By John Smigelski
John is a resident of San Luis Obispo. He is a member of the SLO Climate Coalition and the California Alliance for Community Energy. He earned a BS in Engineering and MBA. His career was spent in the utility and energy industry.
It has been suggested by some that nuclear energy has an important role to play in fighting climate change by presenting it as carbon free electricity. In calling it carbon free, they ignore the amount of energy required to extract and process uranium to make fuel for the nuclear reactors. Also neglected is the energy needed to isolate the radioactive waste for 10,000+ years. Even if nuclear power was carbon free, it isn’t the answer to climate change.
Climate scientists believe there is an urgent need for action NOW. We can’t wait 10 to15 years into the future before we cut our carbon emissions. Energy efficiency and conservation are the best options, as they provide almost immediate results. Solar and wind can help us near term. But nuclear power really can’t help, and here’s why.
I asked a retired Nuclear Regulatory Commission Adjudicatory Law Judge how long it would take to license and build a new nuclear power plant. The answer: Once ready to begin the process, it would take a minimum of six years, likely longer. That is a long time to wait for “carbon free” energy. But the time required to build the plant is only part of the problem. Another problem is “energy debt.”
All generating sources vary in the time and energy required to build before they can produce the energy. They also vary in the time it takes to produce the energy needed to build them. Only after they produce the energy required to build them can they truly make a contribution to reducing carbon emissions.
I have read studies showing various estimates of the time needed to produce the energy required to build generation facilities. Wind farms are the best. I have seen estimates as short as six months, but 12 to 18 months is more typical. Solar is next, averaging two to three years. When tied to a battery, it takes longer. For nuclear power plants, it is over six years.
A nuclear plant requires a large amount of concrete, high alloy steel and other speciality metals, structural steel, copper, etc. for construction of the physical plant. All require energy to be produced. Also needed are the turbine generator, condenser, pumps, cranes, piping…. the list goes on. Making all the components and building the nuclear power plant requires significant amounts of energy. People from all over the country would need to work on this project for at least six years.
Do the math. Construction of a nuclear energy plant takes 6+ years and it takes another 6+ years to repay the energy debt. That takes us to 2035 before a new nuclear power plant can make a contribution of “carbon free” energy – too late to really help alleviate our crisis.
But you really cannot ignore the substantial amount of energy needed to produce nuclear fuel. Considerable energy is used in mining, milling, refining, and transporting uranium ore. The lower the quality the ore, the more energy is required. Does that add three years, four years to the time before it can offset the energy deficit? 2040, 2050? There is some question as to whether a nuclear plant can ever pay off the energy required to build it if the ore is of poor quality.
So what about the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant? Should we just keep it running as Governor Newsom is suggesting? NO! It is uneconomical to operate. In the 2020 General Rate case, in response to the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility discovery request, Pacific Gas & Electric disclosed data that enabled us to learn the cost of producing energy from Diablo. The energy produced is so expensive, it exceeded the market price by $1.25 Billion in 2020. If this were a business that was not protected by the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E would have lost $1.25 Billion/year. The plant would have been closed long ago. Instead, everyone in Pacific Gas & Electric territory – whether with a Community Choice Program or not – foots the bill for this uneconomic facility that can no longer compete in the marketplace. The sooner the plant shuts down, the sooner $1.25 Billion a year can be better spent. I can think of much more effective uses for that $1.25 billion a year: environmental justice, community microgrids, truly clean energy resources. Chasing a Federal government subsidy that will likely benefit PG&E stockholders while customers pay for an uneconomic facility does not make economic sense.