eco: nuclear and decarbonizing electricity

If every country had followed France after the 1970 oil crisis, the world would be generating a majority of its electricity from low-carbon nuclear, and nuclear plants would have probably got cheaper and quicker to build so replacing the aging plants would be affordable (instead of France’s struggle).

Coulda, shoulda, woulda. It didn’t happen. Instead the world built terawatts of coal plants, then switched to terawatts of “natural” gas plants, and now wind and solar are the majority of new generation everywhere in the world because they’re cheap and quick.

But ardent fans keep pointing out that nuclear is a reliable low-carbon source of electricity!, while wind and solar are reliably intermittent! Someone on CleanTechnica asked me:

I’ll posit a quick question: would it be better to have 2x as expensive electricity by swapping to the proven nuclear tech, or to risk grid unreliability (and a fall back to fossil fuels) by rapid RE adaptation?

Quick question, tricky answer. Yes, I’m willing to pay a lot for 100% low-carbon electricity 100% of the time, but I’m rich. (It’s a shame there isn’t a GoFundMe for nuke supporters to crowd-fund a small reactor for their electricity, so they can put their money where their mouth is.) I already pay more for “100% green” electricity through a city program which contracts for renewable generation equal to total electricity consumption, but customer service unwillingly admitted the kilowatts aren’t guaranteed to be low-carbon on a windless night.

Electricity is always reliable if you’ll pay any price for it

There won’t be grid unreliability for customers who roll the dice and pay the hourly market rate for electricity; they’ll just be faced with very high electricity costs at times. Major industries and people with V2G will reduce their consumption and muddle through, poor people will get hammered. (This already happened in Texas and UK with companies selling market-rate electricity begging customers to change plans before a freeze.)

Handling intermittent renewable generation

It’s the role of regulators to require utilities to be able to provide enough power at all times, but it’s complicated when demand is variable. For now the cheapest approach is to keep existing nuclear plants operating, despite their high cost per kWh, and have enough gas plants sitting around to handle demand when renewables aren’t generating (plus add grid batteries for short demand spikes). In California’s case, the utilities didn’t build enough solar plus storage, and so they struggled to meet peak demands during heat waves. It will be interesting to see if utilities order new gas plants to meet increasing electricity demand for those times when renewables aren’t producing; the optics of it look terrible for the environment, but if the plants are rarely used the utilities could still be reducing overall carbon intensity of their electricity.

The big problem for nuclear is it is poor fit for such occasional provision of reliable electricity; it may heroically step in during a long windless winter stretch, but the rest of the time it’s hopelessly uneconomic per kWh compared to wind and solar. That’s why some nuclear startups hoping to build small modular reactors are pivoting to continuous hydrogen production or other industrial needs for continuous electricity plus heat. It may be a good business decision but it’s a bad sign for their viability as simple electricity providers.

Decreasing emissions now is easy, zero emissions is a problem for the future.

Separate from reliability requirements, I’m all for requiring utilities to provide low-carbon electricity all the time even though it will increase electricity prices. That would certainly boost nuclear’s prospects; but it seems on any phased transition, utilities will continue to install gigawatts of cheap and quick renewables and leave decarbonizing the last ~25% of generation as a future problem to be solved. Maybe by then one of the small molten sodium liquid thorium modular blah blah designs will have proven itself to be quick and cheap. It’s great that NuScale recently got approval for its SMR nuclear plant design(s); we’ll see how its UAMPS test plant in Idaho goes (projected to come online in 2029) and whether its design exercise for a plant in Romania amounts to anything.

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