The most recent international séance on climate change, finishing today in Glasgow, largely resembles many of the earlier ones – hysterical warnings of existential threats to the planet; demonization of the fossil fuels that, literally, fuel the vast majority of the world's economies; and kicking the can down the road on commitments to decarbonize (India just committed to goals to be met by 2070). And, of course, no climate change conclave would be complete without pontification from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and a stern scolding from dysphoric, cheerless teenage activist Greta Thunberg.
Perhaps appropriately, the event as usual produced more heat than light, and once again, what could prove to be the single most important strategy – a marked increase in the role of nuclear power as one of the "green technologies" – was ignored. At home and abroad, American politicians routinely play their part in this environmental kabuki, peddling apocalypse and demanding that Americans accept skyrocketing gasoline and home heating costs, rolling blackouts and brownouts, endless subsidies for uneconomic vehicles and power generation, and on and on. Although the U.S. contribution to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is substantial (around 15% of the world's total in 2015), it is falling, and by 2025, those emissions could be 14%-18% below 2005 levels. Rather than accept the progress brought about by technology and ingenuity, our leaders want the U.S. to put on a self-destructive show to impress the rest of the world.
Wishful thinking and flawed assumptions are the order of the day, often relying on climate models that exhibit the typical "garbage in, garbage out" flaws that make models little more than directional guesses. For example, most models assume that humans will fail to adapt to changing conditions that allow floodwaters to rise without mitigation measures, wildfires to burn without forest management and farms to fail by refusing to alter the crop mix.
Compounding the uncertainties, many countries are underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations. An examination of 196 country reports by the Washington Post revealed significant gaps between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are actually releasing into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions.
Either in the interest of ideology or profit, climate activists promote wind and solar solutions despite the enormous carbon footprint to manufacture them, the intermittency of their energy production, and their inefficient use of resources and land. Rather than accept the proven utility of fossil fuel backup, they prefer to consign us to unreliable power grids. Or they overlook the monstrous costs and pollution required to manufacture and dispose of batteries for energy storage on top of what is needed for electric vehicles.
These costs are far from trivial; and in addition, wind and solar power create extreme intrinsic unreliability, as illustrated by the catastrophic West Texas freeze last winter, when renewable power sources and natural gas equipment failed. While there are hints of breakthroughs in utility-scale electrical storage – the recently publicized but unproven "iron-air" array, for example – the reality is that creating resilience is expensive and magnifies the battery production challenges. Given battery costs of $100 per kWh and a typical turbine output over four days of 36-72 megawatt-hours, a single wind turbine backup battery would cost $3.6 million to $7.2 million. There are 11,000 West Texas wind turbines, so backup costs are in the billions.
There was already a huge challenge in just making enough EV batteries. As physicist Mark Mills pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: "The [International Energy Agency] finds that with a global energy transition like the one (President Joe) Biden envisions, demand for key minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel and rare-earth metals would explode, rising by 4,200%, 2,500%, 1,900% and 700%, respectively, by 2040."
Not only might the planet not have the capacity to meet this demand, but many of these materials come from places that are hostile or that we do not control – such as China/Mongolia, the Congo, and Bolivia – leading to an unpredictable supply.
The environmental impact of battery production is significant. The production of lithium is either carbon dioxide polluting or wasteful of water — up to 500,000 gallons per ton of the mineral. Cobalt mining produces radioactive contaminants, including uranium. About 80% of the weight of a Tesla battery – 1,200 pounds gross – requires mined materials. In practice, that means mining about 100,000 pounds or 50 tons of raw ore per vehicle. If 10 million U.S.-based electric cars are sold in 2030 (about half of sales), that would translate to 500 million tons of new mining with all the accompanying emissions from mining equipment and the accompanying pollution. To put that in context, current U.S. coal mining is about 700 million tons per year.
It is easy to ignore these realities and set pie-in-the-sky goals while frightening the public into accepting them. Biden's expansive commitments and the IPCC's alarmist report (August 2021) on climate change are cases in point. But perhaps the single greatest sin is the demonization of nuclear power, including the decommissioning of existing nuclear plants that are still serviceable. Significant advances in nuclear power plant design that have improved efficiency and safety have been ignored.
Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear-engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has cited findings from the IPCC (Figures 7.6 and 7.7) that over the lifecycle of power plants – which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste – per quantity of energy, the GHG emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar. According to him ("Nuclear Energy: The Need For Radical Innovation," Nuclear Energy Talk for Nuclear Science and Engineering Alumni, June 8, 2021), nuclear also requires 2,000 times less land than wind and nearly 400 times less than solar. For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to construct a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm.
Although nuclear waste is obviously more difficult to dispose of – a problem that must be solved but is frequently used as a convenient excuse – its volume is 1/10,000th of the waste of solar, and 1/500th of wind. This includes abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills. According to Buongiorno, a person's lifetime use of nuclear power would produce a total of only about 75 ounces of waste. (And much of that could be recyclable.) Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.
A comprehensive analysis conducted at MIT in 2018 concluded that although a number of low- or zero-carbon technologies can be advantageously employed in various combinations, nuclear is virtually essential as a contributing low-carbon technology. Without it, "the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly." That is transparently a hedge against admitting it would be almost impossible to decarbonize without it.
Despite that promise, the traditional nuclear option has become increasingly costly, while other green technologies have become less expensive, often due to subsidies. The MIT analysis makes several important recommendations to reverse that trend. For example:
- An increased focus on using proven project and construction management practices – to decrease the probability of delays and other problems in getting new nuclear power plants online. This entails using proven supply chains and workers, and obtaining cooperation and flexibility from regulators to accommodate minor, unanticipated, needed changes in design and
- A shift away from primarily field construction of cumbersome, highly site-dependent construction of power plants to more serial, or assembly-line, manufacturing of standardized plants. The MIT analysis suggests that this should make use of "an array of cross-cutting technologies, including modular construction in factories and shipyards, advanced concrete solutions (e.g., steel-plate composites, high-strength reinforcement steel, ultra-high-performance concrete), seismic isolation technology, and advanced plant layouts (e.g., embedment, offshore siting), could have positive impacts on the cost and schedule of new nuclear power plant construction."
- A shift toward reactor designs that incorporate inherent and passive safety features. We can make the operation of plants simpler and improve the resiliency to human errors with core materials that have high chemical and physical stability, and high heat capacity, along with automated safety systems that require limited or no emergency AC power and minimal external
- Tweaks to the current regulatory framework to improve the speed and efficacy of licensing reviews. Serially produced, assembly-line production of small reactors should enable regulators to streamline approvals.
- "Decarbonization policies should create a level playing field that allows all low-carbon generation technologies to compete on their merits" (per the MIT 2018 analysis). In other words, put government support of nuclear power on equal footing with the subsidies and other favorable treatment provided to other green technologies and fossil fuels.
- Increased government funding of programs for prototype testing and commercial
deployment of advanced reactor designs. This funding could take several forms: (a) sharing research and development costs, (b) funding directed at attaining specific technical milestones, (c) offsetting some production costs for innovative designs, and (d) defraying some regulatory licensing and compliance costs.
There are many nuclear technologies being investigated and funded by private capital, including molten-salt reactors, liquid-metal reactors, advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), microreactors and quite a few more. More than 70 development projects are under way in the U.S., with many designs intended to create assembly-line construction facilities to simplify and standardize testing, licensing and installations. One promising approach is to replace large-scale facilities in favor of many smaller but safer, cheaper, and more manageable ones. The $10 billion, 10-year planning and implementation cycle for a large nuclear plant can be cut in half with an SMR and halved again with a microreactor.
SMRs could be deployed today if we could surmount the negative propaganda about the nuclear industry. Microreactors could generate between 1 and 20 megawatts of power (enough to provide electricity to 500 to 20,000 homes) while needing to refuel only once every five to 10 years. They are air-cooled, capable of being shut down rapidly with no risk of radioactive release, and occupy very small spaces. The low volume of waste could easily be transported safely to a storage site as compared to the more concentrated volume from larger facilities.
If we can get past the political hurdles, microreactors can be used in diverse applications such as charging stations for electrical vehicles and propulsion for large commercial ships. They could also power data centers; large, energy-intensive factories; desalination plants and more. Heat generation is essential for many manufacturing processes, and microreactors can provide that directly without burning fossil fuels. It is worth noting that the U.S. Navy has employed shipboard nuclear reactors for more than 50 years with no significant problems or mishaps. (Currently, there are 83 nuclear-powered ships in service – 72 submarines, 10 aircraft carriers and one research vessel.)
Nuclear power is cheap, efficient, extremely reliable, and nearly carbon-free. New designs, including smaller reactors, drastically reduce the risk of large-scale radioactive contamination.
We need to stop wasting trillions of dollars on strategies that punish American citizens and businesses while China and India increase their greenhouse-gas emissions. The U.S. could set an example for the world with the ultimate infrastructure project: building and deploying advanced nuclear power plants that painlessly accelerate our decarbonization. We think the path to the future should be based on science instead of senseless sacrifice.
Note: This op-ed is similar to but more in-depth than an analysis the authors recently published in the Wall Street Journal.
Dr. Miller is a physician and molecular biologist, and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Andrew Fillat, who trained as an electrical engineer, has worked for technology venture-capital and information-technology companies. They were undergraduates together at MIT.