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In the Gas Age, Rays of Hope for Nuclear Power

Peter Asmus — February 24, 2013

Duke Energy’s decision to close the Crystal River nuclear reactor, following on the heels of announced closures for Dominion Energy Resources’ Kewaunee nuclear reactor in Wisconsin and Exelon’s Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, raises some intriguing questions about efforts to combat climate change.  The list of nuclear shutdowns is likely to grow.

This shift away from nuclear in the United States  is seen by many as a boon to natural gas.  Although natural gas has been touted as a “bridging fuel” to a renewable energy future, and as a flexible resource capable of filling in the gaps when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, scientists are discovering that a growing reliance upon natural gas could actually be accelerating global climate change.

How? While burning natural gas is cleaner than coal, leaks of methane – which is more than 20 times more threatening to our climate than carbon dioxide – are far more prevalent than previously realized.  And while fracking has been viewed as a godsend, giving rise to a revived U.S. petroleum industry, there is a growing movement to tighten regulations of the controversial shale gas extraction method due to water quality concerns.  If leakage rates into the atmosphere stick to about 3%, the net benefit of natural gas to the climate is a net positive.  Anything higher and the reverse is true; recent samplings suggest in Utah suggested leakage of 9%.  Even among utilities, there is growing concern about over reliance upon natural gas.

Japan Reverses Course

The challenges facing nuclear power mirror those of increasing renewable sources.  They include high up-front capital costs and reliance upon government subsidies. Once externalities are factored in, I believe wind power will be the ultimate winner among carbon free power sources. Evidence supporting this prediction comes from markets such as Australia, where wind power is now cheaper than natural gas or coal, thanks to a recently imposed carbon tax.

Despite the gloom and doom facing the nuclear industry, a ray of hope has emerged for this purported solution to climate change in, of all places, Japan, site of the world’s greatest nuclear mishap.  Almost 2 years after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Japan‘s government is reversing course.  Japan appeared to have ended its heavy commitment to nuclear power when the previous center-left government pledged last year to phase out all of the country’s 50 working reactors by 2040.  The return to office of the conservative government under Shinzo Abe is giving the nuclear industry a second chance.

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