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How Safe & Clean is Nuclear ☢️ Energy?

CLEAN Energy: NUCLEAR


When looking at climate solutions for clean energy generation, it is prudent to look at all clean energy sources. Nuclear power also has the highest capacity factor of any energy source and is the most reliable, and efficient, source of energy. Clean energy solutions include both renewable energy (the obvious choice); as well as nuclear energy (which is non-renewable, and a not-so-obvious choice).


Nuclear Energy – A Potential Bipartisan Climate Solution

For the initial capital costs, nuclear is the most expensive form of energy. However, nuclear fuel (up to now – uranium, burned as fuel in current nuclear reactors) is an exponentially more dense fuel source than any other. Nuclear power represents by far, by a factor of a million – based on a similar quantity of nuclear fuel vs. coal (and coal is more energy-dense than renewable energy, but uranium is exponentially more energy-dense than other fuel sources) – the most energy-dense energy source on the planet.

The Power of Nuclear and Politics

Even with the high up-front costs to develop nuclear power plants, Republicans tend to back nuclear energy, and so do most Democrats in Congress. Thus, nuclear energy is a potential area of bipartisanship for Congress and the new U.S. Executive Administration.

Nuclear is a global incumbent energy source and is associated with a great deal of money and political influence worldwide. Therefore nuclear energy continues to have support from most politicians in the United States. The “good” thing about nuclear energy production is that there are little to no GHG emissions (no GHGs associated with the actual energy production from nuclear fuel).

However, it’s necessary to find suitable locations to safely secure the radioactive waste produced from the combustion of nuclear fuel. Next-generation nuclear fuels promise to burn fuel significantly cleaner. One other major consideration with current nuclear reactors is that we have to hope that there’s not a Fukushima-type catastrophe. Gen IV nuclear promises to be safer, as well as cleaner, than current nuclear reactors. However, this is only theoretical at this point, as Gen IV nuclear is still in this design phase.


Gen IV Nuclear

4th generation nuclear promises to be safe, clean; and a source of cost-competitive and efficient energy. New reactors being planned in advanced nuclear designs can run on spent uranium and even thorium. 4th generation nuclear has entirely safe, cost efficient designs. These reactors just need to get through R&D and demonstration phases, and become commercial viable alternatives in global mixes for countries.

Actually, the levelized cost of energy production from new, advanced nuclear reactors is looking viable. Nuclear is already a clean, efficient energy source – and future generations of nuclear energy production might prove to be perfectly safe, as well.


The major problems with the current generation of nuclear plants are: the potential for another Fukushima-type disaster, nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear waste disposal, and the very high up-front capital cost of building nuclear plants. The US Energy Information Administration estimated that for new nuclear plants in 2019, capital costs made up 75% of the LCOE.

Economies of scale (ideally) will drive down costs of building the next generation of new nuclear plants – eventually over time. The remaining costs of developing and running a new generation of nuclear plants are projected to be cost-competitive with other “base-load” forms of energy generation, e.g. combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT). The probable, hopeful future cost-competitiveness of nuclear is another point that makes nuclear energy a viable energy solution for the future.



How Much Better Are Nuclear & Renewable Energy Than Fossil Fuels?

The reason that economic arguments tend to trump environmental arguments when finding solutions to anthropogenic climate change, is because many Senators are more likely to respond to economic arguments. You could simply say, “renewable energy is better than fossil fuels, because renewable energy is better for the environment, and is a more efficient energy source overall”.

However, odds are Senators won’t care until you also point out that the LCOE* (see below for LCOE definition) of renewable energy is less than the cost of fossil fuels. Many Senators already do want to support clean energy transition strategies. Finding ways to convince all senators to support clean energy investment is important. Republican Senators will also be needed to pass environmental regulatory laws – laws that support clean energy, and hopefully a majority of Senators soon support a federal carbon pricing system – that also supports clean energy.

Senators don’t necessarily have to want to protect the environment, or “give in” to the science behind anthropogenic climate change. Senators can simply vote for energy policies that represent a cost savings; which tend to be clean energy investments. That includes supporting both renewable and nuclear energy.

The cost of producing energy with a renewable fuel vs. fossil fuels is dramatically lower when just the cost of producing electricity (marginal cost) is considered. 4th generation nuclear promises to have a relatively low up-front capital cost, and a low marginal cost. Fuel for Gen IV nuclear designs promise to potentially run on spent uranium or thorium; which are cheap, abundant fuels that produces little waste,

When the costs of the negative externalities (damage to public health & the environment) associated with fossil fuel production are added in with the LCOE*, the relative cost of renewable energy sources (as well as Gen IV nuclear) vs. fossil fuels is lower still. In fact, producing energy from coal is no longer cheaper than renewables or gas, and is very harmful to both the environment and public health (negative externalities).

Overall, the lowest cost of energy production are wind and solar (which also have zero negative externalities) This is followed by natural gas (which carries the cost of negative externalities). Natural gas is followed by more renewable energy sources, most significantly solar thermal and offshore wind.

Other than solar and wind, nuclear and hydroelectricity represent the past, present, and future of global clean energy on a large-scale basis. In fact, historically, nuclear and hydroelectricity have been the largest sources of global clean energy. Hydroelectricity also represents a relatively low cost source of domestic energy for the United States. 

The following are snippets from articles listing reasons nuclear and renewable energy are the best options for future global energy sources:

“Nuclear power and hydropower form the backbone of low-carbon electricity generation. Together, they provide three-quarters of global low-carbon generation. Over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has reduced CO2 emissions by over 60 gigatonnes – nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions.”   FROM  –  iea.org/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-system


Renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published today finds. Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 shows that more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants. 

“We have reached an important turning point in the energy transition. The case for new and much of the existing coal power generation, is both environmentally and economically unjustifiable,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA. “Renewable energy is increasingly the cheapest source of new electricity, offering tremendous potential to stimulate the global economy and get people back to work. Renewable investments are stable, cost-effective and attractive offering consistent and predictable returns while delivering benefits to the wider economy.   FROM –  irena.org//Renewables-Increasingly-Beat-Even-Cheapest-Coal-Competitors


Levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is often cited as a convenient summary measure of the overall competitiveness of different generating technologies. It represents the per-MWh cost (in discounted real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle. 4 Key inputs to calculating LCOE include capital costs, fuel costs, fixed and variable operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, financing costs, and an assumed utilization rate for each plant.” – quote from the EIA.

* Examples of levelized costs of energy include:

  • up-front capital costs/ costs of initial investment (which are much higher for renewable energy than fossil fuel energy)
  • marginal cost of the fuel source (which is much higher for fossil fuels, and almost nothing for free, abundant sources of renewable energy like solar and wind energy, and very low cost for hydro, geothermal, and biomass)
  • cost of maintenance for the power plant/ energy farm/ dam, etc… 
  • cost of transporting the fuel (again, zero for most renewable energy)
  • costs associated with transmitting/ distributing the energy, insurance costs for the energy producing facility, etc…

Gen IV nuclear promises to have reasonable capital costs, and low marginal costs. Until Gen IV gets developed and deployed, we just have to hope the costs really are going to be low as advertised. So, other than a  relatively higher up-front capital cost than renewables, hopefully the rest of Gen IV’s LCOE data points should look roughly similar to renewable energy.


Please see:

Nuclear Energy- One Necessary Energy Source to Fight Climate Change

..for more on how nuclear energy can be a climate solution, providing a clean, efficient, viable source of energy to power the modern, sustainable world.


 

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Permanent ban on new coal mines and other sustainability priorities

Climate Priority Pathways & Policies |


Strategies for mitigating climate change

What are the best strategies for mitigating global warming? How is the United States going to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions? Carbon pricing? The Green New Deal? Here’s a brief list of sustainability priorities that the United States should implement in order to avoid contributing to the most catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic climate change:


Priority Climate Actions for the US government

The United States federal government under Biden; all relevant Climate, Energy, and Environment executive administrative agencies must implement the following priorities. Also, ideally Congress and/ or state legislatures & governors must focus on priorities outlined in GCT’s Climate Public Policies article.   


