change Threat
The U.S. president thinks climate change is a hoax. But his administration is touting nuclear energy, saying that it can produce carbon-free power around the clock. Setting aside the apparent contradictions, the policy is spot-on.
If the objective is to reduce CO2 emissions and to prevent environmental and economic catastrophe, then policymakers are duty bound to step up — to perhaps put a price on carbon or to motivate the construction of low-carbon power plants. Given the price tag associated with building a nuclear plant — billions in the case of the one Southern Co. has under construction — it would be a smart move to just extend the operating life of existing plants.
“There is no miracle technology that will solve the daunting environmental challenges the world faces,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. “We need continued innovation across a range of technologies, including renewables, energy efficiency, batteries, carbon capture and more. (The agency) sees hydrogen and nuclear power as important parts of clean energy transitions in many countries, but they need help from governments to overcome significant obstacles.”
He goes on to say that nuclear energy is “by far” the largest source of low-carbon electricity in both Europe and North America, however, those plants are aging. Effective policies are therefore needed to spur investment in the technology — or the world could lose two-thirds of its nuclear capacity in the next 20 years. It’s about ensuring that the world meets its global climate goals.
Nuclear energy has suffered some serious set backs. Not only has the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi plant given some in the global community pause but, the cost to build plants is disproportionate to competing forms of generation. Moreover, the price of natural gas is so cheap that it has boxed out not just nuclear energy but also wind and solar power.
As for the United States, it is continuing the long-standing policy of investing in next-generation nuclear plants and small modular nuclear reactors. But it is also working to extend the current licenses from 60 years to 80 years — something that the Union of Concerned Scientists has said is safe. This country has 98 nuclear reactors that produce 20% of its power and 60% of its carbon-free power.
“Our customers will benefit from continuing to receive safe, reliable, affordable, and clean electricity from the station through 2053,” says Dan Stoddard, Dominion Energy’s Chief Nuclear Officer — a company that is in the process of getting a 20-year extension to 80 yeas from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its twin-reactor Surry Power Station.
The Heat Is On
To be sure, the critics of nuclear energy not only point to the technology’s economic pitfalls but they are also expressing concern over safety. Consider that nuclear plants consume a lot of water, necessary to keep their cores cool and to prevent any meltdown or radiation leaks.
Beyond Nuclear is saying that this is becoming an increasing risk: hot weather means water levels are too low and water temperatures may be too hot — conditions that, it says, are more likely in a rapidly warming world. The dilemma is compounded, the group adds, because there is competition for finite water supplies from other power plants and agricultural businesses.
But the process by which nuclear plants get their licenses approved or extended is quite rigorous. To that end, the oversight and inspection of daily routines is thorough and necessitates preventative and corrective maintenance. Billions of dollars are spent each year to ensure those plants operate safely and reliably, says the Nuclear Energy Institute: Since 1990, that amount has exceeded $100 billion.
All U.S. nuclear reactors had been initially licensed to operate for 40 years, with stipulations that they could apply for 20 year extensions. Most of the nuclear reactors in the United States have had their 40-year licenses expanded, with Dominion’s Surry being the first one in 2002.