Are the anti-nuclear environmentalists sabotaging efforts to mitigate global warming?

By Patrick Walden - Retired Nuclear Physicist - July 26, 2016
On June 21, 2016, PG&E announced that the operating licenses for Diablo Canyon Units 1 and 2 will not be renewed. These are set to expire on November 2, 2024 and August 26, 2025 respectively. This will mean that after these dates, California’s largest source of green house gas (GHG) emissions free energy will cease to exist. A joint proposal with labor and environmental organizations promises to increase investment in energy efficiency, renewables and storage, while phasing out nuclear power. In this way the environmental organizations assure us that the closing of Diablo Canyon will not have an impact on the State’s emissions of GHG gases. They are lying to you.[1] It is expected that, like all previous cases where nuclear plants have been closed down, green house gas (GHG) emissions will either stagnate or increase.

Hence the shutting down Diablo Canyon is an asinine decision if the purpose of the exercise is to cut green house gas (GHG) emissions to curtail the effects of global warming. I mean after all, given the situation that we are in, should not that be the name of the game? Cutting GHG emissions as fast as we possible can? Climate Scientists say we should have been getting off of fossil fuels yesterday, and making serious inroads into GHG emissions today, with zero emissions in sight for the future.

However some people seem to have confused the message. Somehow they have misdirected the agenda for shutting down GHG emissions and co-opted it with the anti-nuclear ideology for shutting down nuclear power plants based on no facts whatsoever. They are going to replace nuclear plants with clean green renewable energy. The trouble is that nuclear power plants are already clean and green, and the folks that want to shut them down are quite out of touch with the reality of the situation. In all cases where they have shut down nuclear power, GHG gas emissions have either stagnated at current levels or have skyrocketed. In Germany, home of Energiewende, has not reduced its carbon emissions by one gram. In Japan emissions have skyrocketed. [see illustrations at the end of the article]

Sources of California electrical power 2004 to 2014, source:

Sources of California electrical power 2004 to 2014, source:[2]

California’s experiences have been the same. When California turned off the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, it threw all gains the state had made in reducing carbon emissions out the window. Since 2004 the GHG emissions from the state have actually increased by 9%, despite the installation of renewable sources of energy. This increase is a result of a combination, in equal amounts, of turning off the nuclear power plant and the drought turning off hydropower. Even the WWS[3] source of backup power, hydro, is unreliable.
Now with the closing of Diablo Canyon, the pact signed with the anti-nuclear interests would have the GHG emissions saved by Diablo Canyon being replaced by renewables and efficiency by 2025. So the plan is that from 2004 to 2025 the state of California will contribute absolutely nothing in reducing the amount of GHG being emitted into the atmosphere. This is a plan? At the moment when Climate Scientists say that every effort should be should be made in cutting back GHG emissions if we are to survive a global warming catastrophe, the anti-nuclear environmentalists are hyping up their ideological frenzy in shutting down nuclear power plants in an insane move to purify all politically incorrect energy sources. This is just plain stupid.
And in the details of the plan, the 17,027 GWh of emissions free energy that Diablo Canyon provided in 2014 will not be replaced by clean green renewable energy. The plan does even pretend to find enough carbon free sources of energy. Only 2000 GWh per annum will be clean green energy, and hopefully, but with no guarantees, another 2000 GWh will be found in energy efficiency, an environmentalist watchword with no specifics attached. Thus at most only 4000 GWh per annum of emissions free energy comes out of this plan. That is only 23.49% of the emissions free power that Diablo Canyon provided in 2014. From where will the other 76.51% of the power come? It will come from natural gas, a fossil fuel, which dumps 490 g of CO2 equivalents of GHG gases into the atmosphere for every kWh produced. Compare this to the 12g of CO2 equivalents for each and every kWh of nuclear energy produced over the lifetime of a nuclear power facility. Hence there is no way that GHG emissions from the state of California are going to be held in check under this plan. They are going up, maybe as much as 7%. Thus I ask, is the closing of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, a sane way of meeting the challenge of Global Warming? Are the environmental interests that want to close Diablo Canyon even really interested in mitigating Global Warming or is their real purpose an ideological misdirected effort to close down nuclear power?

In 2014 Diablo Canyon produced 31% more energy than all the wind in California and 61% more energy than all the solar in California. It will be a tall order to replace this source of emissions free energy. But why must the plant be closed down? According to the agreement, the reason is economic. It will require $10 to $14 billion to replace the once through cooling system now in place with cooling towers. Such once through systems are now banned in order to protect environmental damage to the coastal eco-systems. Let us look at these costs. The two Diablo Canyon plants are rated at 2.24 GW. Thus the upgrade will cost between $4500 to $6300 per kW. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the capital costs of a new nuclear plant are around $5500/kW. The costs according to anti-nuclear factions are around $7477/kW. This is a cost to demonstrate that nuclear is unaffordable. Hence these upgrades will cost on the order of a completely new Diablo Canyon facility. These costs are unbelievable, unreasonable, and if the parent company, PG&E, is forced into these costs it is quickly seen why they are uneconomical.[4] Less costly alternatives to these gold plated cooling towers to achieve the same reduction in ecological impact, suggested in an open letter from noted scientists and academics including James Hansen, were seemingly rejected. It is ironic, but that same open letter noted that the presence of the Diablo Canyon plant had preserved the pristine environmental state of 12 miles of that part of the coast, yet the plant is closing reportedly due to the environmental damage caused by the plant. May I suggest that the costs being imposed are punitive, more designed to close down the plant than to protect any environment. And by the way that $10 to $14 billion that would have been spent on the upgrade is not real. It never was. It was just a bargaining chip that disappears once the decision to close the plant is made. Hence it will not be available to build clean green sources of renewable energy as advertised by the folks who want to close down Diablo Canyon.[5]
Here is the real reason why Diablo Canyon is closing. Tony Earley, the CEO of PG&E, stated: “We’ve got a lot on our plates, and we just don’t need to take on another big public issue right now.” In other words they caved into political pressure.

Wind infrastructure built up to 200% of requirement in order to supply adjacent area if wind is not blowing. The cost of new nuclear is $95.2/MWh for comparison.

Wind infrastructure built up to 200% of requirement in order to supply adjacent area if wind is not blowing. The cost of new nuclear is $95.2/MWh for comparison.

For the truth of the matter, renewables can never replace Diablo Canyon for intermittent energy sources can never be guaranteed to cover energy generation 100% of the time. A 2.24 GW wind plant will not replace Diablo Canyon, because according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that wind plant will only be able to deliver power only 36% of the time. For the other 64% there will need to be a 2.24 GW fossil fuel fired natural gas pant to supply the rest of the power. The cost of electricity from such an arrangement is almost the same as that from a new nuclear plant, but here’s the kicker, GHG emissions from such an arrangement would be 318 g(CO2e)/kWh to 12 of nuclear.[6] Is this mitigating global warming? Is this reducing the impact on the environment from Global Climate Change? You can build another 2.24 GW wind plant somewhere else (more capital costs) and ship in energy when Diablo wind is not blowing, but that makes the cost higher than new nuclear, and then GHG emissions are only reduced to 209 g(CO2e)/kWh because of the remaining dependence on fossil fuel backup. In fact renewables even with storage will never get the emissions down to the level at which Diablo Canyon now operates, and the capital costs attached to renewables in order to overcome the intermittency problem will make renewable energy more costly than new nuclear. In fact if that $10 to $14 billion for Diablo Canyon upgrades is really real and kicking around, renewing the Diablo Canyon license to operate from 2025 to 2045 and using the funds to build another new 2GW nuclear power plant would have a huge impact in reducing California’s GHG emissions much more than the current plan in place which will result, more than likely, in increased emissions.

Wind infrastructure built up to 300% of requirement with 3 days energy storage from batteries. Gas turbine backup is still required 20% of the time.

Wind infrastructure built up to 300% of requirement with 3 days energy storage from batteries. Gas turbine backup is still required 20% of the time.[7]

We are in a race for survival. Global Warming threatens the very existence of our civilization and the biosphere. If we are to survive this challenge, it will be necessary to use all emissions free energy generating technologies. Allowing a sector of Climate Change activists to purge the largest source of emissions free power in the name of ideological energy generating purity is an act of sheer stupidity.

