Nuclear energy is often touted as a reliable, carbon-free element in our electricity portfolio, but three major challenges must be overcome before it can play a bigger role in our energy mix: cost, reactor safety, and waste disposal. Recent progress on each of these fronts shows that nuclear energy may indeed be a greater component of our clean energy future.
As a zero-carbon energy source that also has the highest capacity factor, new nuclear generation is especially well suited to provide baseload generation, which is an emerging gap in our electricity system. As electricity demand rises, aging coal plants are retired, and we pursue greenhouse gas emission reductions, there is a growing need for new low- and zero-carbon baseload electricity generation. Without technological breakthroughs in electricity storage technology, wind, and solar, energy cannot adequately meet baseload demand due to intermittency. Natural gas is lower emitting than coal, but it still emits greenhouse gases and has historically been vulnerable to price volatility.
At the moment, our attention is riveted by the events unfolding at a nuclear power plant in Japan. Over the past year or so, major accidents have befallen just about all of our major sources of energy: from the Gulf oil spill, to the natural gas explosion in California, to the accidents in coal mines in Chile and West Virginia, and now to the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor. We have been reminded that harnessing energy to meet human needs is essential, but that it entails risks. The risks of different energy sources differ in size and kind, but none of them are risk-free.
Research and development (R&D) is an essential component of any climate change policy, in that new technologies are needed to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And so in this vein, we were very interested to see Energy Secretary Steven Chu defend DOE’s increased R&D funding request for Fiscal Year 2011. Much like his “Daily Show” appearance last year, Chu proved that he has the pizzazz to match his Nobel Prize... Of particular note during his testimony for the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee was the discussion of energy innovation hubs and how Yucca Mountain would affect nuclear expansion.
The issue of innovation was a prominent topic of discussion during the hearing, with the Secretary outlining several new Administration priorities. Chu explained how developing innovative sources of clean energy will allow us to develop new technologies and new industries, creating domestic jobs that can’t be outsourced. To help get the ball rolling, Chu wants to see the creation of three energy innovation hubs modeled after Bell Labs and MIT Radiation Labs that developed radar, and the Manhattan Project. The hubs will combine scientists and engineers to advance highly promising areas of energy science and engineering from the early stages of R&D all the way to commercial viability. Complementary to these hubs, Energy Frontier Research Centers would be university-based and link small groups of energy and basic science researchers across the country to develop new materials and technologies. And finally, Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), modeled generally on DARPA which brought us the wonders of the internet, would finance high-payoff, high-risk projects to help push for the development of new energy technologies that could radically alter how we get energy.
The most controversial topic at this hearing was the future role of nuclear power. We’ve blogged before about nuclear power and the significant role it’s projected to play in decarbonizing the U.S. electricity sector. (For an overview of nuclear, check out our Climate TechBook brief on Nuclear Power.) Committee members from both sides of the aisle peppered Secretary Chu with questions about the Administration’s position on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. Chu reiterated that the withdrawal of Yucca Mountain would have no impact on the Administration’s plan to expand nuclear power. He argued that Dry cask storage can provide safe on-site storage for decades after long-lived nuclear power plants are retired, so we have time to find long-term solutions for dealing with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
For the long-term, Secretary Chu is interested in better options for the storage, processing, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. As we posted before, a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is to provide recommendations for a safe, long-term solution for used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. Secretary Chu is interested in what the Commission recommends. According to the Secretary, we know more now than we did when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed and Yucca Mountain was selected as the site for disposal.
Secretary Chu noted that Yucca Mountain was designed to store waste materials for 10,000 years, though it may not be able to do that. Depending on future weather patterns and the levels of precipitation, Yucca Mountain may not be an ideal option. Increased rainfall would increase the likelihood of water reaching the waste materials via fissures, which could then contaminate the surrounding environment. Secretary Chu noted that salt domes, a different type of geological formation than Yucca Mountain, have been radioactively dated to be around 10 million years old, and would create a “seal” around the nuclear waste so they could make for suitable long-term storage of nuclear waste that we don’t ever want to access again. Presumably, the Blue Ribbon Commission will provide useful insights into this and other issues.
Based on Wednesday’s hearing, innovation and nuclear power are going to be a key component of the DOE’s R&D budget this year. As we frequently note on this blog, achieving large-scale reductions in U.S. and global GHG emissions can be done at the lowest cost by exploiting a portfolio of commercially available and emerging technologies.