Regulations

  • The EPA under Biden needs to work on ensuring environmental regulations are put back in place; including air, water, and land pollution and GHGs regulatory rollbacks, now that the Trump administration is gone. “Most of these [environmental protection] rollbacks can be reversed by the Biden administration, but it will take some concerted effort. [Berkeley Law] has compiled nearly 200 rollbacks, listed here“.   FROM  –  law.berkeley.edu/research/clee/reversing-environmental-rollbacks
  • A permanent moratorium on new coal plants legislated and mandated by the U.S. federal government, or at least by a majority of U.S. states. Pursue a just transition for coal country (e.g. retraining coal miners, other coal industry employees, in clean energy jobs. Just transition assistance with clean energy job placement; financial assistance to coal communities as local coal industry-dependent economies transition to clean energy economies). Existing coal mines are phased out completely by 2040 at the latest during the energy transition to clean energy in the U.S.
  • Permanent ban on all drilling for oil & gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moratorium on all mining in ANWR & in all public lands and waters of the United States. Ban on oil & gas drilling on federal lands & waters in the U.S. (Biden has effectively done most of the current moratoriums on drilling/ mining on federal lands/ waters with executive actions – now these bans must be made permanent with legislation through Congress).
  • Ban all Canadian tar sands oil imports and close tar sands oil pipelines – so that means ban all trains and pipelines that transport tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., and stop the development of the Keystone XL pipeline – which Biden now has issued an executive order to do. The development of the Dakota Access pipeline should have effectively been stopped by the order of a federal judge in 2020. However, the case is still being bandied about the courts, pending ‘environmental review’, among other legal issues. Biden and Congress could shut the Dakota Access pipeline down, along with ensuring similar dirty tar sand oil pipelines are shut-down; especially the Line 3 pipeline.

Paris; UN Sustainability Goals; Climate & Land-use Targets

  • Rejoin the international community on climate. The United States must make good on commitments made at the 2015 Paris Climate Accord before trying to put into U.S. law (through Congress) parts of new policies like sections of the Green New Deal (GND). This is true for even less dramatic policies than the GND, like the various federal carbon pricing proposals circulating Congress. Now that the Biden administration has rejoined Paris, the U.S. must try and achieve the more ambitious Carbon Neutrality Coalition (CNC) goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and join the CNC. Even if any part of The Green New Deal does get passed by Congress and signed into law by Biden, the U.S. must still try to achieve goals set at the Paris Climate Accord. The U.S. must maintain its commitments to vital measures; such as ambitious GHG reduction goals.
  • The U.S. will try to pull its own weight on climate, energy, the environment, and other sustainability goals.
  • The sustainability and clean energy measures listed above in this article should be implemented by the U.S. government; even if the efforts fall short of the ambitious climate, energy, environment, and social justice targets outlined in The Green New Deal. It is recommended that the US federal government, or just individual states, consider passing carbon pricing legislation; similar to California’s emissions trading system (ETS); or an ETS similar to the one conducted by 10 Northeastern states (11 with Virginia joining in 2021) – the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).   
  • The United States must ensure (through the EPA); or ideally pass legislation through Congress – setting GHG reduction, decarbonization targets for the U.S. in order to meet all ambitious goals to meet the climate targets set by the United States at the Paris Climate Accord. Biden has pledged to decarbonize the energy generation sector (for electricity generation) by 2035, and to achieve net zero emissions (carbon neutrality targets) by 2050 – these represent significantly ambitious climate targets.
  • All regulations for fossil fuel developments that were mandated under President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which mirror GHG reduction targets initially set at the 2015 Paris Climate Accord must be enforced at a minimum. Based on the new, more ambitious direction of the international community on climate change mitigation; even more ambitious targets than were originally set up by Obama’s CPP should be new targets for the Biden administration. Greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants will need to meet the most ambitious standards set by the Paris Climate Accord; and continue to evolve with new guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – and which now are GHG reduction targets aligned with carbon neutrality by 2050.
  • Expand, protect, restore, and maintain U.S. protected public wilderness, parks, nature reserves, natural monuments, and all U.S. public lands.
  • Tax incentives/ direct government subsidies for sustainable agriculture (encourage farms to adopt practices such as cover crops, agroforestry, other common sustainable agriculture practices.


There were a few significant events which showed strong signs of global progress, with the United States as an occasional global leader on climate action; in terms of addressing anthropogenic climate change in 2014-2015, leading to the Paris Climate Accord:

  1. the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change
  2. Obama’s CPP
  3. Paris Climate Accord

These events represented true progress. We must get back to this momentum.

The new climate envoy and related staff, John Kerry and his staff, for the new executive climate department of the U.S. government; and the new Biden Administration picks for EPA, Energy, Interior, and other climate related cabinet positions – should get the U.S. back on track as far as ambitious climate policies based on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidance. The COP26 in Glasgow should provide a beacon of hope for the global clean energy transition.

On day one of his presidency, Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord, and canceled further U.S. development of the Keystone pipeline, as well as discontinuing any further U.S. investment in the Keystone pipeline (stopping any use of the pipeline for Canadian tar sands oil). Now Biden and Congress just need to tackle the above priorities (including stopping at least 2 more major Canadian tar sands oil pipelines). Relevant parts of the Biden administration (EPA, the new Climate executive department, Energy, Interior) need to start issuing incremental policies (such as those listed above) to address sustainable climate solutions to meet new IPCC guidance. Public policies that are recommended for the United States to pursue as far as climate, energy, and the environment, please see: GCT’s CLIMATE PUBLIC POLICIES article.


The United States federal government (through Congress), or individual states (through state legislatures), should at least consider passing legislation from the various carbon pricing proposals circulating Congress. Please see: GCT’s EU and US climate progress, carbon pricing, and carbon tax articles; for more insight on the range of carbon pricing legislation measures proposed and in effect globally.


Big Oil (and gas) and Big Coal, in the United States as in much of the rest of the world, finance the campaigns of many politicians and have successfully been able to slow down progress on some major climate goals. How much of the Clean Power Plan had the Trump administration, Congressional Republicans, and the EPA under Trump been able to stop?  The EPA under the Trump administration had been able to stop or reverse the ambitious goals of the CPP and Paris Climate Accord in some, Republican-controlled, states.

However, many states and cities in the United States have stayed on track to meet the initial requirements of the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Climate Accord; as individual states (like California, many states in the Northeast, several other states) have remained committed to the ambitious climate goals of the CPP and Paris Climate Accord; and remain committed to achieving the latest climate targets set by the IPCC. Please see: greencitytimes.blogspot.com/elements-of-clean-power-plan-still-move and: greencitytimes.blogspot.com/was-clean-power-plan-just-wiped-out.


Some U.S. states have even more ambitious strategies to reduce GHGs and fight climate change than put forth in the CPP, or at Paris in 2015; closer to the carbon neutrality targets set by the latest IPCC guidance.

Examples of states with ambitious climate mitigation plans include: states like California, Hawaii, Washington, New Mexico, as well as several states in the Northeast U.S., a few other states (all are states which have passed bills through their states’ legislatures that mandate 100% renewable energy within the next 3 decades for their entire state; or at least 100% clean energy ). New York City is even planning a congestion levy for cars in the city center of NYC); and is investing substantial support for electric vehicles – like the development of extensive EV charging stations, as well as other EV infrastructure.


Carbon pricing, fiscal incentives for clean energy technologies, and incentives for clean energy job growth are among public policies that would benefit the environmental health of the planet by increasing investment in clean and renewable energy; helping in the fight against climate change by reducing GHGs from energy production.

Policies supporting clean energy job growth would also help the economy. Here is an article by Green City Times – a guide to needed public policies for environmental (as well as economic) sustainability, including our complete take on the Green New Deal – greencitytimes.com/stabilize-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2