The United States is on the verge of losing more than half of its low-carbon energy as the fight against climate change reaches a crucial point — a reality the country hasn’t fully grappled with.
That’s according to findings recently published by researchers at UC San Diego, Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The paper — “U.S. nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge” — paints a picture of an industry on the verge of collapse. Facing economic competition from cheap natural gas, the country’s aging fleet of nuclear power plants, the authors warn, could see a significant number of retirements in coming years.
“We’re asleep at the wheel on a very dangerous highway,” said Ahmed Abdulla, coauthor and fellow at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. “We really need to open our eyes and study the situation.”
The country now has a choice to abandon nuclear power altogether or embrace the next generation of smaller, more cost-effective reactors, according to the report.
However, the researchers argue, the second option is very unlikely as it would require accelerating the regulatory review process and a sizable infusion of public cash.
“It’s really surprising that one of our best weapons in our fight against climate change is at risk of utter collapse because of the economic and political challenges and not the technical ones,” Abdulla said.
California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is scheduled to shut down by 2025. Its operator, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., has said Diablo Canyon would be uneconomical to run in the near future because of the growth of renewable energy sources, increased energy efficiency measures and the migration of more customers from traditional utilities to new local suppliers under the state's community choice aggregation program.
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, operated by Southern California Edison, closed in January 2012 after a small radiation leak from a steam generator.
Although it might be a long shot, the promise of nuclear power has captured the imagination of many younger academics in recent years.
More students are pursuing nuclear engineering degrees than at any time since the early 1980s, with graduation rates in the field tripling from 2001 to 2015, according to survey data from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.
“Where else are you going to get a job where you can tell your grandkids that you saved the world?” said Per Peterson, a professor in UC Berkeley’s department of nuclear engineering. “They don’t think they’re going to get rich.”
Still, environmental organizations have remained largely skeptical about the value of nuclear energy, given ongoing anxieties about safety as well as cost. Although advocacy groups have expressed concerns about replacing phased-out nuclear plants with fossil fuels, many would rather focus on supporting renewable sources.
“The danger is that the amount of subsidy that nuclear would require would suck all the energy out of supporting the other renewables,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“There’s almost nothing that can be done to make nuclear a significant contributor in the next few decades, even if you throw billions of dollars at it,” he said. “The people who promote nuclear power have tunnel vision.”
Dan Jacobson, state director for Environment California, echoed those general concerns.
“Nuclear power in its current form has been an incredibly expensive way to boil water,” he said. “If you’re really trying to decarbonize our grid, we would rather spend those billions on efficiency, conservation and renewables.”
Nuclear energy constitutes roughly 20% of the nation’s energy supply, compared with about 17% for all renewables combined, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Wind and solar, for example, make up about 7.6% of the country’s power portfolio.
While aggressive efforts to develop batteries for storing intermittent sources of electricity from solar and wind continue, utilities in recent years have embraced natural gas for consistent, baseload energy. The fossil fuel now represents nearly 32% of all the energy produced in the U.S.
Given recent trends, nuclear industry scientists question whether renewables will be able to offset the losses from retiring nuclear plants in time to stave off the worst consequences of climate change.
“The reality is you cannot actually replace 20% of the need with wind and solar, unless you want to wallpaper every square inch of many states,” said Christina Back, vice president of nuclear technologies and materials at General Atomics in San Diego. “It’s not efficient enough.”
Back said that given the right support from the federal government, the current fleet of nuclear reactors can, in many cases, be retrofitted to improve safety and life span, while smaller, more cost-effective plants can be rolled out within the next decade to provide baseload energy.
“This is a situation like NASA when you’re putting someone on the moon where the government needs to recognize the long-term benefit and investment that’s required and help support that,” she said. “This is where political will matters.”
The paper also suggested that many in the public don’t take nuclear energy seriously because they don’t realize the urgency of the situation. Specifically, the research points to the need to aggressively decarbonize the energy sector by midcentury because carbon dioxide emitted today will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, baking in the effects of global warming for generations to come.
If the country is going to embrace nuclear energy, it should do so as quickly as possible to help stave off the effects of climate change, said George Tynan, associate dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.