Bill Gates is wrong. Nuclear power will not save the climate. Beyond Chernobyl and Fukushima, there’s too much speaking against it
Nuclear power? No, thank you! “That chapter is over,” a spokesperson recently proclaimed. Nuclear power isn’t even a topic anymore, she argued. And this spokesperson wasn’t from some environmental organization or the like; she was representing RWE, one of three large corporations in Germany that still produces electricity from nuclear energy. The two other companies, EnBW and Eon, have issued similar sentiments, pointing to the fact that their priority is now the decommissioning of nuclear power plants and the switch to renewable energies.
Just prior to those comments, members of Germany’s industrial community had joined up with the WerteUnion – a group of conservative parliamentarians from the CDU – to suggest longer running times for the remaining German nuclear power plants. But this suggestion was greeted with a unanimous negative response from electricity corporations: the use of nuclear energy in Germany was over, they argued. Period.
In 2011, after the nuclear catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy production for good by 2022. With its clear pledge to abandon nuclear technology, the country has remained an exception on the international stage.
Today, nuclear energy is experiencing renewed momentum worldwide as a result of the climate change debate. In January, for example, in the journal Science, energy experts called for a “transformation in our thinking,” arguing that it would be a serious mistake to shut down nuclear power plants, because it would lead to an even greater increase in climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions. “We should preserve existing nuclear power plants and reimagine how new plants can be delivered.”
One of the most prominent advocates of a nuclear renaissance is Bill Gates. Late last year, in an open letter to employees, the Microsoft founder wrote: “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.” The problems associated with today’s reactors, he argued, “can be solved through innovation.”
For decades, the idea of being in favor of nuclear energy for environmental reasons would have seemed a contradiction in terms to many people. In Germany, the environmental movement and the political party known as The Greens have their very roots in the resistance to nuclear power.
Today, however, the climate crisis is causing this united front to crumble. Groups like Environmental Progress and the Ökomodernisten (Ecomodernists) no longer see nuclear energy as an ecological evil, but as a climate-neutral solution to energy problems. These groups advertise nuclear energy vociferously on the internet and at public “Nuclear Pride” festivals.
Bill Gates has moved beyond the advertising phase. The Microsoft founder now owns a company called TerraPower, which performs research into novel nuclear reactors including the “wave reactor.” Gates wants to invest $1 billion of his own funds in this particular technology, while raising the same amount from private investors. He also wants to get state funding for the technology, if possible. According to the Washington Post, Gates even met with US Congressmen to convince them of the benefits of nuclear energy.
In the United States, the question of what to do with nuclear energy is particularly acute. Nuclear fission currently accounts for roughly 11 percent of global electricity, and for around 20 percent in the United States. As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) points out in a recent study, one in every three of the approximately 60 nuclear power plants in the US might have to be shut down in the next few years because they are either too old or are already losing money today.
According to the scientists, this would become a problem if the decommissioned capacities were replaced by fossil fuels such as coal and gas, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions. This scenario, however, is not guaranteed. Indeed, although the price of natural gas has fallen in recent years, due to booming shale gas mining, for example, the costs of photovoltaic and wind energy are also falling.
This decline in the price of renewables is seen as one of the major reasons why nuclear energy is less and less viable. Some states in the US, including Illinois, New Jersey and New York, have nonetheless subsidized unprofitable nuclear power plants in order to secure their operations.
This is by all means a daring investment. The UCS estimates that it takes an average of $4 billion to make an unprofitable power plant profitable again. Equipping nuclear reactors to continue running only 20 years longer than planned usually requires expensive modernization measures designed to keep the aging technology in good condition, says Frank Peter, co-head of the think tank Agora Energiewende. “These investments often make no economic sense.”
UCS researchers advise against the construction of any new power plants due to the high investment costs. “The fundamental problem is the cost,” says a recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the future of nuclear energy. While technologies such as photovoltaics and wind power have consistently become cheaper, new nuclear power plants have become more expensive.
The MIT researchers calculated the costs of nuclear energy for several regions and came up with very clear results: In terms of the cost of generating energy, wind and photovoltaics always beat nuclear power. In order to make nuclear competitive again, there would have to be massive changes in the way the technology is developed and managed. To this end, the MIT experts suggest producing components on an assembly line and testing innovative new reactor prototypes in huge “reactor parks” as quickly as possible. They even mention the idea of simplifying regulations for nuclear power plants.
Similar calls for costs savings in safety spending are coming from the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry association that advocates replacing some external controls with “self-assessments.” They also recommend the merging of the highest safety category with the second highest, which would render the ratings virtually meaningless.
In this case, for example, the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, which has the second worst rating of all power plants in the US in terms of safety, would be placed in the top safety category. Also, at an average of 39 years, the host of US nuclear reactors happens to be one of the oldest in the world.
In the face of disasters such as those in Chernobyl and Fukushima, it is unlikely that the regimen of having lower safety standards and test sites for non-mature reactors will be able to be enforced in many countries. Even the standardization of reactors has not yet brought the savings many had hoped for. For example, European Pressurized Water Reactors are currently being built in Finland, France and the UK, and in all three cases, the costs and construction time have long since moved beyond the original scope.
Construction on the third unit of the nuclear power plant in the Finnish city of Olkiluoto has already taken 10 years longer than planned. According to calculations by Greenpeace, the British plant Hinkley Point C is set to cost €108 billion in subsidies over a period of 35 years.
There is one question above all that dominates the discussion, and it revolves around whether or not nuclear energy can even contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This issue has been investigated by the International Energy Agency, among others. In order to limit global warming to two degrees higher than pre-industrial levels by 2100, world emissions would have to drop from 37 billion tons today to less than five billion tons by 2050. And, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the largest share of this reduction – almost 40 percent – could come from improved energy efficiency.
One third of that could be covered by renewable energies, while in this scenario, nuclear power would account for five percent. That would involve a reduction of more than one billion tons a year, but it would still not be enough to fundamentally shift the direction in climate policy. Indeed, in order to actually deliver on such a contribution, hundreds of new reactors would have to be built. “It would involve a gigantic nuclear dimension just to make a minimal contribution to the climate,” says Manfred Fischedick, energy expert at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.
One of the questions that has received very little attention so far is how reliable nuclear power plants will be in a warmer world. In the drought-plagued summer of 2018, several reactors in Germany and France had to be shut down because the surrounding rivers had overheated. Plant operators were no longer allowed to feed in cooling water so as not to endanger the already stressed ecosystems. This year, reactors were again disconnected from the grid in Europe as a result of heat waves.
All we can do now is hope for new reactors, such as the traveling wave reactor sponsored by Bill Gates. Similar to the very slow burn of a glowing cigar, this type of reactor would produce its own fuel and consume it for decades. As it would use old fuel rods from light-water reactors and depleted uranium, this reactor type would be able to eliminate high-level nuclear waste, for which there are still no good solutions – even seven decades after the beginning of the nuclear age. If this concept were to actually work, it would certainly be a blessing.
But we would be well-advised not to actually rely on this approach in our efforts to stop global warming. The concept for this type of reactor dates back to the 1950s, and the basic foundations have yet to be fully researched. For example, nuclear engineers would have to deal with enormous amounts of material that is generated in reactions involving temperatures exceeding 500 degrees Celsius.
TerraPower is aiming for a prototype by the mid-2020s, and it would most likely take another 10 years to achieve a reactor that actually produces electricity. This is a very important timeframe – one in which we will have to have already shifted gears and set a course for a climate-neutral energy supply.
Christoph von Eichhorn
is a science editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung.