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“Low-carbon” misses the point via Beyond Nuclear International

By Amory Lovins

The view that climate protection requires expanding nuclear power has a basic flaw in its prevailing framing: it rarely if ever relates climate-effectiveness to cost or to speed—even though stopping climate change requires scaling the fastest and cheapest solutions. By focusing on carbon but only peripherally mentioning cost and speed, and by not relating these three variables, this approach misframes what climate solutions must do.

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Thus nuclear power not only isn’t a silver bullet, but, by using it, we shoot ourselves in the foot, thereby shrinking and slowing climate protection compared with choosing the fastest, cheapest tools. It is essential to look at nuclear power’s climate performance compared to its or its competitors’ cost and speed. That comparison is at the core of answering the question about whether to include nuclear power in climate mitigation.

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For example, the US in 2020 used 60% less energy per dollar of GDP than in 1975, and during that period, cumulative savings were 27 times the cumulative increase in supply from nuclear plus renewables. Looking forward, RMI’s Reinventing Fire (2011) rigorously showed how to quadruple the efficiency of using US electricity by 2050, at historically reasonable speed, and at an average cost one-tenth the cost of buying electricity today. That study’s findings have nicely tracked the decade of market evolution since, while the efficiency potential has considerably increased

These views are explained and documented in my March 30, 2021 Energy & Environmental Study Institute 20-minute brief to Congressional members and staff. Its slides and narrative, plus a data-rich Appendix, can be found here. The content is also reflected in an earlier and more popular article in Forbes. The underlying technical analysis—including the timing of renewable substitution after a nuclear shutdown—is on pp 228–256 of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019, consistent with emerging examples from California and New York.

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The “pro” discussion is further confused by muddled mentions of batteries and hydrogen—just two of ten proven carbon-free resources for balancing largely or wholly renewable grids. Widely cited studies purporting to show that largely or wholly renewable power supply is impossible or at best very costly generally omit most or all of the other eight options. My recent article, Twelve energy and climate myths, dispels the common misconceptions implicit in this point of view, and should also help to dispel a common mischaracterization of what happened in Germany and Japan. Two slides from my EESI brief tell that story from the official data:

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apan’s utilities replaced lost nuclear output (red) largely with fossil fuels (black) while national policies suppressed renewables (especially windpower) and shielded legacy assets from competition. More than a third of Japan’s nuclear capacity has closed, and most of the rest remains in limbo as utilities’ credibility and financial strength ebb. Yet in nine years after the Fukushima disaster, renewables (green) plus savings (blue) displaced 150% of Japan’s lost nuclear output if adjusted for GDP growth, 108% if not adjusted. Thus Japan’s old nuclear market vanished before more reactors could restart—if restart had a business case. In the first three-fourths of the current Fiscal Year, nuclear and fossil fuels fell even faster as renewables grew to 23% of Japan’s generation—the official target for ten years later [22–24% in FY2030]

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