Foreign Policy Blogs

Nuclear Power: Running On Fumes?


I went to a debate on nuclear energy on Monday evening sponsored by the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia.  The Center is headed by Mike Gerrard, a force of nature in environmental law for over thirty years.

“Should nuclear power be an important component of U.S. strategy to combat climate change?” The pros, as ’twere, for nuclear were Susan Eisenhower, an old hand in power and proliferation circles, and Barton Cowan, a lawyer who’s been representing the industry for decades.  The skeptics – it’s not an inherently bad word, it’s just been tarred by those who would make you believe the earth is flat – were represented by Peter Bradford, a long-time utility industry regulator and a member of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The proponents, I’m sorry, but not surprised, to tell you, had nothing in the least convincing to say.  I have heard the arguments about reliability, for instance, for decades.  But, as Amory Lovins points out in his magisterial Four Nuclear Myths, although nuclear plants in the US have had a commendable capacity factor of over 90% in recent years, they have averaged about 10.6% downtime (during 2003-7), with 2.5% of that time unplanned.  Worldwide through 2008, according to Lovins’ reading of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s data, nuclear units were unexpectedly unable to produce 6.4% of their energy output.

Further, Lovins writes:

A broader assessment of reliability tends not to favor nuclear power. Of all 132 U.S. nuclear plants built-just over half of the 253 originally ordered-21% were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems. Another 27% have completely failed for a year or more at least once. The surviving U.S. nuclear plants have lately averaged ~90% of their full-load full-time potential-a major improvement for which the industry deserves much credit-but they are still not fully dependable. Even reliably running nuclear plants must shut down, on average, for ~39 days every ~17 months for refueling and maintenance. Unexpected failures occur too, shutting down upwards of a billion watts in milliseconds, often for weeks to months.

The argument that nuclear represents reliable “baseload” power is, as Peter Bradford pointed out in the debate, “rapidly losing relevance.”  He echoes Lovins in saying that the new combinations available in the deployment of the Smart Grid, distributed generation (DG), renewables, energy efficiency, demand-side management (DSM), etc. render the idea of one constantly streaming power source archaic.  As Lovins points out, the grid has anyway pretty much always been about a combination of generators.


Another argument from the nuclear proponents was that electricity demand forecasts from both the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) predict steep rises – as high as 40% – over the next several decades.  Peter Bradford noted in rebuttal that “demand forecasts are not destiny.”  Surprisingly little was said about energy efficiency during the evening, but it is pretty important to always keep in mind that there are massive, cost-negative opportunities in this area.  California, as folks from Al Gore to Stephen Chu, have pointed out, has not increased its per capita electricity consumption in three decades even though its economic output has doubled.

Another tired axiom – or Big Lie if you prefer – from the nuclear power industry, as well as from the coal and oil interests, is that renewables can’t get the job done.  As I have pointed out here on any number of occasions, renewables are blowing the doors down:  China could well have 230 GW of wind in just ten years, concentrated solar power (CSP) is on the march all over the world, including in North Africa with the Desertec Initiative, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) and ground source heat pumps have virtually limitless potential, marine energy is everywhere coming into play, and PV is skyrocketing.  Nota bene:   Not only did new PV and wind installations vastly outstrip new coal and nuclear in 2009 in Europe, but those two sectors actually decommissioned more capacity than they added!  Further, as Pike Research pointed out recently:  “The global electric power industry is evolving from a financial and engineering model that relies on large centralized power plants owned by the utilities to one that is more diverse – both in sources of generation and ownership of the generation assets.”  As Amory Lovins and Siemens chief Peter Löscher will attest, we are in the green revolution now.

Robert Alvarez had any number of compelling points to make regarding the monstrous costs involved in our global 60-year experiment with nuclear power.  Cleaning up, or even just stabilizing the wastes from nuclear power and weapons programs will require hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars.  Building new nuclear power in the US has a price tag of trillions.  Oh, and the loan guarantees that the US government wants to extend for new plant construction?  They have a greater than 50% chance of default.

Alvarez said that nuclear power is a “millstone” holding back the flourishing of other, better technologies.  I could not agree more.  I have hated nuclear power for 40 years but now more than ever.  Given the need to successfully address the specter of climate change, we are wasting precious time, money and expertise pursuing new nuclear.  Amory Lovins, as is so often the case, is eloquent on this point:

…expanding nuclear power is uneconomic, is unnecessary, is not undergoing the claimed renaissance in the global marketplace (because it fails the basic test of cost-effectiveness ever more robustly), and, most importantly, will reduce and retard climate protection.



Bill Hewitt
Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change