Nuclear Options Going Forward

This post is being published by ASPO-USA in its newsletter today.

We are at a crossroads with respect to nuclear energy, having discovered a new way (or several new ways) that nuclear plants can fail. How do we deal with such a situation? There seem to be several options, but all seem to have drawbacks.

  1. Business as usual. Continue building nuclear reactors as in the past. This is pretty clearly not going to work, because citizens are worried about the situation in Japan, and want to make certain a similar situation doesn’t happen near where they live. At a minimum, citizens want a re-examination of the risks involved, so as to try to prevent future radioactive releases.
  2. Build stronger / more advanced nuclear power plants in the future, in an attempt to avoid the newly discovered problems. One problem with this approach is that stronger / more advanced nuclear power plants almost always cost more, so the front-end cost will be even higher than in the past. Another is that at least some risks will remain (political risk?) that have not been completely avoided by the improved design[1]. Furthermore, more advanced designs may introduce a new set of risks that will only become evident over time. Also, even if improved power plants are built in the future, it doesn’t address the problems with existing nuclear plants.
  3. Start phasing out nuclear power plants that have deficiencies. The big issue is that someone, somewhere is now using the power being generated by these plants with deficiencies. For example, the power being generated by Germany’s older nuclear power plants may not be required by Germany directly, but it is now part of the system of internationally traded electricity. A country such as Italy, which is an importer of electricity, may find it difficult to obtain as much electricity as is needed, if the older power plants are phased out. Russia could theoretically phase out some of its nuclear power plants and substitute natural gas production, but this would likely leave less natural gas for export to Europe. If the phase out is the United Kingdom (which is already experiencing a decline in North Sea natural gas), there may not be not be enough alternate sources of electricity available, so that rolling black outs will be required.
  4. Quit building new plants and phase out old plants, as soon as possible. Because of lack of good substitutes, it seems unlikely this will happen.

Given the issues involved, some combination of options (2) and (3) seem to be likely outcomes. The question, though, is what impact such a change will have on total electricity production. We have been hoping to have electricity for plug-in electric automobiles, but how can we expect that we will have enough electricity for new usages, if we are facing a possible decline in existing electrical supplies?

Figure 1. United States Electricity Generation by source, based on BP and EIA data.

For the US, nuclear amounts to 20% of electricity generation, while hydroelectric amounts to a little under 7%, other renewables (including wood, geothermal, wind, solar, and biogas) amount to 4%, and fossil fuels amount to 69% of electricity generation. If we consider total renewables (combining hydroelectric and other renewables), the percentage of US electricity from renewables has been flat to slightly declining in the past 20 years, because hydroelectric generation has been decreasing.

Figure 2. Map created by EIA showing nuclear electrical generating sites by state.

Figure 2 shows that a disproportionate share of US nuclear plants is in states along the East coast. EIA data indicates that along the East coast, 30% to 35% of electric power is generated by nuclear. If a substantial share of this production were lost because of failure to renew nuclear licenses (or some other reason), it would be difficult to replace this production with renewables. The only possible partial replacement might be with offshore wind, but offshore wind tends to be at least twice as expensive as nuclear power.

California’s two nuclear power plants are quite close to earthquake fault lines. One of the plants is rated for a 7.0 earthquake; the other, a 7.5 earthquake. Together they generate 16% of California’s power. California is already a major importer of electric power and has limited capability to import additional electric power. If California were to lose its two nuclear power plants, it might need to go to rolling blackouts to compensate for tight supplies.

Planning for the Future

One of the big questions going forward is how much electricity generation we need to plan for in 2020 or 2030. Until the recession of 2008-2009, electricity usage had grown consistently by a little over 2% per year, and most of this additional electricity was created by additional fossil fuel use[2] (see Figure 1). The rest was created by running our nuclear power plants with less and less down-time.

