We are at a crossroads with respect to nuclear energy, having discovered a new way (or several new ways) that nuclear plants can fail.
How do we deal with such a situation? There seem to be several options, but all seem to have drawbacks.
1. Business as usual. Continue building nuclear reactors as in the past. This is pretty clearly not going to work, because citizens are worried about the situation in Japan, and want to make certain a similar situation doesn’t happen near where they live. At a minimum, citizens want a re-examination of the risks involved, so as to try to prevent future radioactive releases.
2. Build stronger / more advanced nuclear power plants in the future, in an attempt to avoid the newly discovered problems. One problem with this approach is that stronger / more advanced nuclear power plants almost always cost more, so the front-end cost will be even higher than in the past. Another is that at least some risks will remain (political risk?) that have not been completely avoided by the improved design. Furthermore, more advanced designs may introduce a new set of risks that will only become evident over time. Also, even if improved power plants are built in the future, it doesn’t address the problems with existing nuclear plants.
3. Start phasing out nuclear power plants that have deficiencies. The big issue is that someone, somewhere is now using the power being generated by these plants with deficiencies. For example, the power being generated by Germany’s older nuclear power plants may not be required by Germany directly, but it is now part of the system of internationally traded electricity. A country such as Italy, which is an importer of electricity, may find it difficult to obtain as much electricity as is needed, if the older power plants are phased out. Russia could theoretically phase out some of its nuclear power plants and substitute natural gas production, but this would likely leave less natural gas for export to Europe. If the phase out is the United Kingdom (which is already experiencing a decline in North Sea natural gas), there may not be not be enough alternate sources of electricity available, so that rolling black outs will be required.
4. Quit building new plants and phase out old plants, as soon as possible. Because of lack of good substitutes, it seems unlikely this will happen.
Given the issues involved, some combination of options (2) and (3) seem to be likely outcomes. The question, though, is what impact such a change will have on total electricity production. We have been hoping to have electricity for plug-in electric automobiles, but how can we expect that we will have enough electricity for new usages, if we are facing a possible decline in existing electrical supplies?
For the US, nuclear amounts to 20% of electricity generation, while hydroelectric amounts to a little under 7%, other renewables (including wood, geothermal, wind, solar, and biogas) amount to 4%, and fossil fuels amount to 69% of electricity generation. If we consider total renewables (combining hydroelectric and other renewables), the percentage of US electricity from renewables has been flat to slightly declining in the past 20 years, because hydroelectric generation has been decreasing.
Figure 2. Map created by EIA showing nuclear electrical generating sites by state.
Figure 2 shows that a disproportionate share of US nuclear plants is in states along the East coast. EIA data indicates that along the East coast, 30% to 35% of electric power is generated by nuclear. If a substantial share of this production were lost because of failure to renew nuclear licenses (or some other reason), it would be difficult to replace this production with renewables. The only possible partial replacement might be with offshore wind, but offshore wind tends to be at least twice as expensive as nuclear power.
California’s two nuclear power plants are quite close to earthquake fault lines. One of the plants is rated for a 7.0 earthquake; the other, a 7.5 earthquake. Together they generate 16% of California’s power. California is already a major importer of electric power and has limited capability to import additional electric power. If California were to lose its two nuclear power plants, it might need to go to rolling blackouts to compensate for tight supplies.
Planning for the Future
One of the big questions going forward is how much electricity generation we need to plan for in 2020 or 2030. Until the recession of 2008-2009, electricity usage had grown consistently by a little over 2% per year, and most of this additional electricity was created by additional fossil fuel use (see Figure 1). The rest was created by running our nuclear power plants with less and less down-time.
The question going forward is whether we can continue to ramp up electrical production by 2% or more a year, if the contribution from nuclear is declining. It may be that if nuclear production needs to be scaled back, we will need to do a major downshift in our expectations regarding future electricity consumption. This could be a real “downer,” because one of our current approaches to reducing petroleum use is to substitute electricity use for diesel or gasoline. If both electricity and petroleum consumption are constrained, then there are fewer options for substitution, and we may need to plan for a real reduction in standard of living.
If we are headed for limited electrical supply, perhaps we need to be thinking about our electrical future more carefully. Do we want to purposely limit electrical demand, or are we willing to let it continue to grow? How will we make up our shortfall in electrical production, if we phase out some of our nuclear plants? Do we continue adding more fossil fuel power plants, despite their CO2 issues? Also, at some point, we may find natural gas, and perhaps even coal, becoming less available. How do we deal with these issues?
If we choose to do nothing, we may very well discover at some point that electricity demand exceeds electricity production, especially in some parts of the country. Are we willing to use rolling black-outs to ration electricity if there isn’t enough to go around? Even rolling blackouts require some planning. If we are not careful, we may cut off electricity to essential infrastructure, such as natural gas and crude oil pipelines, and thus make our situation worse than it would otherwise be.
 Among other things, we need to make certain that spent fuel rods can be kept properly in cooling tanks, even if a political revolution is going on nearby.
 I checked to see whether this increase in electricity generation was offset by greater efficiency, but this did not seem to be the case. While natural gas generation was getting more efficient, efficiency of coal generation seemed to be slightly decreasing. This may reflect a combination of (1) no new coal plants being built for many years, (2) more emission controls and (3) gradually decreasing grade of fuel.