Nuclear Power: If you really care about CO2!!!

One very frustrating and confusing part of the global warming debate is the idea that renewable energy can replace fossil fuel for energy.  The focus is on “green” energy like wind, solar and some support for hydroelectric.  Certainly the focus is on wind and solar power.  The problem is that these are very unreliable sources of energy.  Anyone who considers CO2 as the greatest threat to mankind must accept nuclear power.  There is no viable alternative.  Nothing else even comes close.  So it really bothers me when warmists oppose nuclear power.  It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the real world.  It is not possible to take global warming seriously from anyone who does not support nuclear power.

Source of US electrical production. DOE through Wikipedia

Here is why nuclear power is the only option.  Not the best option, the ONLY option.  There are currently 104 active nuclear reactors in the United States at about 70 sites.  These reactors produce ~20% of the electric power consumed by the country each year.  The 104 nuclear reactors produces slightly less than 1 Gigawatt (GW) of electricity.  That puts the total constant capacity at 100 GW of electricity.  The amazing thing is that all of the nuclear plants in the United States are more than 30 years old.  Modern reactors can easily provide more power per plant.  Simply doubling the number of plants could easily put the total production to over 50% of the US consumption.

Cost is usually cited as a problem for nuclear plants, but that is a very deceptive problem.  Over the lifetime of a nuclear power plant (they can easily exceed 50 years) they are cheaper than almost every other source of electricity.  Only hydroelectric can really compete in the long run with nuclear power for price.

The Inconvenient Skeptic

Cost for the different types of electrical generation. US. Department of Energy

Nuclear power is only slightly more costly than coal plants.  The average electric bill would barely change over current if nuclear power was put into place.  That is not true for wind and solar.  Wind power would cost about 1.5x nuclear power and going solar would increase a persons electric bill by about 4x.  The average current US electric bill is $1152 per year.

Nuclear Power Electric Bill = $1428/yr

Wind  Power   Electric  Bill = $2067/yr

Solar  Power   Electric  Bill  = $4085/yr

Despite the propaganda of saving the world, the simple fact is that this would cripple the US economy to go wind or solar for generating electricity.  The cost of manufacturing would go up enormously and more jobs would be lost in the United States.  The cost of installing nuclear could be significantly lower as well if more reactors were located at the same site.  That is the advantage of density.  An aircraft carrier can fit 2 nuclear plants inside of it.  An acre of land can easily produce more that a GW of nuclear power compared to a few MW per acre.  The overall land use is almost 1000 times greater for nuclear power.

Especially when the capacity factor is included.  That is what percentage of the time is the source producing electricity.  Nuclear plants are online most of the time.  Maintenance can be done when demand is low and the plant can operate at maximum capacity when it is needed in the summer months.  It is far easier to control when nuclear power is not producing.  There is no control over wind and solar power.  Summer is the time when many places experience the lowest wind speed.  Summer feels hotter because there is less wind to cool.  With wind power, the time the energy is needed most is when there is the least power available.  Solar does provide the best energy when needed.

The US currently needs 500 GW of total generating capacity.  The total needed nuclear capacity to fill the entire amount is 555 GW.  Roughly 5.5 times the current installed capacity.  That is because it is available 90% of the time.  It could likely get by with less as plants could capacity share when demand was low, but better to have the extra capacity.  In order to totally provide the current US capacity by a single non-carbon source it would take the following change in the available source.

Nuclear Installed Capacity = 555 GW.   5.5 times the current amount.  (90% capacity factor)

Wind  Installed Capacity = 1429 GW.    41 times the current amount.   (35% capacity factor. 75% land, 25% off-shore)

Solar  Installed Capacity = 2304 GW.     109  times the current amount. (21% capacity factor)

Again the wind capacity would likely need to be higher because the summer has lower wind speeds than the average.  Nuclear power would require far less installed capacity.  The cost of maintaining the other installed capacity would be enormous because so much extra capacity would be needed to provide the peak power needed.

Fear and nuclear waste are the biggest factors against nuclear power.  Fear is the most unreasonable one.  Nuclear has the safest record of any source of power.  The number of major accidents worldwide is exactly two.  The last one in 1986 when the fatally flawed design in use in Chernobyl exploded.  No modern plants use a design that could fail in the manner that Chernobyl did.  The other factor of safety is the US Navy.  The Navy trains 18-20 year olds for a couple of years and then they are the main operators of the largest group of mobile nuclear reactors on military targets.  The operational safety record for the nuclear reactors in the Navy is superb.  Again, the issue is design.  Faulty designs that were in use by the Soviet (then Russian) navy were to blame.  Nuclear reactors that are properly designed are very safe.  Any unsafe design is a problem.  More people died in the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse which was a design flaw that all the nuclear power plant accidents in history.

Nuclear waste is the final concern with nuclear power.  Again, this is more lack of understanding than reality.  The key is the volume of radioactive waste that is created.  Especially when only the high level waste is considered.  3% of the waste contains 95% of the radioactivity.  That amount of waste can be reduced by using different types of reactors.  Breeder reactors allow recycling of the most radioactive part of the waste so it is re-used.  Modern nuclear reactors can now operate for more than 30 years before refueling is needed.

The small challenges facing nuclear power are insignificant when compared to the benefits.  Anyone who is concerned about CO2 should be enthusiastically supporting nuclear power.  I am not concerned with CO2 and I still support nuclear power.  It is cleaner and safer and much better in the long run.

Posted in Bad Science and Skeptic by inconvenientskeptic on January 29th, 2011 at 4:09 pm.


This post has 10 comments

  1. T.G.Watkins Jan 30th 2011

    Agreed! Nothing else to say really except I enjoy all your perceptive posts.
    Please send this particular gem to Chris Huhne our completely scientifically illiterate Minister for Energy and Environment.
    Can I refer your many readers to an official UK energy site dcurtis/NETA.html
    Note the contribution of wind (installed capacity 4.2 GW) and even funnier the contribution of the interconnectors from France(nuclear) and Ireland.
    May I also refer your readers to an excellent essay from William Tucker (from the climate realists blog) explaining E=MC^2.
    If you have time, can you review Liquid Fluoride THORIUM reactors. I can only find positive articles or neg. ones from people with vested interests. An unbiased view would be helpful for my limited understanding.
    Regards G.

  2. Rob Honeycutt Jan 30th 2011

    Nope. I think most people who are concerned about climate change think we need all possible solutions. We only object to those dismiss wind and solar and claim nuclear as some kind of panacea.

  3. inconvenientskeptic Jan 30th 2011


    Nuclear is certainly not a panacea, but it is the best long term, low cost reliable source of electricity available. The “green” solutions are less reliable and cost more.

  4. inconvenientskeptic Jan 30th 2011


    Nuclear power is a form of steam engine. The different types of reactors are simply different methods of using the heat released from the natural decay of radioactive material to heat a substance (like water, but not always) that will then run a steam turbine in the same manner as a coal or gas power plant.

    Newer technology like the liquid fluoride thorium reactors create less radioactive waste through more efficient use of the fuel and even create the fuel for future energy. A very efficient form of recycling. I will try to cover more details of the different reactors in the future though.

  5. Alan D McIntire Jan 31st 2011

    Although I’m in favor of nuclear energy, I suspect that even switching 100% to nuclear energy would have no effect on AGW temperature statistics.

    We have most of our thermometers where people live. People
    mostly live in urban areas.
    Some temperature measurements will be measuring growth of urban areas
    rather than effects of greenhouse gases:

    and some is measuring trends in lower evaporation due to paving and
    building over large areas,
    leaving less room for the cooling effects of the latent heat of

    Most people are aware that the world’s population has quadrupled,
    from about 1.6 billion to about
    6.5 billion in the last century. , and urban populations have more
    than quadrupled. The world’s energy use has gone up by a factor of
    10 over the last century, again most of that increase being in
    urban areas. I get a rough estimate of 0.26 watts per square meter
    heat energy produced. Assuming that 3% of the land surface is
    Urban, and 30% of the earth’s surface is land, I get
    29 watts per square meter assuming most of that heat is produced in
    urban areas. And that has
    gone up by a factor of 10 since 1900. Nuclear energy is still energy, use will be concentrated in urban areas, and energy use will continue to go up.

  6. T.G.Watkins Jan 31st 2011

    Thanks John. I’ve visited the energy from thorium website but a balanced view of the pros and cons and practical details would be interesting.
    Coincidentally, there is a post today on WUWT on LFTRs.
    Of course I read your contribution.

  7. Ken Sharples Jan 31st 2011

    The developing world is leaving us behind, according to there are 65 reactors
    under construction China …27
    that’s 48 leaving 17 for the rest of the World.
    In Europe only France..1 has any under construction.
    Also China has just lately anounced it is going ahead
    with plans to build and test a Thorium Reactor.
    Knowing the Chinese, I expect them to have one up
    and running in 12 or 15 years.
    We are being left behind.

  8. If we are to produce the power that this continent needs and do it in a way that reduces CO2 (not a pollutant) and other emissions (why don’t the greenies talk about carbon and sulphurous particulate matter?), then there is no other cost viable choice but nuclear. Wind and solar may be suitable for small scale production (private homes and businesses where the costs are assumed directly by the people using the power – they own the turbines or PV panels – rather than the public at large). For sheer volume of power generated there is no curent technology that can beat nuclear.

    The fears about nuclear are not rational. Clear and rational thought must drive the debate so that we can move forward with meanginful and long term solutions to our power generation needs.

  9. Rob Honeycutt Jan 31st 2011

    John… Nuclear and renewables are just two ways to skin the same cat (the cat being CO2). You can’t deny that there are downsides to nuclear. Nuclear takes quite a while to get to the point of generating electricity. Lots of folks don’t want nuclear in their backyard. Each nuclear plant is generally a large producer which means the spinning reserve requirements are higher. They’re good for steady baseload output but are not generally relied on for peak demand.

    People too easily dismiss renewables due to the downsides that are a function of them being in the nascent phase of development. The long term prospects for renewables look far better than even nuclear.

    But again, my point here is that you’re putting up a straw man argument if you’re saying that people concerned about CO2 are all anti-nuclear. It’s just not the case. Those who are concerned about CO2 are concerned about CO2 and believe that we need all technologies on deck to address the issue.

  10. Nuclear Waste is still leaking from many places on this planet, I am against nuclear anything.

    CO2 was the first atmosphere, causing all the oxygen we breathe and carbon based life.

    If you include water vapor, carbon based oxygen (CO2) is only 000.007% of the air, making man caused CO2 is only 000.0001892% of the air, we have been adding CO2 to greenhouses for many years.

    During a solar heat wave the density of the air increases 10 to 20%, from evaporation ocean, with a CO2 level 70 times the level of the air, making man caused CO2 level, lower than 000.00000% during the heat wave.

    CO2 has been a proven refrigerant since 1835, and a patented refrigerant since 1924, and is still a refrigerant in many way for the last 175 years.

    We need more carbon based oxygen, not less.

    Please go to
    Thank you
    Bruce a. Kershaw

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