The Other Problem with Nuclear Power

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

(credit: DigitalGlobe)

I got into renewable energy in the 1970’s, partially in response to the prospect of an expansion of nuclear power.  I was videotaped by CBS News at Seabrook asking people to hire me to chop wood for them rather than support nuclear power.  Then Three Mile Island happened and for 3 decades it looked like the nuclear power industry was dead.  We got complacent and worried more about peak oil and climate change.  In fact, climate change became such a pre-occupation that we didn’t fight back when pundits started promoting the concept of “all options on the table” as a code phrase for resurrecting the nuclear power industry. Now the disaster in Japan has focused new attention on the safety risks of nuclear power.

What is less well understood is how incompatible nuclear power is with renewable power.  Nuclear power plants are not flexible.  The utility industry makes this sound like an advantage by describing it as baseload power.  The reality is that nuclear power plants can only be on or off.  The accident at Chernobyl was caused by an unauthorized attempt to see if the plant could follow changes in the load. Renewable power in the form of solar and wind isn’t flexible either, although it doesn’t require evacuation plans.  The utility system needs a balance of flexible resources like natural gas, storage and load management with inflexible resources.  Due to this constraint on inflexible resources every GW of nuclear power is one less GW of  solar or wind power.  The “all options on the table” concept is a myth.  Nuclear power is not compatible with solar and wind.