California Should Go Nuclear

(p. C1) A recent study sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Clean Air Task Force concluded that to meet its net-zero pledge by 2045, the state of California will need power that is not only “clean” but “firm”—that is, “electricity sources that don’t depend on the weather.” The same is true around the world, and nuclear offers a relatively stable source of power.

Nuclear plants don’t depend on a steady supply of coal or gas, where disruptions in commodity markets can lead to spikes in electricity prices, as has happened this winter in Europe. Nor do nuclear plants depend on the weather. Solar and wind have a great deal of potential, but to be reliable energy sources on their own, they require advanced batteries and high-tech grid management to balance varying levels of power generation with anticipated spikes in demand. That balancing act is easier and cheaper with the kind of firm power that nuclear can provide.

. . .

(p. C2) In France, as part of a massive push to “reindustrialize,” the government will spend $1.13 billion on nuclear power R&D by 2030. The focus is on developing a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) to replace parts of the existing fleet that supplies around 70% of the country’s electricity.

. . .

. . . it’s , , , important to recognize that regulatory oversight and safety provisions are usually effective. Even the Fukushima accident, or the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, could be considered a success on the safety front: Some safety features failed but others worked, containing the fallout.

. . .

SMRs and other new technologies are the nuclear industry’s big hope. One focus of research is using new fissile materials such as thorium, which is more abundant, produces less waste and has no direct military applications. Other technologies look to using existing nuclear waste as a fuel source. Turning away from massive reactors toward SMRs might, at first, increase costs per unit of energy produced. But it would open financing models unavailable to large reactors, allowing costs to come down, with reactors following a uniform design instead of being designed one by one. Building many small reactors also allows for learning-by-doing, a model actively pursued by China at home and as part of its Belt and Road Initiative abroad.

None of these new technologies is sure to be economically competitive. Some of the more experimental technologies, like China’s thorium reactors, might yet pay off. TerraPower, a venture founded by Bill Gates, has been working on natrium reactors for over a decade and recently added a molten-salt design to the mix, which could make a real difference if it works out. The point is to try. Like solar and wind, nuclear energy could climb the learning curve and slide down the cost curve with the right financial backing.

For the full commentary, see:

Gernot Wagner. “Is Nuclear Power Part of the Climate Solution?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 7, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The commentary quoted above is related to the author’s book:

Wagner, Gernot. Geoengineering: The Gamble. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021.

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