Nuclear and the Renewable Energy Standard

By Jim Hopf

Now that more comprehensive climate change policies such as cap-and-trade are on indefinite hold, the U.S. Congress is considering a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES) in an effort to do something on energy issues. The RES would require that 15 percent of all U.S. electrical generation be provided by “renewable” sources by 2020. Currently, the definition of “renewable energy” does not include nuclear. Similar policies are already in place in many states, such as California.

As a means to achieve reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, air pollution, or foreign energy imports, an RES that excludes nuclear energy is about the worst policy one could possibly come up with. It is subjective, unfair, and is a very inefficient means for achieving the above goals. Nuclear advocates in particular should be offended by these policies since nuclear has all the benefits that renewables do with respect to the above goals, but is arbitrarily excluded from the RES. The fact that sources that have a greater negative impact on the environment than nuclear (such as trash and wood burning, and ethanol) are included in the RES while nuclear is not is particularly galling. With respect to CO2 emissions, as well as overall environmental impacts, nuclear’s impact is similar to renewables, and negligible compared with fossil fuels. Thus, there is no legitimate basis for treating them differently in any energy policy.

There are many ways to reduce CO2 emissions and/or other air pollutants from the electricity sector, including conservation, renewables, nuclear, switching from coal to gas, increasing the thermal efficiency of power plants, and installing pollution control equipment (sequestration, in the case of CO2). An RES would encourage one–and only one–of the above methods. It does nothing at all to encourage any of the others. It instead requires that the one–the renewables option–be used, regardless of its cost or practicality relative to the other methods. By contrast, policies that simply limit or tax the undesired pollutants (such as cap-and-trade for CO2) even-handedly encourage all means of emissions reduction.  This even-handedness allows an objective, merit-based competition between reduction options and results in the maximum emissions reduction for the lowest cost.

RES policies will largely prevent a fair, objective market for non-emitting energy sources from developing, even if a cap-and-trade policy is also in place. Since the required renewables percentages being considered for RES policies (15 percent) are similar to the overall required CO2 emissions reductions being considered for cap-and-trade policies, the RES policy will essentially mandate that most of the emissions reductions be achieved by building new renewable capacity.

Before even thinking about what the cheapest means of emissions reduction might be, utilities will have to comply with the RES. After they do, they will be most of the way to the emissions reduction goal. Cheap carbon offsets will supply most of the rest. As a result, the promised free and fair market for non-emitting energy will never appear, and the cost for emitting CO2 will remain small to nonexistent.

In such a scenario, nuclear will end up with no economic advantage (or credit) relative to fossil fuels to reflect its huge environmental benefits, whereas renewables will be literally mandated, regardless of cost. One final impact of a large renewables mandate will be a strong incentive (or need) for any new nonrenewable generation to be gas-fired, since only gas plants can vary their output quickly to provide the necessary backup for intermittent windfarms. To add insult to injury, people will then try to argue that nuclear was given a chance to compete (under the cap-and-trade policy) and failed, when the real truth is that it was never actually given a chance to compete at all.

An RES policy is likely a bigger threat to future nuclear development than any other policy recently proposed; even worse than doing nothing at all about global warming.

When faced with arguments like those above, RES advocates say that the policy is actually more about spurring the development of new and inexhaustible energy sources (despite the fact that RES policies are being sold to the public on the basis of global warming and energy security). When examined, however, these arguments are extremely weak. We’ve been working on sources like solar and wind for more than 40 years now (almost as long as nuclear). Wind has already achieved significant penetration, and is fairly mature. If “newness” and lack of current development is the basis for inclusion in an RES, then the new small reactor designs (SMRs) as well as Generation IV reactors would be more qualified for inclusion in the RES than commercial wind farms, let alone things like trash burners. Uranium supplies will last for several centuries, if not for more than 1000 years, which allows more than enough time to develop “infinite” sources. Are they really saying that having a 1000-year (as opposed to infinite) fuel supply is really a concern, which justifies mandating renewables over nuclear?

For the above reasons, it should be clear that the nuclear industry should fight against an RES perhaps more strongly than any other policy that has ever come along. No policy (i.e., no RES, but also no price on CO2) at all, however, would also be pretty bad for nuclear’s future, since nuclear is likely to remain at least somewhat more expensive than fossil fuels, as long as those sources are allowed to emit CO2 and other pollutants directly into the environment for free, while nuclear is held to impeccable standards. While a limit or cost on CO2 emissions would be best, this is not likely to happen, for the foreseeable future. Subsidies can only go so far (before the drain on the public purse is no longer tolerated) and will, at best, result in the construction of the first few nuclear plants.

