The Nuclear Comeback

Submitted by R-Squared Energy Blog

The natural gas crisis caused by the cutoff of supplies from Russia earlier in the year crystallized for many nations the threat of being overly dependent on another country for their energy supplies. Over the past decades, countries in Europe have shut down nuclear reactors, which caused them to turn to other energy supplies – like gas from Russia. Bulgaria began pushing for a return to nuclear power during the crisis, and concerns over gas supplies have already prompted Germany to reverse course and change their stance on phasing out nuclear power.

Italy has decided that this seems to be a prudent course of action:

After a 20-year ban, France helps Italy embrace nuclear energy

MILAN, ITALY – Twenty years after banning new nuclear plants, Italy is turning to France to restore its nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a cooperation deal with President Nicolas Sarkozy for the construction of four power plants in Italy.

Italy shut down its four nuclear plants following a 1987 national referendum that rode a wave of fear and outrage over Russia’s Chernobyl reactor meltdown. Now it is joining a growing number of European countries – including Germany, Slovakia, and Bulgaria – that are returning to nuclear energy due to concerns both about carbon emissions and about the reliability of energy supplies from Russia.

Even without the gas crisis, this was inevitable because the long-term supply situation isn’t overly favorable for Europe. It is inevitable that the UK will turn back to nuclear power in a big way (lest their citizens freeze as fossil fuel supplies deplete) and it is inevitable that we in the U.S. will expand nuclear power in a big way in the decades ahead.

Regular readers know that I strongly favor an expansion of renewable energy, but renewable electricity is starting from a very small base. Electricity produced from renewables (minus hydropower) is less than 3% of total U.S. electricity production, and even with aggressive growth projections that is unlikely to change dramatically. Why? Total renewable electricity production in 2007 hit an all-time high of 105.3 million megawatt-hours. The growth over 2006 was impressive; almost 10 million megawatt-hours. (2008 numbers aren’t yet complete, but it looks like they will be about 10 million megawatt-hours than 2007). Yet the average annual growth of electricity demand over the previous 10 years was 66 million megawatt hours. At that rate, renewable electricity production could quadruple in the next 5 years and just about cover historical demand growth.

So if we are serious about moving away from coal, I believe we will have to expand nuclear power. We would need to add renewables at six times our current rate just to keep up with historical growth rates. Displacing much coal is out of the question unless demand can be curtailed. As I have said before, I am not opposed to nuclear power by any means. I understand that there are environmental issues that aren’t completely resolved. But you can make that case for just about any energy source.

I do know one thing about human nature, though. When energy starts to become sufficiently expensive – as gasoline did last summer – environmental concerns will take a back seat to economic concerns. Look no further than the popularity of the ‘drill here, drill now‘ campaign. This was one issue where John McCain did get some traction during the presidential campaign. If gas is $1.50 a gallon, people are concerned about the environmental impacts of expanded drilling. At $4.00 a gallon, they are prepared to let you drill in their back yard.

The same will be true of nuclear power. Opposition will be inversely proportional to the cost of electricity.

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