Why Nuclear Power is (Quietly) Making a Big Comeback All Around the World
From California to France to Japan and beyond, nuclear power is all the rage suddenly.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that California Gov. Gavin Newsom was spearheading an eleventh-hour effort to pass legislation to extend a lifeline to Diablo Canyon, a 2,250-megawatt nuclear plant that supplies some 8 percent of the energy produced in the Golden State.
Under pressure from lawmakers and environmental activists, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) agreed in 2016 to decommission Diablo when its operating licenses expire in 2024 and 2025. But in light of the recent energy policy environment, California lawmakers had second thoughts.
On the very final day of the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that will extend the plant five more years.
This is a sharp turn for Newsom, who had long intimated that the Diablo Canyon plant should be closed.
“I just don’t see that this plant is going to survive beyond 2024, 2025. I just don’t see that,” Newsom said while running for governor in 2016. “And there is a compelling argument as to why it shouldn’t.”
Nuclear is in Again
California is hardly alone in giving nuclear power a second look.
Belgium is one of several European nations looking to extend set-to-expire licenses to keep nuclear plants operational. France, meanwhile, has proposed building up to 14 new nuclear plants in the coming years. Japan, which shuttered its nuclear reactors following the 2011 Fukushima crisis, now wants to restart up to nine reactors. Meanwhile, Morning Brew reports that the UK, Poland, and the Czech Republic are all unfurling plans to build new nuclear reactors.
Nuclear power is suddenly in again, and it’s not hard to see why. Natural gas prices have skyrocketed globally. In the United States, natural gas prices recently hit a 14-year high, but that’s nothing compared to Europe, where they recently hit an all-time high and are the equivalent of $600/barrel oil prices.
This has sent shockwaves throughout Europe, where businesses are reporting five-fold year-over-year price increases.
There is now little debate that Europe is in the middle of a full-blown energy crisis, in no small part because the nations pursued a “green” energy agenda that shifted from domestic production (especially in fossil fuels and nuclear power) and led to a reliance on natural gas imports from Russia, which have been disrupted by the invasion of Ukraine and Russian geopolitics.
8% of California’s Electricity Gone?
The situation in California is different than that in Europe, but there is also a clear reason the state is second-guessing its decision to shut down its single largest power station — namely, its battered energy grid.
California grid operators last week warned of blackouts and encouraged citizens to “set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, avoid using large appliances and charging electric vehicles, and turn off unnecessary lights.”
This is nothing new in California, which has an extensive history of blackouts even though it has one of the lowest per capita energy consumption rates in the country (largely due to its mild climate).
The reason for this isn’t complicated. California is seen as a green energy success story, and in some ways it is. Earlier this year, on one mild May day, California produced enough renewable electricity to meet 103 percent of demand, setting a new record.
The problem is some of these energy sources are intermittent. On most days renewable energy production falls well short of consumer demand, which is why roughly half of California’s electricity is still produced by natural gas — which is getting quite expensive as noted above.
But the real problem is energy supply.
California’s energy grid is already stretched, which means that suddenly aborting nuclear power is a recipe for disaster. As even progressive California lawmakers concede, Diablo Canyon generates more than 8 percent of all of California’s electricity, and accounts for 17 percent of carbon-free production.
If you think California’s blackout problem is bad now — and it most certainly is — try abruptly losing 18,000 GW·hrs of electricity annually and see what happens … after adding a million more electric vehicles to the economy, all of which must be charged with electricity, when the state’s ban on gas-powered vehicles goes into effect.
As NPR notes, the twist over Diablo Canyon is noteworthy because the Golden State is the birthplace of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States. Environmentalists for years have opposed nuclear power, “primarily from fears about nuclear waste and potential accidents as well as its association with nuclear weapons.”
As Fukushima shows, these fears are not entirely unfounded. Nuclear accidents do occur (albeit rarely). Nuclear plants do create radioactive waste. There are clear tradeoffs to nuclear energy.
Where environmentalists go wrong, however, is to think tradeoffs are unique to nuclear power and fossil fuels. The fact is, all energy production comes with tradeoffs, and proponents of so-called “green energy” have a nasty habit of overlooking these tradeoffs.
Your neighbor with a “green means go” sign in his yard might point out that your F-150 guzzles a gallon of gasoline for every 25 road miles, but he probably ignores that it took tens of thousands of pounds of CO2 emissions to produce the battery that charges his Tesla. (And don’t even tell him where the cobalt in the battery comes from.)
Your aunt might proudly talk about the new solar panels on her roof, but probably doesn’t know that even on utility scale solar power has a carbon footprint higher than nuclear power, or that solar panels produce literally tons of toxic waste.
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Your niece at Columbia might talk about how important it is to become a “zero emission” economy. But she probably doesn’t realize the environmental costs, let alone the economic ones, of getting there — which include mining 34 million metric tons of copper, 50 million tons of zinc, 40 million tons of lead, 5 billion tons of iron, and 160 million tons of aluminum (give or take).
The point is clear: all energy production comes with tradeoffs. Many might believe that politicians are uniquely capable of weighing the pros and cons of energy tradeoffs, but both economics and our own eyes reveal this is untrue.
Facing what many environmentalists say is a climate apocalypse, did it make sense for European governments to scrap nuclear plants — one of the cleanest forms of energy in existence — and import fossil fuels from Russia, a country hostile to freedom and historically inclined toward authoritarianism?
Similarly, did it make sense for California to scrap nuclear power in its quest to become a “100 percent zero-emission” economy?
Clearly the answer to these questions is no. The reality is politicians do not have any special knowledge when it comes to deciding which tradeoffs make the most sense, which might explain why a world abundant in energy is suddenly facing an energy crisis unlike any it’s seen in generations.
So while we should be grateful that so many politicians, environmentalists, and countries are finally recognizing the benefits of nuclear power, we should also be asking why we gave them such broad power in the first place.
Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Star Tribune.
Originally published at FEE.org under a CC BY 4.0 license.