Nuclear energy only realistic alternative to coal

By John Bennion

Many of the seemingly solid proposals to curb greenhouse-gas emissions are off the mark.

Many members of Congress tend to agree there would be a substantial decrease in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming, if the federal government took several steps. They include mandating the use of solar, wind and biomass energy; empowering the government to establish rules that assure energy conservation; setting tougher efficiency standards for electric appliances, lighting and buildings; providing billions of dollars in bonds to help state and local governments fund energy conservation and renewable energy projects; a cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions; and authorizing billions of dollars more for research on renewable fuels.

By John Bennion

Many of the seemingly solid proposals to curb greenhouse-gas emissions are off the mark.

Many members of Congress tend to agree there would be a substantial decrease in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming, if the federal government took several steps. They include mandating the use of solar, wind and biomass energy; empowering the government to establish rules that assure energy conservation; setting tougher efficiency standards for electric appliances, lighting and buildings; providing billions of dollars in bonds to help state and local governments fund energy conservation and renewable energy projects; a cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions; and authorizing billions of dollars more for research on renewable fuels.

Though these reforms have some merit, even if all were adopted it is unlikely that carbon dioxide emissions would substantially decline. The reason is that none of these proposals comes to grips with one of the main reasons behind the continued rise in carbon dioxide emissions.

The basic problem is simple. Coal-fired power plants account for 52 percent of the nation’s electricity generation, but the carbon dioxide they emit is not captured. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate carbon dioxide emissions, despite a ruling from the Supreme Court that it has that authority. The result is that coal plants in this country pour about 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s almost a third of U.S. emissions — and the load will increase as more coal plants are built.

When carbon dioxide is not regulated, the temptation to build more coal plants is irresistible. Such temptations would not be removed even if states were required to obtain 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources and improvements in energy efficiency. Although Congress rejected such a renewable energy standard when it voted on energy legislation last year, it’s almost certain to be resurrected. The crux of the problem with it is that renewables like wind and solar energy are intermittent. They can only help meet peak demand for electricity, not provide “base-load” power. And on days when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing they require back-up power from fossil fuels. As for natural gas, though it’s cleaner than coal, gas-fired power plants emit large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The fact is to meet future demand nuclear power is the only alternative to coal as a source of large amounts of electricity.

Since it is carbon-free, you’d think that states would get credit for using nuclear power. But many members of Congress who favor the renewable energy standard don’t want to give states credit for nuclear power. That no-nuclear approach to carbon mitigation is senseless.

In order to reduce carbon emissions and our nation’s dangerous dependence on foreign oil, Congress needs to recognize the critical importance of nuclear power. The renewable electricity standard needs to include nuclear power, which currently accounts for 75 percent of the nation’s clean power generation, far surpassing wind and solar.

Many opponents of nuclear power claim that it’s too costly, but they ignore that the average national cost to produce nuclear-generated electricity last year was 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, the cost of producing electricity at a coal plant was 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour and 6.7 cents for natural gas. In other words, producing electricity at a gas-fired plant was nearly four times more costly than nuclear power. Part of the reason is that U.S. nuclear power plants, on average, produce electricity 90 percent of the time, compared to 30 percent of the time for a natural gas plant.

The only realistic solution to the climate-change crisis is a balanced mix of carbon-free energy sources. But nuclear power must play a decisive role. Harnessing nuclear technology to achieve sustainable energy will help decouple our dangerous appetite for fossil fuels.

John Bennion is an associate professor of nuclear engineering at Idaho State University.