The question going forward is whether we can continue to ramp up electrical production by 2% or more a year, if the contribution from nuclear is declining. It may be that if nuclear production needs to be scaled back, we will need to do a major downshift in our expectations regarding future electricity consumption. This could be a real “downer,” because one of our current approaches to reducing petroleum use is to substitute electricity use for diesel or gasoline. If both electricity and petroleum consumption are constrained, then there are fewer options for substitution, and we may need to plan for a real reduction in standard of living.

If we are headed for limited electrical supply, perhaps we need to be thinking about our electrical future more carefully. Do we want to purposely limit electrical demand, or are we willing to let it continue to grow? How will we make up our shortfall in electrical production, if we phase out some of our nuclear plants? Do we continue adding more fossil fuel power plants, despite their CO2 issues? Also, at some point, we may find natural gas[3], and perhaps even coal, becoming less available. How do we deal with these issues?

If we choose to do nothing, we may very well discover at some point that electricity demand exceeds electricity production, especially in some parts of the country. Are we willing to use rolling black-outs to ration electricity if there isn’t enough to go around? Even rolling blackouts require some planning. If we are not careful, we may cut off electricity to essential infrastructure, such as natural gas and crude oil pipelines, and thus make our situation worse than it would otherwise be.

[1] Among other things, we need to make certain that spent fuel rods can be kept properly in cooling tanks, even if a political revolution is going on nearby.

[2] I checked to see whether this increase in electricity generation was offset by greater efficiency, but this did not seem to be the case. While natural gas generation was getting more efficient, efficiency of coal generation seemed to be slightly decreasing. This may reflect a combination of (1) no new coal plants being built for many years, (2) more emission controls and (3) gradually decreasing grade of fuel.

[3] See Don’t count on natural gas to solve US energy problems.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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12 Responses to Nuclear Options Going Forward

  1. Ikonoclast says:

    The interesting thing about that graph of US electricity generation is that it shows the US is already past Peak Electricity. Nuclear power will not save the day. We are already past Peak Uranium production. Thorium reactors must be breeder reactors to turn stable Thorium into an unstable isotope of Uranium. No commercial breeder reactor has ever been successful in terms of safety or cost. Breeder reactor technical problems will take 30 years solve. The safety and associated cost problems are intractable and will never be solved.

  2. Doyū Shōnin – Oregon – Doyū Shōnin is a part-time Zen hermit and farms one acre in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. A former tree planter, forest fire fighter, and timber cruiser, she retired in 2009 after twenty years at the University of Oregon and holds the M.A. in English and M.S. in Arts Management. She edited and compiled the pioneering e-text website, Renascence Editions, and she blogs at
    risa b says:

    I’d be anti-nuclear if I possibly could because I think the industry does not have my interests at heart (see under “enclosure of the commons”). That said, some things come to mind, most of which I don’t anticipate happening as we are already becoming a bit too poor to build-out solutions.

    1. 4S plants from Toshiba, or micronukes like them, could be distributed evenly throughout a smart grid.

    2. Figure out how to get the micronukes, as well as the big ones, retrofitted to a thorium cycle and use them to destroy wastes.

    3. Push onshore wind (painted lavender, I’m told, these will attract fewer birds [!!]), geothermal, wind, wave, thin-film solar, solar thermal, waste-heat captures, insulation, conservation. I’d like to see railroad and freeway rights-of-way and parking lots covered with solar. And about railroads … but of course this is not an oil post.

    4. Learn to live like Greenpa. At our house we did it for years and still apply much of what we knew then, averaging under 4KW/month — and we are in our 60s and are fond of comfort. Others can too, without much if at all inconveniencing themselves.

    5. Learn to live like Ishi. This is assuming a Dmitri Orlov scenario … which is beginning to seem likely … Okay, the thought of that makes me much more enthusiastic for the Toshiba thingeys … … no fuel rods for the future Ishis to puzzle over …

    • David Harney
      Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Risa,

      I appreciate your thoughts. I’d like to see a really comprehensive analysis of the small thorium nukes.

      I’ve often thought that one side of the x-ways could be converted to mass transit. Solar panels on the other side would be brilliant – of course, none of this will happen.

      Most folks think in the following order:

      Magical technology will certainly save god’s children – at least until the Rapture (reincarnation, whatever)
      Efficiency is improving all the time – soon oil will be irrelevant
      Conservation – like light bulbs and insulation – will keep us going for a very long time
      Curtailment (like Plan B) is un-American. Growth is critical for success.
      Americans are exceptional – our lifestyle is non-negotiable and we have the military means to prove it.

      Sadly, the western world’s “car culture”, “factory food industry”, and obsessive consumption is spreading to developing countries. How can anyone sitting in a traffic jam, heading to a day sitting in a cubicle, think that this is the epitome of human existence? How did greedy people at the top of global corporations get the masses to support their extravagant lifestyles in the name of “freedom” and “liberty”? Where did we get the idea that driving a car is somehow “normal”? How come the majority of the people in the US think the “theory” of evolution is blasphemy? Who elected all these Republicans who’s first priorities are to restrict abortion, kill unions, give money to the rich, deny global warming, etc?

      Western world culture, especially US culture, is not very well aligned with the big picture – like a well balanced planetary ecosystem that will continue to be a favorable human habitat. All this does not bode well for future generations. In fact, it does not look really swell for those of us living today.

      I have a hard time seeing how we are going to deal successfully with the challenges coming down the road of time. I also like wind, solar, greenpa, and bicycles – holding one’s breathe for these things to become mainstream could be hazardous to one’s health.

  3. Mr Pell:

    If «the government» keeps the money, at least it will serve as general revenue from a «tax» and do some good for the economy. And if the Great Unwashed wind up paying disproportionately, to the benefit of the plutocrats who believe they are the ones who deserve the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory forever, well, at least greenhouse gas emissions will be increasingly restricted. But I am not yet ready to believe that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was but a «noble experiment» that should perish from the earth. (Hey, I mishmashed Herbert Hoover & Abraham Lincoln into the same sentence!)

  4. schoff – I’ve been blessed with lots of experiences and great people in my life. I try to think deeply about what is happening around me, and right now vocationally that is manufacturing alcohol in Pennsylvania commercially.....a long road and story....
    schoff says:

    I want it all, PV, Simple Biofuel (think wood), Solar heat, Wind, Solar Furnace and nuclear and conservation. I’ll never believe in clean coal because i’ve been in too many valleys and streams in the east coast to believe the mining will be clean.

    If you want cities you are going to need large scale creation of electricity on a 24×7 base load basis, and realistically that means current nuke technology and coal for the next 10-20 years. I’m skeptical of NG/LNG availability in the medium term for even what is currently planned for conversion.

    Fundamentally I’d like to see the rooftop/yard generation of heat and electricity and de-centralize the model because I have little confidence that we will make a realistic transition in the US at the government/corporate level because the risk capital is now an issue.

    I provided a modest amount of input to the data side of the satellite business back in the 90’s, one of the problems was fitting the design/build/authorize/launch cycle into the communications technology and consumer/industrial expectation-use cycle. you could have 2.5 tech/expectations-use cycles inside one cycle of data satellite services. Corporate/Industry culture can play heavily into this as well. Think of this as non-concurrency.

    It is probable that we are seeing the edges of a concurrency problem in electric power generation. Meeting load (peak load especially) demand has some concurrency issues (many of which their culture/industry never really had to deal with):
    – what is the growth in need (formerly this was a simple math problem using fractions) as long as you ignored the grid issues for the moment
    – what are the renewable mandates of the various PUC’s
    – what are the environmental mandates of the states, and feds
    – how about quasi-competition in generation (hopefully not pseudo)
    – how about un-controlled local generation
    – and then there are black swans near or far

    Twenty years ago as a fully regulated utility, some of these issues didn’t exist, or certainly had different weightings then today.

