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In California: Nuclear down, CO2 up

Posting in Energy

Teacher: Now class, when you shut down an electricity plant that doesn't burn carbon, and instead use one that does, do you get more, or do you get less, carbon dioxide emissions?

8-year-old Billy: I know MIss! I know!

Teacher: Yes Billy, more or less?

Billy: More!

Teacher: Very good Billy.

Duh!

You could see this one coming in California ever since they shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant north of San Diego in January 2012 and started using more natural gas-fired generators: Greenhouse gas emissions have risen.

"Power plant releases rose 35 percent to 41.6 million metric tons," Bloomberg quietly reported last week, citing data on the state's Air Resources Board's website. Not only did the nuclear portion of the energy mix drop, but so did carbon-free hydroelectric's share, thanks to low snowpack levels (for fans of vicious circles, the dearth of the white stuff was a consequence of fossil fuel-induced warming).

The spike contributed significantly to an overall increase in California's CO2 emissions, to 437.8 million metric tons from 429.3 million in 2011, in which industrial energy users also played a role. Bloomberg noted:

“The rise in total emissions is primarily due to emission increases from California electricity generation using natural gas as a fuel,” the board said. “The majority of this additional natural-gas electricity generation is due to a decrease in available hydroelectric generation for 2012 and a reduction in nuclear generated power.”

As I noted in August, the San Onofre shutdown also drove up electricity prices in the state, which on its own is arguably the world's eighth largest economy. The higher price, higher CO2 pattern is one that is also playing out in Germany and Japan, which started walking away from nuclear following the tragic earthquake and tsunami that led to preventable meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant in March, 2011. The U.S. state of Vermont faces a similar scenario.

There's another lesson here too: Not only can nuclear - a low CO2 technology -  play a major role in helping to slow CO2-induced climate change, but alternative nuclear technologies can improve vastly on the conventional reactors that the industry has used since the 1950s.

Reactor types like molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors, fast reactors and small modular reactors portend varying advantages in operational safety, cost, efficiency, waste and weapons threats. So does the replacement of uranium fuel with thorium in some instances. In addition, nuclear fusion is not as far off as some people say it is.

Speaking of lessons, I'm off later this week to learn more about the state of various nuclear technologies at a 3-day gathering in Irvine, Calif., where the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Keck Futures group is bringing together experts on the potential not just for nuclear power, but also for nuclear medicines and diagnostic treatments that can play vital roles in the battle against cancer, neurological and cardiovascular diseases and other ailments. I'll also be touring nuclear research projects up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver.

Stay tuned here and on my Weinberg blog for reports.

Photo from Charles O'Rear and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Wikimedia

More from the nuclear environmental movement and California:

From CERN’s recent thorium-fest:

Click here to mine a rich archive of nuclear alternatives such as thorium, molten salt, pebble beds, fast reactors, modular reactors, fusion and more.

— By on November 12, 2013, 4:50 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure