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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Nuclear Energy May Be A Key Tool In The Climate Change Fight

One thing that is becoming increasingly clear in regards to climate change is that the fight will be long, difficult, and victory is very far from assured. Addressing carbon emissions requires not only changing the behavior of rich developed nations like the U.S., but also changing the behavior of poor countries with short life expectancies for the population and a hunger for what U.S. citizens consider basic amenities like a car or electricity. Places like India and Africa are not going to sacrifice economic development for the sake of reducing carbon emissions or avoiding climate change.

Given that reality, environmentalists and clean energy advocates need every tool in their tool chest to have any chance of averting climate change. Yet, one form of clean power is perhaps even more reviled than “dirty” power like coal; nuclear power. That mindset is what led to a recent deal to close California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. Diablo Canyon prevents 6.8 million tons of carbon emissions annually and produces less high level radioactive waste than would fit in a typical midsized car. The deal to close Diablo Canyon then is potentially a step backwards in the fight against climate change.

In theory Diablo Canyon’s energy production will be fully offset by renewable sources of energy. The reality remains to be seen of course. Yet even if Diablo Canyon is completely offset by renewable energy, the agreement does nothing to affect the nearly 600 coal fired power plants in operation across the rest of the U.S. to say nothing of the hundreds more natural gas power plants. In fact, the resources being used to construct clean power to offset Diablo Canyon could actually have been used to displace multiple coal plants (nuclear plants producer significantly more power than coal plants do on average).

Coal power use is declining in the U.S., but holding its own internationally. Coal provides more than 40 percent of electricity around the globe and there are more than 1,000 new coal plants in various stages of construction around the world. Related: Oil Prices Could Spike As Analysts See Venezuela Losing 500,000 bpd

The aversion to nuclear power on the part of environmentalists is a bit confusing in some respects. Outside of Chernobyl, there had never been any serious nuclear power plant pollution until the Fukushima disaster which was the result of both a tsunami and an earthquake. And even in the case of Fukushima, the cost of the disaster was small in comparison to some of the theorized costs of a planet that is warmer by even a few degrees.

In a very meaningful way then, the choice of using renewables comes down to preventing climate change or closing nuclear plants. It’s probably not realistic to do both. Environmentalists and others advocating on the future of electrical grid generation technology have to choose between whether to allow climate change to continue or allow nuclear power to continue. Both cannot be stopped simultaneously. The electrical needs of the population are simply too great and the ability to construct new renewables is too slow and too limited to cover both coal power and nuclear power (again to say nothing of natural gas). Building the existing electrical infrastructure of the country took more than a century. Climate change progress has to be completed in much less time than that, all while contending against a rising tide of 5 billion people around the world striving to reach first world living conditions.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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  • Richard Duncan on June 26 2016 said:
    When it comes it comes to nuclear there is an elephant in the room nobody talks about. They are not designed in any way to be unmanned or unsupplied. I'll be be brief. Should any catastrophic event strike the globe or even a major nuclear country such as France or the US we are extinct as in no survivors. Nuclear power stations have no backup systems beyond a few days. (scram is a very short term fail safe. it doesn't stop meltdown) After a few days melt down will occur and not just the reactors. Spent fuel cooling pools contain hundreds of thousands of tons of hot spent fuel that will meltdown when the diesel backup generators that power the water pumps fail. So on the face of it Nuclear is the cure all. But in reality it's a poisoned chalice. What I am stating here can be verified with any nuclear engineer. So for the sake of few years worth of highly dubious "clean" energy are you willing to place the very survival of the human race on the table? Sounds idiotic to me.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on June 26 2016 said:
    "Outside of Chernobyl, there had never been any serious nuclear power plant pollution until the Fukushima disaster which was the result of both a tsunami and an earthquake. And even in the case of Fukushima, the cost of the disaster was small" —

    Zero, by any honest reckoning. Radioactivity was discovered came in the last five or so years of Queen Victoria's life and reign. Does everyone recall how, back then, bathing in the sea began to be seen as a way of exposing oneself to the new phenomenon?

    Of course they don't. Uranium and thorium together amount to only 0.00000032 percent of seawater, versus 0.0009 percent of average soil and rocks. A lot more of their and their daughters' gamma rays hit us from below when we stay on land.

    But that was before Fukushima. Its unique radiation signature has been detected all across the Pacific. So the dose to people in the sea, or in boats on it, must have increased. How much?

    By less than a part per million. The natural inventory of uranium amounts to 300,000 fukushimas, and there is another natural radiation source, potassium-40, that is 1.4 million fukushimas.

    So, "may be" a key tool in the climate change fight? Any key tool that works by keeping fossil fuels buried tends to defund both fossil fuel-taxing governments and the private firms that would have done the disinterment. Nuclear energy is fought by exactly these interests, and only these interests. There's no "may" about it.
  • Christina Macpherson on June 26 2016 said:
    How long can the nuclear lobby get away with this lie that nuclear power is "clean".
    It's not clean, and everybody knows it.

    Aside from ionising radiation, which is the big problem - no matter how much they pretend it isn't, the nuclear industry produces greenhouse gases at every stage of its chain - from uranium mining, through to digging final burial site. Even a small amount during the nuclear power generation stage.

    Nuclear power involves continual process of feeding its fuel, whether by mining uranium , or by transporting radioactive wastes if the new geewhiz Gen IV reactors ever get built. Meanwhile after building wind and solar facilities, their fuel is on the spot, truly clean, and free.
  • Smoky on July 17 2016 said:
    We are currently storing nuclear waste with tens of thousands of years half-life in metal barrels underground. Does anyone think that's a smart idea? If so, we'd like you to move to the storage areas and give your bodies to science to show the world what radiation exposure does to people.
  • Leo Garcia on July 22 2016 said:
    Thorium would actually help burn back most of the waste that we have already produced making it only hazzardous for 300 years which in all honesty is a relatively short time frame, a nice tedx talk happened a few days ago in Copenhagen which is really interesting and a very good summary of it all

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