With respect to tangibly supporting nuclear’s future development, it appears that the best possibility may be to try to get nuclear included in a “Clean Energy Standard” (CES). The idea would be to have new nuclear build qualify as a “clean” source. This “CES” policy would be used in lieu of the RES. This would at least allow nuclear to compete fairly with renewables. Having nuclear included in such a standard is something that our industry should throw all its weight behind.

Many moderate and/or Republican senators have said that nuclear incentives are necessary to win their support of climate change policies in general. The support of these same senators will be necessary to get any type of energy standard policies passed. Also, senators from the Southeast, where solar and wind resources are poor, do not support a (renewable only) RES, but are much more supportive of a CES policy that includes nuclear. For example, Lamar Alexander is currently making a high-profile effort to replace the RES policy now being discussed in congress with a CES policy that includes nuclear. He is saying that such a change will be necessary for his support. The nuclear industry should focus its efforts on convincing these senators to stand their ground on this issue, perhaps using some of the arguments given above. This would force supporters of the RES to compromise.

One compromise might be to allow some fraction of the mandated non-emitting generation percentage be specifically set aside for renewables, which may alleviate fears in the (politically powerful) renewables industry that utilities would choose nuclear for almost all of the required non-emitting generation. An example would be a required non-emitting generation percentage of 20 percent, where 5 percent-10 percent would have to be renewables.

One final idea, which could be pursued if all else fails, would be to try and get SMRs to qualify for a portfolio standard. They definitely qualify as a new, innovative, undeveloped technology (that some say is the real purpose of energy standard policies).  Also, there has been a lot of buzz about SMRs lately, and they seem to be very popular with the public and policymakers. They’re even more palatable to some nuclear opponents, for whom the large size of nukes is one of the main turnoffs. This could be a political winner. It could also help spur a new, strategic U.S. industry.


Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer at EnergySolutions, with 20 years’ experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems.  He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10 years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee.  He is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

8 responses to “Nuclear and the Renewable Energy Standard

  1. I believe in nuclear for several reasons: inexhaustible fuel resources for one, the prospect of competitive price at scale, the fact that the industry has not thrown its weight into subsidies and mandates the way the renewables hacks HAVE to… but mostly because nuclear energy produces reliably and steadily at a fair and stable price over many many decades.

    You folks are right to resist the RES, but wrong to stoop to the level of wanna-be energy sources like wind which require 100% backup and 75% balancing from natural gas. Nuclear is grown up energy, so don’t run to your Uncle Sam for mandates like a spoiled child! Besides, we all know global warming is a giant hoax. Unfortunate that it gives nuclear an edge to believe in it, but not right for you to use a lie to further yourselves.

    • Tom,

      You’re right about inexhaustible fuel resources, but it will be a long time before nuclear is no more expensive than fossil fuels, due to the starkly unlevel regulatory playing field where nuclear is required to prove complete containment of all its wastes/toxins whereas fossil fuels are allowed to dump them into the environment for free. If you don’t believe that CO2 or any of the other fossil fuel pollutants are a problem, then there is little justification for using nuclear instead of coal or gas, until those resources are depleted to the point where their cost rises significantly (which will be a long time for coal).

      It would be politically impossible to relax nuclear’s requirements so that they are equal to those enjoyed by the fossil industry (e.g., coal ash being specifically exempted from being classified as a toxic material, and a blanket exemption for the Clean Water Act for shale gas drilling). Thus, w/o global warming policy, the clean energy mandates you refer to, or significant subsidies (all of which you decry) new nuclear will be going nowhere for the forseeable future.

      Many, if not most, nuclear advocates are primarily motivated by their knowledge of the horrendous impacts of fossil fuels, along with the knowledge that renewables alone will not be able to get far in terms of replacing them. Most of us believe in climate change, not only because it’s the main reason new nuclear is being considered, but because the majority of the scientific community believes in it as well.

  2. The definition of “Renewable” is designed to specifically discourage nuclear energy development. It includes:
    1. Geothermal which uses the nuclear decay of elements in the earth. What is the difference whether the reactions occur in a reactor or in the earth? None I believe. It also uses the heat from the original formation of the earth. That is not renewable.
    2. Burning of wood. We did that hundreds of years ago and depleted entire regions of the nation of trees. That may be renewable, but I don’t think anyone wants to go there again. It required centuries to renew.

    Uranium is said to be non-renewable, but it has no other use. What are we saving it for? I submit that it is renewable because some of the future reactor designs can create for usable fuel for burning in reactors.

    In short I agree with Mr Hopf. The Renewable Energy Standard is a bad idea not only for the develpment of nuclear, but for the country as a whole.

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  4. Jim writes: “One compromise might be to allow some fraction of the mandated non-emitting generation percentage be specifically set aside for renewables, which may alleviate fears in the (politically powerful) renewables industry that utilities would choose nuclear for almost all of the required non-emitting generation. An example would be a required non-emitting generation percentage of 20 percent, where 5 percent-10 percent would have to be renewables.”

