The Bush administration and the nuclear industry are trying to promote a nuclear renaissance. The last new nuclear plant was constructed decades ago, before the Three Mile Island incident of 1979. A new one has recently entered the permit process.
I’ll set aside the operational safety issues of a nuclear power plant aside for the moment and consider the waste. After the fuel rods have been in the reactor a while the amount of U-235 has gone down and there are a number of new radioactive elements, including Cesium 137, Iodine 131, and Strontium 90. Some of these elements decay quite rapidly, and others take thousands of years to reach a low level of radioactivity.
There is a pool of water next to most nuclear plants, filled with racks of spent nuclear fuel rods. These rods need to sit for a few decades until they cool down. Then they need to be cared for and protected for several thousand years as they keep decaying into less radioactive elements. In theory, the spent fuel rods at Vermont Yankee and all the other nuclear plant in the U.S. will eventually end up buried in underground caverns at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In reality, Yucca Mountain is nowhere near finished, and the State of Nevada is fighting to prevent it ever being finished. One of our Vermont State Representatives who has visited Yucca Mountain calls it “the big lie in the ground.” Meanwhile, about three quarters of our 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. will run out of room in their waste storage pools in the next few years. This will require them to use dry cask storage, which is just what it sounds like. There are a number of people who are doubtful about dry cask storage, including a whistleblower from the biggest dry cask manufacturer, who alleges faulty welds and otherwise substandard construction. The other problem is that even if Yucca Mountain construction went gangbusters starting today, by the time it would be completed there would be more nuclear waste around than it could hold.
Right now we have about 488 metric tons of radioactive waste stored at Vermont Yankee, with more being produced as you read this. We are stuck with it, as are our children, and their children, and their children, and their children, for a thousand generations. A “nuclear renaissance” (in our case, relicensing Vt. Yankee) would add even more waste to a system unable to deal with what we have now.
I’d like to propose an alternative. This alternative is based on the fact that nuclear plants provide what is called base load electricity. The amount of electrical power a region consumes goes up and down hour by hour each day, day by day each week, and it cycles by season as well. There is a level of demand that is always there, morning, evening, weekends and holidays, that is called the base load. The extra electrical demand that happens when all the air conditioners in Houston rev up on a summer afternoon is called the peak load. Nuclear plants are base load generators – they don’t rev up and back down very quickly, they just sit there at one level. It makes sense that to offset the need for a base load supplier such as a nuclear plant you would need to reduce base load demands.
In 2006, nuclear power accounted for 787,219,000 megawatt hours (MWh), or just over 19% of electrical production. (The total being 4,064,702,000 MWh in 2006) How can we chip away at that need? To start with, I’m thinking of industrial motors and refrigerators. Both tend to get switched on and stay on.
According to the Department of Energy, “industrial motor energy use could be reduced by 11 to 18 percent if facilities managers undertook all cost-effective applications of mature proven efficiency technologies and practices. That is, implementation of all well-established motor system energy efficiency measures and practices that meet reasonable investment criteria will yield annual energy savings of 75 to 122 billion kWh, with a value of $3.6–$5.8 billion at current industrial energy prices.” That is 75 to 122 million MWh out of our 787 million provided by nuclear. I’ll split the difference, call it 98 million, leaving us 689, 219,000 to deal with.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy proposes that new commercial refrigeration standards would save 2.3 million MWh annually by 2020. That only drops us to 686,919,000, but it’s something.
Home refrigerators account for 12% of U.S. energy use, or roughly 487,760,240 MWh. Replacing an average refrigerator from 1993 with the highest efficiency conventional refrigerator available today would cut energy use in half. New refrigerator designs could cut in half the yearly consumption of even the best units out there today. The potential in some cases would be to cut energy consumption by a factor of four. According to the folks at EnergyStar, about 25% the refrigerators around today (31 million out of 125 million in U.S. in 2006) are pre-1993 and about 33% EnergyStar qualified. Over the next couple of decades we would be replacing our refrigerators anyway. Work out the percentages and it is conceivable that we could reduce our domestic refrigeration load by 63%, or 309,191,206 MWh.
Subtract that and we have 377,727,784 MWh of annual nuclear production left to deal with. That is a little less than half of our present production, and I have only addressed refrigeration and industrial motors. I could go on, but this shows the feasibility of conserving our way out of a nuclear (waste) renaissance. In 2003, Europeans averaged 5765 annual kWh per capita, compared to our 13,243. They don’t seem to be lacking in heavy industry, refrigeration, lighting, or high-tech electronics, so a 19% (or even 50%) cut in our electricity use is not out of the question.
My metaphorical question is “why juggle expensive grenades when there are cheap tennis balls to be had?”