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Another Voice: Nuclear power must be part of our energy future

By Michael D. Garrick

Passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act came just after Michael Bloomberg announced his own initiative, Beyond Carbon, committing $500 million to similar goals. As a founding member of the Stable Climate Organization, I was pleased to see both commitments.

New York’s goals now become eliminating 85% of greenhouse gas emissions within 30 years and having 100% of electricity come from renewable sources in even less time. But the comment “it might not be doable” applies to both initiatives.

Our analyses led us to conclude that expanding reliance on nuclear energy must be a part of any viable solution to anthropogenic global warming. The most immediate action needed in New York is to keep Indian Point Energy Center on line, not replacing it with natural gas. Doing so is walking backwards on climate change. While renewables could be a replacement, we cannot foresee a transition to full dependence on them. Natural gas replacement of such a major part of New York’s generating capacity just adds carbon.

AGW is real and dangerous but solvable if we act quickly. The present level of pollution from fossil fuels, shortening the lives of some 7 million people annually, is alone enough to justify the climate act. Renewables can only be part of the transition away from fossil fuels because they are intermittent sources of power. Storage of renewables is possible but not there yet.

Because the capacity factor for solar is about 25% and for wind about 30%, extra energy must be acquired when renewables are actually operating and stored for when they are not. Arrays must be larger by a factor of three to four times the rated capacity of the system to replace energy made during daylight or winds.

The life span of renewable systems is only 20 to 25 years, making disposal of renewable systems another problem. So while the intermittent power is cheap to build and to supply, it is not good enough except as an add-on to regular grids.

About 100 nuclear reactors in the U.S. are generating 20% of our electricity 24/7 without carbon emissions. The situation will get even better with the advent of Generation IV nukes to supply power. They are inexpensively built (modular in factories, so turned out quickly). Some designs cannot melt down. Molten salt coolants prevent explosions.

The spent fuel from existing Generation II reactors can be used in the advanced designs until there is very little radiation left, so waste is about 5% of that from today’s reactors. This waste is easily handled. Virtually all waste is curated and stored in heavily shielded containers after the first five years in a water bath. This is insignificant compared to the millions of tons of coal waste that are actually radioactive too.

Michael D. Garrick, Ph.D., is a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo and a founding member of the Stable Climate Organization.

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