Mark Z. Jacobson is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Senior Fellow of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. We discuss the various practical problems that make nuclear energy not a viable solution for decarbonization, which renewable sources work better, and why electrifying our lives is a big part of the solution.
Nuclear Power is Impractical
Building nuclear power plants is extremely costly and time-consuming; projects are often plagued by cost overruns and construction delays. Between permitting, planning, and construction, it takes 10-19 years for a plant to become operational. To meet our climate goals, we need to transition 80% of our energy to carbon-free solutions by 2030. From a logistical standpoint, nuclear cannot become our carbon-free energy source because it will arrive too late. In addition, aging nuclear power plants become more expensive to maintain and operate, which necessitate additional subsidies. Maintenance requirements shut down the whole plant and energy production goes to zero during that time.
Nuclear Technology Risks
In addition to the practical barriers of building a nuclear grid, nuclear technology has inherent risks. Some of the radioactive nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay, posing long term problems for safe maintenance. The technology can and has been used for weapons proliferation. The catastrophic risk of a nuclear reactor meltdown is currently at 1.5%, which is astronomical. In comparison, we would not accept a 1.5% chance of planes crashing. The cost of cleanup for the Fukushima disaster alone has exceeded $500 billion, or more than $1 billion per reactor worldwide, which makes nuclear much more costly than many acknowledge.
Electrifying our lives with renewable energy
Transitioning to clean renewable energy and electrifying all sectors of the economy can achieve a savings in energy demand of 57%. The heating and cooling of buildings can be achieved through heat pumps; electric cars can replace fossil fuel models; high-temperature electric processes can be used in heavy industry. Clean energy electricity can be generated through large concentrated solar farms, offshore wind power, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. Sources like solar and wind can come online much faster than nuclear, cutting emissions more quickly and stay clean forever. Once electrification is widespread, it becomes easier to store excess power with batteries, hydroelectric reservoirs, and gravitational storage.
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Mark Z. Jacobson is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University. His career has focused on better understanding air pollution and global warming problems and developing large-scale clean, renewable energy solutions to them. Toward that end, he has developed and applied three-dimensional atmosphere-biosphere-ocean computer models and solvers to simulate air pollution, weather, climate, and renewable energy. He has also developed roadmaps to transition countries, states, cities, and towns to 100% clean, renewable energy for all purposes and computer models to examine grid stability in the presence of high penetrations of renewable energy.
You can follow him on Twitter @mzjacobson.