California's last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is to be decommissioned in 2024 and 2025. This will, at a stroke, eliminate a fifth of California's carbon-free electricity.
Diablo's two reactors, which generate 180,000GWh of carbon-free electricity per year, could be licensed for another 20 years of operation, but the utility, PG&E, has decided not to pursue the renewal. California's anti-nuclear activists, naturally, are celebrating the impending shutdown of the last nuclear plant in the state, but have been less than honest in confronting the fact that from the perspective of preventing CO2 emissions, the premature loss of Diablo Canyon is tragedy, not a victory.
I should say at the outset that I am not one of the partisans of nuclear energy that dismisses renewable energy as impractical and rationalizes the challenges of the nuclear sector. Nuclear energy can be costly, controversial, and very, very slow, as I've written before. It's important, though, to separate the issues of manufacturing new nuclear power plants on the one hand versus maintaining existing nuclear power plants to the end of their safe operating life.
These are the major drawbacks/potential concerns with Nuclear Power, writ large:
1. Construction of the physical plant is expensive, sometimes very expensive. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, a 3.2 GW project, is currently projected to cost approximately $25 billion to construct.
2. Construction of the physical plants is energy- and resource-intensive, and is responsible for the vast majority of life-cycle greenhouse emissions (which are small and comparable to those of wind energy, and somewhat better than solar energy.)
3. Construction of the physical plant takes years -- if it becomes embroiled in legal challenges and a target of activists, as is often the case, it's not unusual for it to take decades.
4. Current designs produce long-lived toxic waste, which can be stored indefinitely on site, but remains toxic for a long time.
(Accidents are not listed because while they are feared by the public they are incredibly rare and in terms of human health, not incredibly or even very dangerous. Nuclear energy is an extremely safe power source, and nuclear accidents are the shark attacks of environmental problems -- feared far out of proportion to the danger.)
What all of those drawbacks/concerns have in common is that they are over and done with on the day a nuclear plant enters service. They do not pertain to the question of keeping it in service at all.
Diablo Canyon is a finished product. It's greenhouse emissions going forward are negligible (tiny amounts related to the mining of uranium.) The costs of construction have already been paid. The waste will be stored on the site -- and must be kept safe for centuries -- and this will be true regardless of whether the plant shuts down tomorrow or runs for another 20 years.
Subtract those things and what we are left with is 180,000 GWh of clean electricity every year for the next 20 years. Over 20 years, 3.6 million GWh, or 3,600 TWh.
That is a stunning amount of clean energy to leave on the table. Generating it with natural gas -- currently 40% of California's electrical mix (see above) -- would generate CO2 equivalent emissions of 1.8 billion tons. Using a (very conservative, IMO) social cost of carbon of $40/ton, the damage of those emissions is $72 billion (dwarfing the most pessimistic estimates of the costs to relicense and run the plant for the next 20 years.)
Continuing to operate the existing nuclear station to the end of its operational life alongside rapidly growing wind and solar energy would speed the elimination of coal and gas from the energy mix and advert those emissions. Who, among those who care about the climate, would say no to that? Only people who hate and fear nuclear power, which as it turns out is a lot of people.
So how do people who purport to be serious about fighting global warming -- people who cheer when AOC proposes we get to net zero emissions in ten years -- rationalize this huge stride in the wrong direction? More to come…
Coming soon: Part Two, the fallacy of "100% renewable replacement"