Nuclear power is touted by many as a clean energy alternative to coal and natural gas for a world that must dramatically reduce carbon emissions in a short period of time or face the consequences of a warming environment. At first blush, such arguments make perfect sense.
Is Nuclear Emissions Free?
Nuclear power plants have no atmospheric emissions at all — usually. But when they do — think Chernobyl and Fukushima — they are not the sort of things any human being within 100 miles wants to be exposed to. Nuclear advocates insist atom-powered generating plants are safe in much the same way fossil fuel advocates insist pipelines and supertankers are safe. What they mean is that when things go wrong, the damage can be easily contained and the amount of human suffering is a small price to pay for the enormous profits to be made in the meantime.
Nuclear plants do have emissions of another kind, however. Spent fuel remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years and nuclear facilities require massive amounts of water to keep things cool inside the containment area. One of the primary reasons nuclear power is beloved by utility companies is because they are guaranteed a certain rate of return on their investments. In order to make more money, spend more money.
The way the electric utility game is rigged, customers are automatically saddled with the cost of paying for all new investments made by the companies, often for decades. Once the decision to build a nuclear power plant is made, the cost to pay for it goes on for 30, 40, or more years, even if new, less expensive technology becomes available in the meantime.
Nuclear Projects Abandoned In UK
Hitachi has been planning to build a new nuke on the Welsh island of Anglesey on the site of a previous power plant decommissioned in 2015. However, it has now notified the UK government that it will abandon that project unless the government commits major new financial resources to bring the $26 billion facility to completion. Hitachi has already sunk nearly $3 billion into the proposed Wylfa Newydd project.
Last November, another UK nuclear power project in Cunbria, to be built by Toshiba, was abandoned, leaving UK utility customers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars already invested by National Grid to build the transmission lines needed to connect that facility to the grid. According to the The Times of London, ratepayers will be paying for those losses for decades via surcharges added to their energy bills. Another Japanese company — Mitsubishi — has also withdrawn recently from a proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey according to Nikkei Asian Review.
What is the reason for so many abandonments of nuclear power projects? Money. Investors are looking down the road and seeing renewables getting less expensive. If it takes 30 years or more to recover the cost of a nuclear plant, what are the odds that it will still be making a profit in 2050? If you said somewhere between zero and none, go to the head of the class.
Renewables To Blame For Nuclear Woes
Forbes reports on a rather startling announcement. Greg Clark, the government minister in charge of the UK energy board, told Parliament recently, “The cost of renewable technologies such as offshore wind has fallen dramatically, to the point where they now require very little public subsidy and will soon require none. We have also seen a strengthening in the pipeline of projects coming forward, meaning that renewable energy may now not just be cheap, but also readily available.”
In all, three new nuclear plants in the UK are now likely to be abandoned. Together, they were expected to provide up to 15% of the nation’s energy needs in the future. How will the country make up for the loss of that capacity? Forbes says an analysis by the UK Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit shows renewables will do the heavy lifting needed to keep all British tea pots boiling happily for decades to come.
Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the ECIU says, “In recent years, government has quietly cut back its expectations for nuclear new-build and that’s looking more and more realistic as the price of renewable generation falls and the benefits of the flexible smart grid become more apparent. Filling the nuclear gap with renewables would indeed require an increase in rollout, but one that is well within UK capabilities. With enough focus on smart low-carbon energy, there’s no reason why Britain shouldn’t achieve all its energy objectives despite the cancellation of these nuclear stations.”
In particular, the ECIU analysis found a combination of an additional 11.3 GW of onshore wind, 5.7 GW of offshore wind, and 20.8 GW of new solar capacity would be sufficient to fill the nuclear gap. Hitting those targets should be easy, given the acceleration of installed renewable energy capacity taking place today.
Poland Set To Move Forward With Its First Nuke
Despite the hoopla about renewables in the rest of the world, Poland, which currently gets 80% of its electricity from burning coal, expects to move forward with plans to build its first nuclear power plant. The 1.5 GW facility, which could go online by 2033, will be the first of several nukes the country expects to build as it prepares to increase its installed power portfolio to 73 GW as compared to 40 GW today. It expects nuclear power to provide about 10% of that total.
“The nuclear power plant will help us accelerate carbon emissions reduction,” Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski told a news conference on Friday, according to a report by Reuters. He said he expects the nuclear program to cost about $20 billion.
Poland is under pressure from its European neighbors to reduce its carbon emissions. Current plans call for it to cut its carbon output 30% compared to 1990 levels by the year 2030, a modest amount compared to what its neighbors expect to achieve. And of course it is totally out of sync with the calls for dramatic climate action contained in the latest IPCC 6 climate report which says the world has only a 10 year window to slash carbon emissions to near zero.
The Polish plan will still see about 60% of the nation’s energy come from burning coal in 2030 with most of the lignite burning facilities being shut down around 2040 or so. Which raises this question. If solar and wind installations can be designed, built, and brought online within a matter of years, why spend $20 billion on last century technology that will take a decade or more before it begins contributing to the nation’s energy supply?
A Timid Response To An Urgent Problem
The answer to that question reveals everything that is wrong with the way most nations are tiptoeing around the global warming emergency. Make lots of flowery promises. Give the people huge helpings of pie in the sky pronouncements. But go as slowly and timidly as possible into the future while funneling profits into well connected pockets all the while.
The truth is, the utility industry is used to thinking in terms of 30 to 40 year timelines. It is widely seen as the most risk averse industry in the world. “What was good enough for our grandfathers is good enough for us. Stick with what has worked in the past. Don’t take a chance on new technology that might upset the apple cart.” The problem is, the world can’t wait for the utility industry to dither and dawdle its way to tomorrow. We need bold, decisive action now to slash carbon emissions today, not in 2040. By then it will be too late.
Poland may be proud that it is about to get its first nuke. But by celebrating that move, it is admitting it has no realistic plan for protecting its citizens — or the rest of the global community — from the ravages of a warming planet. Just as the UK can obtain all the energy it needs from renewables instead of nuclear facilities, so can Poland, if it only could find the political will to do so. Tepid responses to a global emergency are the things that will doom us all to a planet incapable of supporting human life for many. Poland’s epitaph may well be, “Too little, too late.”
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