Nuclear Power

Renewable Energy Not Enough: Scientists Want More Nuclear Plants to Curb Climate Change

A new Pew Research Center survey shows a serious disconnect between what scientists and the public believe about nuclear energy and climate change.

Members of the public generally don't believe climate change is man-made, as scientists do, the poll showed. This is what the news media focused on when the Pew poll story broke last week.

Yet the press downplayed the far-more important question in the survey concerning what scientists think should actually be done about climate change:

Scientists say there's a critical need to build more nuclear power plants.

See also: -Palo Verde Nuclear Plant Taking Fresh Look at Earthquake Hazard in NRC Review

In its new survey, Pew pitted the beliefs of random U.S. citizens against "a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science." The scientists want to see less offshore drilling than does the general public, no doubt because they're concerned about the local and global impact and better understand the risks to the environment of that activity.

At the same time, 65 percent of the scientists polled want to see more nuclear-power plants built, compared to 45 percent of Americans. This is because scientists have a better understanding of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy, and they know that when it comes to fighting the source of climate change, renewable energy isn't going to cut it.

The poll results come about a year after top climate-change scientists including James Hansen sent an open letter to world leaders pushing for more nuclear energy. A 2013 documentary, "Pandora's Promise," discussed the debate over nuclear as a climate-change solution and received a little media attention.

But as the Pew poll shows, the public just doesn't get it.

The public's fear of nuclear energy due to disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima is already becoming a significant obstacle to avoiding the far-more serious global catastrophe of climate change. For instance, President Obama's new $4 trillion budget proposal contains some dollars for research and development for a new generation of nuclear plants, but no funds, loans or tax credits to construct any new nuclear plants, according to information we received on Monday from White House spokesman Keith Maley.

If you heard that wind and solar energy can meet current or future demand for electricity, you've been misinformed — probably by the wind and solar lobby.

New Times explained in a 2013 article, "Dim Watt," why solar energy is unlikely to power more than a fraction of Arizona's electricity demand in the coming decades despite the state's large "solar resource." As we covered in our in-depth story, the factors involved include the high expense and the lack of political will of leaders and residents for endless subsidies. But they also include the relative weakness of solar power, which typically captures less than 25 percent of the sun's 1,000 watts of power-per-square-meter when the sun is shining.

Pricier concentrated solar plants, like the $2 billion Solana plant near Gila Bend, which uses a heat-storage technique to continue generating electricity after dark, may hold some promise. Yet as you've read only in New Times, Solana was supposed to generate about 900,000 megawatts of juice each year, but pumped out only two-thirds of that in its first year. Abengoa, the Spanish company that built Solana, now claims it'll take a few years to ramp up its yearly output.

Solana also requires about 10 percent of the electricity it creates just to run operations at the plant, which sounds quite high to us. The plant is rated to produce 300 megawatts of electricity, but provides less than half of its rated capacity when averaged over a year. Still, concentrated solar plants like Solana are much more efficient than photovoltaic solar panels.

By comparison, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix, which consists of three reactors and is the largest nuclear plant in the country, cost $5.9 billion to build (in 1988 — yes, we know it would cost more now), and has a rated capacity of 3,942 megawatts. Like other nuclear plants, it produces more than 90 percent of its rated capacity.

In other words, nuclear plants put out so much more power than solar plants, it's just silly. And they produce reliable base-load power, not the intermittent power of solar and wind.

Wind won't save Earth from climate change any better than the sun. Wind turbines have an efficiency rating of 25-to-50 percent of their rated, nameplate capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Like solar, wind requires batteries or some other kind of power source to get to your demand of 100 percent power, 24 hours a day.

In December, a report came out that the United States could generate 30 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030 if only it invested more in the technology. But if you just stop to think about it, the idea is unrealistic because it means nearly one-third of the United States would run on backup batteries when the wind stops blowing.

Wait a minute, you say — you've read that some states already generate nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind already. Indeed, if you type the search terms "Iowa" and "wind" and "27 percent," you'll find the dozens, if not hundreds of articles that refer to the country's top wind-energy-producing state.

Does Iowa really meet 27 percent of its yearly electricity demand through wind? State officials there say "yes." Even more impressive, representatives of MidAmerican Energy, one of Iowa's biggest electricity producers, tell New Times that they sell much of the wind energy out of state, meaning Iowans could be using even more wind power.

The reality, though, is that Iowa can do that only because it's part of the multi-state MISO electrical grid, which is powered by fossil fuels and nuclear power plants. When the wind isn't blowing hard in Iowa, which apparently does happen sometimes, the grid's overcapacity in other states can be transferred immediately to Iowa, resulting in seamless energy usage. If the entire grid was 27 percent wind-sourced, it wouldn't work.

Jay Hermacinski of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, (pronounced MY-so, unlike the soup), tells New Times that the grid itself has a wind-turbine capacity of 6.7 percent. Again, wind produces less than half of its nameplate capacity, meaning MISO's grid is likely about 2 to 4 percent wind-powered.

Wind proponents and journalists tend to focus on the higher, more optimistic numbers. Don't be fooled.

For sure, solar and wind provide some benefits, especially in terms of reducing regional air pollution. Individual utility customers who take advantage of solar-energy subsidies do save money, our research shows.

At least one study seems to prove the current subsidy scheme for solar power is terribly inefficient, however, if the goal is to reduce local and global air pollution. That's because while Arizona has lots of sunshine for solar cells, about two-thirds of its power comes from nuclear power and relatively clean-burning natural gas plants. Putting a solar panel on the cloudier East Coast provides 15 times the benefit for the atmosphere than putting it in the Southwest, according to the 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal.

As the Pew poll indicates, scientists believe a less-carbonized modern society can only be achieved by adding more nuclear to the mix. And it needs to be done soon, if not yesterday.

Few people are interested in listening to the scientists.

Even if renewable energy was as good as its proponents say, which it isn't, raw megawatts of electricity coming online from renewable energy are being added much too slowly to prevent disaster, experts say.

An updated report released last week by the International Energy Agency argues forcefully that the world needs to be building twice as many nuclear plants in order to keep the world from surpassing the dreaded two-degree increase over current average global temperature.

China, India, the Middle East and Russia are on pace to lead the way.

The IEA says China plans to go from 17 billion watts of generation (gigawatts) to 250 gigawatts by 2050. Help from the rest of the world in this department may be a matter of life or death for the planet, the agency claims:

"Global installed capacity would need to more than double from current levels of 396 gigawatts (GW) to reach 930 GW in 2050, with nuclear power representing 17% of global electricity production," the report states. "Although lower than the 2010 Roadmap vision of 1,200 GW and 25% share of generation, this increase still represents a formidable growth for the nuclear industry."

The reports part about "key actions" to take in the next decade begins with, "The contributions of nuclear energy - providing valuable base-load electricity, supplying important ancillary services to the grid and contributing to the security of energy supply - must be fully acknowledged."

As the Pew poll shows, and as President Obama's new budget reflects, the American public and current administration won't acknowledge that fact — whatever most scientists may think.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Ray Stern on Twitter at @RayStern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.