Get Our Economics Commentary Every Week

Back to Blog

The Nuclear Mystery (Vol. 49)

mse | Apr 27, 2022

The Most Misunderstood Energy Source

We are all on the bandwagon for clean energy these days. The debate goes on and on about the best way. Can we get to clean energy with renewables? Is nuclear the answer or part of it? Will new technology save the day?

 

There is no clear cut answer, so let’s review some of  nuclear pro’s and con’s versus wind and power.  Right now, there is no large-scale potential of other ‘green’ technologies proven. Many are worked on, and eventually there will be other choices.  

 

‘Old nuclear plants’ are very expensive to build, and have long lead times. (There are, as of 2020, 444 nuclear plants in 30 countries with 63 under development, primarily in China, India, S. Korea and Russia). But, they are not economical to operate. There is concern about safety, creation of nuclear weapons, and waste storage. 

Accidents are a risk, and there have been 3 high profile accidents:  Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernoble in 1986 and Fukoshima in 2011. While these are a concern, the safety record of nuclear power is very good compared to other forms of energy production. The waste is very controlled by being encapsulated in steel and concrete and buried in the desert. It takes only a small amount of land to handle all of it.

 

The old style plants are probably not the future. Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s) are being developed and can be produced in factories and likely much less expensive and speedier production, once design is approved.  This will take a number of years to get into production. There are over 60 Companies working on these, they are all nuclear fusion, some day, nuclear fission may be the solution, but this is not practical yet.  

 

Wind and solar have advantages, but clearly cannot be the only answer because they do not generate power continuously and there is no practical way to store this energy today. Current technology in batteries will not work as the metals and minerals required do not exist today to even support an all electric vehicles society, and there are many environmental concerns with today's battery technology. (And renewables are expensive to build and require vast/tracts of land. This is another problem, to find land in acceptable locations where the public won’t reject.)  

There must be other power plants of some kind to fill in the gaps when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.  And while Trillions have been spent on these ‘renewables’ over the years, it only supplies 5% of the energy today.  

 

Examining France, Sweden, and Germany is enlightening as well.  France and Sweden, which have some of the lowest per capita carbon emissions in the developed world, both rely heavily on nuclear (72 percent and 42 percent, respectively) rather than on wind or solar power. In contrast, Germany has gone away from nuclear and coal, and heavily into wind and solar. They have not dramatically reduced carbon, and their electricity costs 5 times more than France. It is so expensive, some have actually gone to burning wood for heating and cooking.  

 

BOTTOM LINE

 

The debate is endless and full of political innuendo and fear. Nuclear should not be taboo, it should be incentivized, developed and implemented along with other technologies as they are developed and made workable. The ultimate answer is probably ‘all of the above’.

 

There are no easy answers and we will need new technology to really get to full scale low carbon power generation.  This will take decades. A Green world is not going to happen in a decade or two - it is just not possible.  In the meantime we still need reliable energy and right now, that will be a significant amount of fossil fuel, probably declining over a long period of time.  

 

LEARN ECONOMICS, THEN VOTE SMART.