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Obama Administration: Fewer nuke plants threatens U.S. CO2 reduction goals

Posting in Energy

 

Peter Lyons DOE Allison Macfarlane NRCgov Flickr.jpg
"Let me tell you all about these new novel reactors." That's an imaginary conversation, but it's one that Assistant Energy Secretary Peter Lyons should have with Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Allison Macfarlane, both pictured above in a photo from last April.
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Ask most environmentalists what they want, and "CO2 reduction" would top their list, since most of them blame the scourge of global warming on mounting levels of carbon dioxide that humans are spewing into the atmosphere.

As a stark reminder to them that nuclear power is a "green" technology - it does not emit CO2 during operations -  consider the warning this week by U.S. Assistant Energy Secretary Peter Lyons.

Speaking at the 10th annual Platts Nuclear Energy conference in Washington, D.C., Lyons said that four recent premature nuclear plant closures - and possibly more to come - could leave the U.S. way short of its 2020 carbon reduction goals, Environment & Energy Publishing reported via its E&E News site.

"This is a trend we are clearly very, very concerned about," E&E  quoted Lyons as saying.

The four - San Onofre, Kewaunee, Crystal River, and Vermont Yankee in California, Wisconsin, Florida and Vermont, respectively - all closed over the last year and could be just an opening act. E&E reported: 

DOE is reviewing one scenario under which a third of the country's approximately 100 reactors would be shuttered. Lyons said such a situation could throw a wrench in the Obama administration's goal -- outlined in the president's Climate Action Plan unveiled in June -- of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. "If you look out longer, for retirements that could occur by 2035, you're starting to see a very substantial impact on the nation's [quest] for clean energy," Lyons said.

For nuclear enthusiasts, one bit of good news in the U.S. is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has over the last two years slowly started to once again approve nuclear construction, after a 30-year drought. 

But the closures could far outweigh the new builds. 

For nuclear opponents: Nuclear has a remarkably good safety record in the U.S. and one that has far exceeded fossil fuel-generated electricity, which has put far more radiation into the air than nuclear has, and which emits pollutants famously responsible for respiratory illnesses. 

And don't forget that unlike fossil fuels, nuclear generation is CO2-free. Over the course of its lifetime, from mining through plant construction through retirement, its CO2 footprint is extremely low - less than solar and on a par with wind, both of which it outperforms as a steady power source. As Germany and California are discovering, less nuclear can mean more fossil fuels, and thus more carbon. (Electricity prices have also risen since the German and California shutdowns).

There are still many nuclear naysayers who will always question its safety (understandably so - never take nuclear safety lightly because there is always the man-made potential for things to go horribly wrong as they rarely do, but as they did at Fukushima) and its "waste problem." 

To them, I say now is the juncture at which the U.S. should shift its nuclear power technology away from the conventional designs of the last fifty years, and toward advanced reactors that represent a large leap in safety and in waste management

Models such as liquid reactors can avoid meltdown, leave much less waste and can even burn "waste" as fuel. As Lyons' boss, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has pointed out, they can also go to work not just as electricity generators, but also as clean heat sources for industrial processes such as making steel and cement and even processing oil, that today make use of dirty fossil fuels. They could assist in producing hydrogen, another clean fuel.

Assistant Secretary Lyons knows all about them. He is co-chairing a U.S.-China collaboration to develop advanced reactors. The problem is that China seems to be throwing a lot more resources at the effort than the U.S. is. 

I did not attend the Platts nuclear conference, so I'm not sure whether Assistant Secretary Lyons made the point that now is the time to shift the nuclear power focus to new technologies. I tend to doubt he did. My humble advice to him: Shout it out. It could help save those climate goals.

(story updated with reference to Energy Secretary Moniz at around 10:55 a.m. PST, Feb. 7)

Photo is from NRCgov via Flickr

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— By on February 7, 2014, 6:41 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