Japan and Germany
Germany after the Fukushima disaster announced that it was going to shut down all of its existing nuclear power plants because of the danger they imposed. This is hardly credible and it was mostly a concession to the European Greens for their political support. The European Greens are notoriously anti-nuclear. Germany is in no earthquake zone as are the Japanese reactors and nuclear power is the safest way to generate electricity (see illustration). Germany is now in the midst of Energiewende, the plan to get off of fossil fuels completely without the help of nuclear power. They announced their plan for doing so in 2011. Since then they have not reduced their carbon emissions by one gram, since the the buildup of their sources of renewable energy have been offset by the decommissioning of their nuclear plants. For all their bluster they have contributed nothing towards the reduction of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. France when they decided to get away from their dependence on fossil fuels from hostile foreign sources (1977-1988) were far more effective in reducing their carbon emissions than Energiewende. Germany claims that Energiewende is supported by 92% of the population, however they are confused as to why they are supporting it. The official reason is to get the country off of its dependence on fossil fuels. However most, 43%, support Energiewende in order to get off of nuclear power, a completely useless action, has zero impact on emissions reduction, and does nothing to remove the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. However this does show how persuasive is the anti-nuclear message of the Greens. Another 27% support the measure because they believe there is a shortage of fossil fuels. Nothing could be further from the truth. German lignite, real dirty coal, is doing a land office business. Only 18% support Energiewende for the correct reason, to reduce GHG emissions, a goal in which Energiewende is not accomplishing anything. So far Energiewende appears to be a con job by the Greens to eliminate nuclear power. This is being accomplished.
In Japan there is no room for solar arrays or wind farms. The Japanese are not even trying to build up renewables. Being forced to close down its nuclear plants because of the public’s reaction to the Fukushima accident has resulted in the obvious, a skyrocketing increase in the use of fossil fuels and GHG emissions. This is an over reaction to the accident,[8] and ironically will result in more deaths from carbon emissions through the use of fossil fuels than would be the case if they left the nuclear plants running.

data: nuclear power emissions reduction vs. closures

Electricity Production in Japan. Note the rise in fossil fuel production and the crash of nuclear production after 2011 Fukushima accident

Electricity Production in Japan. Note the rise in fossil fuel production and the crash of nuclear production after 2011 Fukushima accident

references and footnotes

  1.  I have found that anti-nuclear organizations are not fact based organizations. Their creed is an anti-nuclear ideology and they will say and use anything to promote the elimination of nuclear power. Here is an example from one of the world’s most respected environmental scientists, but nevertheless an anti-nuclear proponent. Even he is not adverse to throwing his scientific reputation to the wind by issuing absolutely false statements about Fukushima David Suzuki’s Fukushima Warning is Dire and Scary
  2.  Coal, Gas, Nuclear, Hydro? How Your State Generates Power
  3.  Wind, Water, and Solar. This is the plan of Jacobson and Delucchi to convert the world to 100% dependence on wind, water, and solar sources of energy. They rule out nuclear power on basically an a priori basis. Hydro power, or water power, is stated to be the backup power for intermittent wind and solar.
  4.  It will also become uneconomic because of the rules of priority dispatch. When wind and solar are available, this power must be used and power from other sources like nuclear and natural gas must be cut back. Cutting back power from a nuclear reactor is not an economical way to run it. They are best running flat out 100% of the time because they are a source of base load power. But why shut off nuclear in favour of solar or wind? Because the rules have designated nuclear power as being dirty just like fossil fuel power. Hence we have the idiotic situation of having to shut off a source of reliable emissions free power in favour of a source of non-reliable emissions free power. These are rules to shut down nuclear power plants, not to mitigate Global Warming.
    -Reference: “wind and solar — which get priority in dispatch” Atoms for Green Energy: What Role Should Nuclear Power Play in Decarbonization?
    -Reference: quote from Earley, CEO of PG&E,
    “Many times in past decades we’ve tried to get things like nuclear included in the definition of renewables … because if you don’t include it, it’s lower in the dispatch order, so you may end up being in a position where your nuclear plant does not dispatch because you’ve got so many renewables on the system,” he said. “So, if I had to do it over again, I’d go back and say let’s include everything in the definition…I would much prefer a low carbon mandate as opposed to a renewables mandate.”
    After Diablo Canyon: PG&E CEO Tony Earley on renewables, DERs and California’s energy future
  5.  Mark Z. Jacobson, co-author of the WWS solution to power the world without fossil fuels and nuclear, stated on a private Facebook thread, “DC (Diablo Canyon) can be replaced with wind/solar for <$8 billion. Thus, if we kept DC operating, we would reduce funds available for a much larger expansion of efficiency + renewables that would not only replace DC but also replace some natural gas in California”.
    However you cannot simply replace DC with wind/solar because they are intermittent sources of power and as such are unreliable and require backup fossil fuel power sources.
  6.  The numbers quoted here and below are based on back-of-the-envelope calculations from data based on the U.S. government Energy Information Administration “Annual Energy Outlook” and the 2014 IPCC estimates of life cycle emissions of GHG from various energy sources. Both of these references have been linked previously in this article. This is a zeroth order calculation and more sophisticated calculations will basically supply more accuracy but will not change the basic conclusion of such a calculation.
  7.  Battery costs inferred from Tom Murphy’s blog Do the Math. Emissions associated with battery manufacture is a guesstimate based on emissions from solar PV manufacture à la IPCC and a study of environmental impacts from electric vehicle manufacture.
  8.  Are Chernobyl and Fukushima legislated disasters?
  9.  How Deadly is your kilowatt? by James Conca