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The score after the deep freeze: Nuclear Power 1, Polar Vortex 0

Posting in Energy

When the temperature drops to well below zero Fahrenheit, who you gonna call for your electricity? 

Dial N-U-C-L-E-A-R.

That's what many utilities did two weeks ago when Arctic air gripped over half the population of the U.S. and Canada in colder than cold weather.

According to scientist James Conca writing in Forbes, nuclear "saved the day" as its share of electricity generation soared in order to "relieve natural gas and coal when they failed to deliver on demand.”

Nuclear power normally ranks third in the U.S. for electricity, well behind coal and natural gas, Energy Information Administration figures show.

But things went topsy turvy during those frigid few days, as fossil fuels weren't up to the task. Using New England as an example, Conca noted:

“Natural gas electricity generation faltered so much that regional grid administrator ISO New England had to bring up dirtier coal and oil plants to try to make up the difference. Nuclear energy didn’t have many problems at all and actually became the primary provider of electricity in New England, just edging out gas 29% to 27% (Hartford Business). Oil generation made up 15% while coal accounted for 14%.”

Why couldn't fossil fuels cope? Conca explained:

“Coal stacks were frozen or diesel generators simply couldn’t function in such low temperatures. Gas choked up – its pipelines couldn’t keep up with demand – and prices skyrocketed.”

So much for cheap gas from fracking! Prices did indeed leap, tripling and nearly quadrupling in some instances. Frackers know how to exploit supply and demand as well as anyone does. As utilities required more gas to provide both heat and electricity, purveyors took advantage.  For more on this, see my report on the Weinberg Foundation site

One could then argue  that the world needs more fracked gas to increase the supply and keep prices down. But that would mark a shortsighted turn to a fuel that has finite supply, that releases plenty of environmentally damaging CO2, and that is subject to the price volatility that has characterized the fossil fuel industry forever.

The vortex provided a glimpse into what should be the future: Nuclear power, which besides being reliable when the mercury bottoms out, is not subject to price volatility and which is CO2-free during the generation process. Renewables should have a place too - in some U.S. states like Nebraska, wind power helped to rescue over burdened fossil fuels. 

But nuclear is the most reliable source of clean, round-the-clock electricity known to mankind. With the right government policies and with suitable funding, the industry is poised to develop reactor types that depart from conventional nuclear and represent major advances in cost, efficiency, safety and usefulness (see list below).

The world would be wise to not freeze them out.

Cover photo is from Rick Schwartz via Flickr

New ways to harness atoms, on SmartPlanet:

For an archive of nuclear stories, click here


— By on January 20, 2014, 5:43 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