    The political components of these cycles are probably the forcing functions (environmental laws, black swans); regardless those cycles no longer overlay the design/authorize/build/launch cycle. In fact if you took Kurzweil half seriously on solar power, aka “doubling” ever 2 years… could have a minor issue like “uncontrolled local generation” get 16 times larger in 8 years. As an engineer I would consider an order of magnitude (10x) change to be a couple of cycles in the period of time I’m moving a coal or nuclear plant to NG (one cycle).

    If I have capital, I want to be very careful how i invest it in this kind of situation, especially given my culture. It is one thing to “compete” with the state’s consumer advocate before the PUC, and another to compete with a bunch of engineers and companies from China, Germany, California, etc. The US power culture’s patron saint is Admiral Rickover and strong command and control, the other group’s patron saint is Neitzsche/Jobs and they think “I eat what you killed, after I kill you”.

  5. It does seem that We the People are between Scylla and Charybdis, with passage ahead and no going back.

    There is one definite approach, however: the Carbon Tax. It is no silver bullet; it is by no means a complete solution. But I dare venture that it is a necessary albeit not sufficient part of a workable approach. Whatever that «workable» approach is, I have no idea. («N.P.I.», as the Mexicans say.) But if the take of the Carbon Tax is redistributed back to Us the People on a count-the-noses basis, we are not only motivated to give new meaning to «energy efficiency» but we also get the wherewithal to go about it.

    Sometimes I have a nagging suspicion that the much-maligned old idea of an Energy Tax might also be appropriate, somehow.

    Meanwhile, it does appear that the only available course involves Options 2 & 3.

    Considering how long it takes to bring a nuclear power station online, it seems foolish to pin much if any hope on radically new reactor concepts. Similarly, I expect to find the design drawings for fusion power plants to come on the wings of flying pigs.

    Given the current political climate, implementation of the Carbon Tax does appear unlikely. However, it is far more feasible than other courses being bandied about, and far saner than Drill, ye Babies (or Tarriers, Whatever), Drill.

    • Ed – I am interested in energy issues.
      Ed Pell says:

      I agree completely “if the take of the Carbon Tax is redistributed back to Us the People on a count-the-noses basis”.

      But with the current deficit rate of the federal government at 2800 billion dollars per year I expect they will keep the money (2 trillion? far higher take than income tax) to partially fill this giant hole.

  6. Ed – I am interested in energy issues.
    Ed Pell says:

    Just read an article today about China getting into Thorium reactor design. India has been active in this for some time because India holds something like 50% of the worlds Thorium. Thorium is common enough for many hundreds of years.

    For myself I am a fan of the Matt Simmons’ plan: wind off-shore, wind on-shore, oil from algae/bacteria, and PV. But it seems the corporation prefer a centralized source that they own and profit from. The federal government is providing massive subsidies to the corporation involved in nuclear power. Even though there is no plan to store waste I expect nuclear will be a big part of the new energy system. Because it makes the rich richer.

  7. dan allen says:

    Great essay! It always makes me a bit sad reading your work because it frames complex issues in such a clear-headed, limit-conscious way — a way that our ‘leaders’ (for various reasons) are just incapable of doing. If only The Limits to Growth had caught on, we’d now be several decades down the road with ‘Powerdown’ — led by President Heinberg and Energy Secretary Tverberg. Sigh.

    And indeed: “If both electricity and petroleum consumption are constrained, then there are fewer options for substitution, and we may need to plan for a real reduction in standard of living.”

  8. Hi Gail

    I have been enjoying your blogs for a short time and I find them to be well thought out.

    One solution might be to use a small nat. gas turbine unit at the user such as the link that i sent to you.

    If the user had a way to use the waste heat, the efficiency would be on par or greater than a large powerplant and we would not need the transmission lines and costs

  9. mwestland
    between the lines says:

    More accurate would be “nuclear options going backward”…

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