    For starters, if nuclear power and hydro were to be included, a CES would start out a lot higher than 20%, which is less than what nuclear and hydro already produce today. Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that any percentage should be mandated to one technology or another. As long as they don’t contribute to GHG emissions (and isn’t that what this is about, along with reducing demand on foreign fuel sources?) why should any technology get political preference? Just because they’re politically powerful? If that’s any reason, why should we have a CES at all, because the fossil fuel companies are far more politically powerful than the renewables lobby. If a utility wants to meet their CES standard all with nuclear, they should be free to do so. Where’s the level playing field that everyone’s always claiming they’d be happy with?
    If we’d mandate a CES of 50% by 2020 and at the same time implement rational policies to allow nuclear power to be built for reasonable prices and time frames like in the Far East (similar to the policies the UK government recently enacted for nuclear), we could very likely meet a 50% goal that soon. By mid-century we could be off fossil fuels completely.

  5. Tom,
    I agree with you 100% on everything you say, in terms of the most correct, principled, and effective policy. In fact, even a CES that fully includes nuclear (with no specific set asides for renewables at all) is not as good as a policy that simply limits or puts a price on CO2, since it does nothing to encourage other reduction options (e.g., coal-to-gas, conservation, etc.).

    But, alas, it is well understood that cap-and-trade, or similar policies, are going nowhere for the forseeable future. Thus, a CES that includes nuclear is the best we can hope for. As someone said, politics is the art of the possible…

    Unfortunately, based on discussions I’ve had with people familiar with the political landscape in Washington, allowing a small (~5%) carve-out for renewables is one more example of the political horsetrading and compromise that will likely be required to get nuclear included at all in any CES (or to get any CES passed at all). I’m afraid the real choice boils down to this, would you rather have an RES with no nuclear at all, no clean energy policy at all (RES or CES), or a CES policy that sets 5% aside for renewables and lets nuclear compete for the remaining 15%? I know which one I would choose.

    I share your belief that in a direct competition, utilities would choose nuclear for most or all of their (mandated) clean energy. For that reason, a CES with no carve-out for renewables represents an existential threat to the renewables industries, and they know it. Thus, some renewables set aside is likely to be a compromise that we are just going to have to make to get any nuclear-inclusive policy at all.

    One final clarification, the idea would be that NEW nuclear (as well as new hydro, I suppose) would be included in a CES. Existing generation would not count. (For renewables, the point is largely moot, since there is a tiny amount of existing generation.) After all, the whole point of the policy is to cause new clean energy capacity to be built. Nobody needs any incentives to keep existing nukes open, given that they have the lowest operating cost. That said, I could still see raising the overall requirement (from 15% to 20% or 25%) as a result of including new nuclear.

  6. Tom and Jim:
    Please explain the “inexhaustible” part to me. That sounds intellectually dishonest.

  7. Robin,
    Uranium is a ubiquitous element in the earth’s crust that we’ve barely started looking for. Also, the cost of the raw ore is only a few percent of nuclear power’s costs, so even a large increase in ore cost would not make nuclear uneconomic. A higher allowable ore price greatly increases recoverable reserves.

    As I explain in the paper linked below, we have many centuries (probably over 1000 years) of uranium, even assuming no breeding or reprocessing, and strong growth in nuclear use.

    A thousand years will be more than enough time to develop breeder reactors. This reduces the amount of ore needed to generate a kW-hr of electricity by a factor of ~70. That, in turn, increases the allowable ore cost by a factor of 70, which in turn exponentially increases economically recoverable reserves. With breeders, we could afford to use the uranium in seawater or all the ordinary granite in the earth’s crust. This results in a supply that would last millions or billions of years; essentially infinite. The bottom line, long-term nuclear fuel supply will never be a problem.

    The uranium situation is a far cry from that of oil and gas. Unlike uranium, these resources have many valueable uses other than baseload power generation. We are nearing the end of significant discovery of these materials (with new discoveries falling well short of depletion rates), given the massive exploration effort that has already been made (unlike uranium). Since most of the power cost from fossil power stations is the cost of the fuel (gas/oil), the viability of those generation options is very sensitive to the cost of the fuel (which will increase greatly as these resources start to run out). We only have a few decades of these resources left (100 years tops). Finally, much of our remaining oil and gas reserves lie in unfriendly and/or unstable regions (e.g., Russia and the Middle East), whereas most of the world’s uranium lies in Canada, Australia and the US.

    What IS intellectually dishonest is the effort by some to say that nuclear (uranium) is no better (or different) than oil and gas, since they both use “finite” resources. For the reasons I give above, nothing could be farther from the truth. As I say in my article above, are people really saying that nuclear should be treated very differently than renewables because its fuel source will “only” last 1000 years or more? Please!

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