Speaking about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the role of nuclear power generally, Michael Chertoff (I didn’t do the booking, so I don’t know either) told Christiane Amanpour on ABC that “At the end of the day, if we don’t use coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear, we’re going to be sitting around the fire trying to warm ourselves like we did eons ago.”
Once again, we have a public official ignoring renewables completely. To his credit, Bill Richardson did mention renewables (lumping in natural gas with that). But in general, this is how we’ve seen the debate play out in America – you either can burn coal, drill for oil, or build nuclear plants. There is no alternative.
If pressed on this, typically the response is something about the cost-prohibitive nature of renewables, although you have to ignore the cost of cleanups and environmental degradation and the cost in human lives to make that case. But you also hear that renewables are good, but they can’t carry the load alone, and that nuclear must be part of that overall mix. But David Roberts finds a new study which argues that, actually, we may have to choose between nuclear and renewables:
Here, in helpfully condensed form, are the four principal arguments:
1. Competition for limited investment funds. A euro, dollar or yuan can only be spent once and it should be spent for the options that provide the largest emission reductions the fastest. Nuclear power is not only one of the most expensive but also the slowest option.
2. Overcapacity kills efficiency incentives. Centralized, large power-generation units tend to lead to structural overcapacities. Overcapacities leave no room for efficiency.
3. Flexible complementary capacity needed. Increasing levels of renewable electricity sources will need flexible, medium-load complementary facilities and not inflexible, large, baseload power plants.
4. Future grids go both ways. Smart metering, smart appliances and smart grids are on their way. The logic is an entirely redesigned system where the user gets also a generation and storage function. This is radically different from the top-down centralized approach.
Roberts adds that distributed innovation in the renewable sphere would wind up generating more electricity in the long run than the long, slow process of building static, stationary nuclear plants. Once you dedicate resources – and you’d have to dedicate a lot – to nuclear, you sap capital away from greentech that is needed to further that innovation.
Roberts isn’t totally convinced that the dichotomy is this stark. But I think we can say that, once the rhetoric leaves renewables out of the conversation, it will be impossible to bring them back into it. Nuclear plants are very large power generators and they eat up a lot of public and private dollars. The commitment there would not be easily reversed. And in the wake of Fukushima Daiichi, we have to think hard about that commitment.
[Editor’s Note: This clip is the entire segment with Chertoff, Richardson and Amanpour.]