Can we do without nuclear power?

A lot of smart people think it is possible to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels while also eliminating nuclear power.  Maybe they’re right, but I don’t see it.

Presently New York’s electrical generating capacity is about one-third coal and oil, one-third natural gas, one-sixth nuclear power and most of the rest hydroelectric power.  Only about 3 percent is wind energy, and there is tiny plant powered by biomass.

nuclearplant1The burning of coal and oil, especially coal, creates greenhouse gasses, so ideally we’d eliminate coal and minimize oil.

Natural gas, in contrast, burns cleanly, which is why it is promoted as a “transition” fuel.  But unburned natural gas (methane) is one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and fracking releases methane into the atmosphere.  Fracked natural gas doesn’t help the climate, but, without fracking, natural gas would be scarce and expensive.

All the good hydroelectric sites in New York are already used, so there’s little potential to increase hydro.  So you would have to step up production of wind energy by a factor of 25 or more.

I don’t see how it is possible do do without nuclear power and still maintain a dependable electricity supply.  I think nuclear power is a dangerous technology which nevertheless can be operated safely, provided the industry uses the best practices and the best technology.

This would mean phasing out existing U.S. nuclear power plants, most of which are past their scheduled decommissioning dates and some of which are located on earthquake fault zones, and building a new generation of nuclear power plants using the newest and best technology.

I will change my mind about this if Germany is able to stick to its moratorium on nuclear power without increasing its use of coal-fired and oil-fired power.  But as I see it, nuclear and coal are the only alternatives for increasing electric power generation.

The United States happens to have ample supplies of coal at current rates of use, as does China, but coal is the worst fuel in terms of effects on human health, the environment and climate change.  Maybe someday the USA and China can invent a way to burn coal cleanly, but otherwise I see no alternative to nuclear.

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Can Europe keep the lights on this winter? by Mark Gilbert for Bloomberg View.  [added 10/30/14].  Another example of the problem of trying to do without both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

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