Nuclear and the Renewable Energy Standard

October 18, 2010, 6:00AMANS Nuclear CafeJim Hopf

Now that more comprehensive climate change policies such as cap-and-trade are on indefinite hold, the U.S. Congress is considering a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES) in an effort to do something on energy issues. The RES would require that 15 percent of all U.S. electrical generation be provided by "renewable" sources by 2020. Currently, the definition of "renewable energy" does not include nuclear. Similar policies are already in place in many states, such as California.

As a means to achieve reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, air pollution, or foreign energy imports, an RES that excludes nuclear energy is about the worst policy one could possibly come up with. It is subjective, unfair, and is a very inefficient means for achieving the above goals. Nuclear advocates in particular should be offended by these policies since nuclear has all the benefits that renewables do with respect to the above goals, but is arbitrarily excluded from the RES. The fact that sources that have a greater negative impact on the environment than nuclear (such as trash and wood burning, and ethanol) are included in the RES while nuclear is not is particularly galling. With respect to CO2 emissions, as well as overall environmental impacts, nuclear's impact is similar to renewables, and negligible compared with fossil fuels. Thus, there is no legitimate basis for treating them differently in any energy policy.

There are many ways to reduce CO2 emissions and/or other air pollutants from the electricity sector, including conservation, renewables, nuclear, switching from coal to gas, increasing the thermal efficiency of power plants, and installing pollution control equipment (sequestration, in the case of CO2). An RES would encourage one-and only one-of the above methods. It does nothing at all to encourage any of the others. It instead requires that the one-the renewables option-be used, regardless of its cost or practicality relative to the other methods. By contrast, policies that simply limit or tax the undesired pollutants (such as cap-and-trade for CO2) even-handedly encourage all means of emissions reduction.  This even-handedness allows an objective, merit-based competition between reduction options and results in the maximum emissions reduction for the lowest cost.

RES policies will largely prevent a fair, objective market for non-emitting energy sources from developing, even if a cap-and-trade policy is also in place. Since the required renewables percentages being considered for RES policies (15 percent) are similar to the overall required CO2 emissions reductions being considered for cap-and-trade policies, the RES policy will essentially mandate that most of the emissions reductions be achieved by building new renewable capacity.

Before even thinking about what the cheapest means of emissions reduction might be, utilities will have to comply with the RES. After they do, they will be most of the way to the emissions reduction goal. Cheap carbon offsets will supply most of the rest. As a result, the promised free and fair market for non-emitting energy will never appear, and the cost for emitting CO2 will remain small to nonexistent.

In such a scenario, nuclear will end up with no economic advantage (or credit) relative to fossil fuels to reflect its huge environmental benefits, whereas renewables will be literally mandated, regardless of cost. One final impact of a large renewables mandate will be a strong incentive (or need) for any new nonrenewable generation to be gas-fired, since only gas plants can vary their output quickly to provide the necessary backup for intermittent windfarms. To add insult to injury, people will then try to argue that nuclear was given a chance to compete (under the cap-and-trade policy) and failed, when the real truth is that it was never actually given a chance to compete at all.

An RES policy is likely a bigger threat to future nuclear development than any other policy recently proposed; even worse than doing nothing at all about global warming.

When faced with arguments like those above, RES advocates say that the policy is actually more about spurring the development of new and inexhaustible energy sources (despite the fact that RES policies are being sold to the public on the basis of global warming and energy security). When examined, however, these arguments are extremely weak. We've been working on sources like solar and wind for more than 40 years now (almost as long as nuclear). Wind has already achieved significant penetration, and is fairly mature. If "newness" and lack of current development is the basis for inclusion in an RES, then the new small reactor designs (SMRs) as well as Generation IV reactors would be more qualified for inclusion in the RES than commercial wind farms, let alone things like trash burners. Uranium supplies will last for several centuries, if not for more than 1000 years, which allows more than enough time to develop "infinite" sources. Are they really saying that having a 1000-year (as opposed to infinite) fuel supply is really a concern, which justifies mandating renewables over nuclear?

For the above reasons, it should be clear that the nuclear industry should fight against an RES perhaps more strongly than any other policy that has ever come along. No policy (i.e., no RES, but also no price on CO2) at all, however, would also be pretty bad for nuclear's future, since nuclear is likely to remain at least somewhat more expensive than fossil fuels, as long as those sources are allowed to emit CO2 and other pollutants directly into the environment for free, while nuclear is held to impeccable standards. While a limit or cost on CO2 emissions would be best, this is not likely to happen, for the foreseeable future. Subsidies can only go so far (before the drain on the public purse is no longer tolerated) and will, at best, result in the construction of the first few nuclear plants.

With respect to tangibly supporting nuclear's future development, it appears that the best possibility may be to try to get nuclear included in a "Clean Energy Standard" (CES). The idea would be to have new nuclear build qualify as a "clean" source. This "CES" policy would be used in lieu of the RES. This would at least allow nuclear to compete fairly with renewables. Having nuclear included in such a standard is something that our industry should throw all its weight behind.

Many moderate and/or Republican senators have said that nuclear incentives are necessary to win their support of climate change policies in general. The support of these same senators will be necessary to get any type of energy standard policies passed. Also, senators from the Southeast, where solar and wind resources are poor, do not support a (renewable only) RES, but are much more supportive of a CES policy that includes nuclear. For example, Lamar Alexander is currently making a high-profile effort to replace the RES policy now being discussed in congress with a CES policy that includes nuclear. He is saying that such a change will be necessary for his support. The nuclear industry should focus its efforts on convincing these senators to stand their ground on this issue, perhaps using some of the arguments given above. This would force supporters of the RES to compromise.

One compromise might be to allow some fraction of the mandated non-emitting generation percentage be specifically set aside for renewables, which may alleviate fears in the (politically powerful) renewables industry that utilities would choose nuclear for almost all of the required non-emitting generation. An example would be a required non-emitting generation percentage of 20 percent, where 5 percent-10 percent would have to be renewables.

One final idea, which could be pursued if all else fails, would be to try and get SMRs to qualify for a portfolio standard. They definitely qualify as a new, innovative, undeveloped technology (that some say is the real purpose of energy standard policies).  Also, there has been a lot of buzz about SMRs lately, and they seem to be very popular with the public and policymakers. They're even more palatable to some nuclear opponents, for whom the large size of nukes is one of the main turnoffs. This could be a political winner. It could also help spur a new, strategic U.S. industry.


Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer at EnergySolutions, with 20 years' experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems.  He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10 years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee.  He is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

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