As I was mulling over a story in the Wall Street Journal the other day, concerning the difficulties faced by companies seeking to re-license existing nuclear power plants in some parts of the country, it occurred to me that the nuclear industry might be missing a key message in this effort. Rather than merely portraying these facilities as beneficial producers of clean electricity, perhaps they should consider describing them as members of an endangered species, one that fills a vital ecological niche. When you consider the intensity of the campaigns against facilities such as Indian Point in New York State, the licenses for which expire in 2013 and 2015, "endangered" seems like a fair characterization. However, I don't expect to see many cars plastered with "Save the Nukes!" bumper stickers.
Despite the growth of wind and grid-connected solar power, the nation's 104 operating nuclear power plants generated two-thirds of our CO2-free electricity--and 19% of all US electricity--last year. The newest of these plants entered service in 1996 and the oldest in 1969. Even if the pending applications to build new reactors are approved, the first new plant would not enter service before the licenses for most of the 53 plants built before 1980 would expire, forcing them to shut down if not renewed. That would have severe economic and environmental consequences.
If you regard our energy economy as an artificial ecology, nuclear power occupies a key niche within it, as our largest source of low-emissions, baseload electricity. In fact, only three other currently-available technologies can furnish power meeting both of these criteria: "clean coal" with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), large-scale hydropower, and geothermal energy. None of these is in a position to substitute for nuclear power at this point, at least in the US. Coal with CCS looks expensive and remains unproven at industrial scales. Essentially all of the sites for large hydro-electric dams have been used, and the trend is toward dam removal. And while geothermal power looks very promising, sites for conventional (natural steam) geothermal are limited, and advanced (dry rock) geothermal is not ready for prime time.
Nor can wind and solar power substitute for nuclear power, should any of the existing plants be shut down, at least not without the provision of power storage on a scale that is simply not yet practical, in order to buffer the intermittent output of wind, and shift the cyclic output of solar to match the power demand, or "dispatch curve." Without cheap storage, replacing the annual generation from Indian Point would require roughly 1,800 3.6 MW wind turbines. That's about 45 times the size of the recently-cancelled Long Island wind farm project.
It won't surprise my readers to learn that I was never "anti-nuke", though like many people I had virtually written off nuclear power on economic grounds for most of the 1980s and '90s. Climate change and the increasing competition for limited oil resources alters that analysis. When faced with the choice between sequestering billions of tons per year of carbon from new and existing coal-fired power plants, or a few thousand tons of radioactive waste, the challenges of the latter look a lot more manageable in the long term. Endangered nuclear power plants aren't as appealing as "charismatic mega-fauna", but the prospect of losing the output of the existing plants looks about as bad as losing the polar bears--and the two are not unrelated.