Saturday, July 4, 2015

Is nuclear energy expensive?

Spot the leader.

Robert Wilson doesn't think so:
But like it or not, offshore wind is now the only scalable form of renewable energy in Britain. Solar and onshore wind are not. This leaves us with three choices as far as low carbon electricity is concerned: nuclear, offshore wind and CCS. Nuclear is currently much cheaper than offshore wind, and this is not likely to change tomorrow. So, forget about calling nuclear expensive, and be more honest and say that de-carbonisation is expensive. If nuclear energy is expensive then it is time we lowered our expectations when it comes to climate change, because cheaper options are not staring us in the face.
 While Wilson's tone is more dismissive of renewable energy than I would be, I substantially agree with his point -- calling nuclear energy expensive whilst supporting heavy investments in wind, solar, and other non-hydro renewable energy often amounts to the pot calling the kettle black.

Getting our emissions down to 20% or 10% of present-day emissions is going to cost quite a bit of money. In the long run, that investment will pay off. Even in the short run, there are substantial benefits to be had in the form of improved air quality, better transportation networks, more efficient and reliable energy grids, and so on. But there is no getting around the fact that the cost will be several trillion dollars (which, it should be pointed out, is still a tiny share of the world's wealth.)

While renewable energy is getting cheaper, it is the worst kind of motivated reasoning to think that it will continue getting cheaper indefinitely along a linear trend. While intermittancy at high levels of renewable penetration is a problem that can certainly be overcome, fixes all involve additional investment and increased costs.

Smart government policies can make renewables cheaper -- by supporting research into new technologies, encouraging adoption on a wide scale, and by making changes to the utility model and the grid such as dynamic pricing which favor the development of more renewables.

Similarly, though, a smart set of policies could make nuclear energy much cheaper. Settling on a single standard design, providing a steady stream of orders for that design, and streamlining regulatory approval after the initial instances of that design, could bring costs down dramatically. Whether or not you think the US government was right to commit itself to the long-term storage of nuclear waste, it did make that commitment and ought to settle on a site and answer that question once and for all.

Whatever low-carbon energy sources are the most successful, we ought to resign ourselves to spending some serious cash up front. Hydrocarbons are a very efficient way to store energy, and I very much doubt if any alternative energy source in our lifetimes is going to be easier than just pumping the stuff out of the ground. Renewable energy advocates who decry the expense of nuclear energy are sharpening the sword that will be at their throats for the foreseeable future.

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