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Nuclear Energy and the Green New Deal

As many of you know, the Green New Deal (which I fervently support and never shut up about, even though we're still not sure exactly what it is) has come under fire for allegedly excluding nuclear energy. The original proposal for a GND committee did exclude nuclear by specifying 100% renewable energy, but the current GND resolution says 100% clean, renewable, and net emissions neutral energy, which does allow for nuclear (and CCS, which we'll talk about in a bit). However, Ocasio-Cortez herself opposes nuclear energy, and has come under a lot of fire as a result.

To understand why, we need to understand how the electrical system works. You can think of the electrical system as being made up of two curves: the supply curve and the demand curve. (These are different from the supply and demand curves in microeconomics.) These curves show the amount of energy produced and consumed at each moment of the day. Our demand for electricity is low during the night, rises during the morning, falls some during the afternoon, rises sharply in the evening as people get home from work, and then falls off during the night.

The challenge of the electrical system is to keep these two curves (energy demanded and energy produced) as close to each other as possible. If we produce less energy than is demanded, we suffer blackouts. If we produce too much energy, it explodes. (Or rather, it increases the wear and tear on the systems designed to keep things from exploding, and then eventually those systems wear out, and then it explodes.)

Traditionally, we've done this by having multiple kinds of power plant. On the one hand, we have baseline power plants, which chug along at full capacity all day, every day, and provide the minimum amount of energy that's always needed. These are usually something like coal or nuclear. Then you have the load-following plants, which come online or go offline as needed to increase energy production to match demand. Then you have peaking plants, which are able to quickly come online during peak hours. (Peaking and load following are often done by the same plant.) Load following and peaking plants are often natural gas.

Solar power throws a huge wrench into this system, because you can't turn the sun on and off to meet demand. Instead, you need to turn the solar panels themselves off, which is horrendously economically inefficient. (It is, however, more efficient than using batteries. Batteries are a terrible way to store energy, and are only really useful for portable devices that need relatively small charges, like cell phones and cars.) This means that, in order to get to 100% solar (or 100% solar plus wind, which faces similar issues), you'd need to build far more solar panels than you actually need for most hours of the day, and still spend a fortune on batteries (or some of the alternatives, like pumped hydro) for when the sun is down.

Alternately, you could combine renewables with clean sources of energy that are easier to control, such as nuclear or natural gas with carbon capture storage (CCS). Under such a system, you'd only need enough solar panels to meet 100% of demand at mid-day (as opposed to three or four times that amount plus an insane number of batteries with an all-solar system). Once we get to other parts of the day, the difference between the required energy and the energy from solar would be made up using the alternate clean energy source, and at night, the alternate source would supply 100% of the electricity.

However, there are still problems with this. Natural gas with CCS is still under development, and may not be ready in time for the Green New Deal. It also involves burning fossil fuels, which is politically awkward (though it may get Joe Manchin to vote for it).

Nuclear faces a whole host of imaginary problems, one medium problem, and one big problem. The imaginary problems mostly focus on safety, and are mostly due to inaccurate media representations and Chernobyl. The reactor at Chernobyl was an unusual type of reactor that heats up when things go wrong, unlike other reactors that cool down when things go wrong. Most countries never had any interest in the reactor design that explodes when something breaks, but the Soviets ignored the safety concerns and ended up spraying radiation all over Ukraine. That was a bad decision on the Soviets' part, and nobody thinks we should imitate them. Non-Soviet reactors have a much, much better safety record. Excluding workplace accidents (e.g. somebody wandering around the fuel rods without any safety gear), there hasn't been a single nuclear power-related death outside of the Soviet Union since the 1950's.

The medium problem is nuclear waste. There are serious concerns about how it's stored. Although Fukushima didn't lead to any radiation-related deaths, it did still result in a major brownfield site because the spent fuel rods there weren't being properly stored, and the stress from the evacuation is thought to have contributed to a fatality.

Fortunately, the vast majority of nuclear waste is recyclable. Spent fuel rods can be reprocessed, and breeder reactors can run on depleted uranium without the need for reprocessing. There would still be some waste left over, but this dramatically reduces the long-term severity of the problem.

A bigger concern is that most of the expense of a nuclear reactor is in the cost of construction. This means that, when you use a nuclear reactor to load follow solar, that reactor still costs as much as if it was generating electricity full time. This makes it less efficient to use nuclear for load-following, though it's still more efficient than 100% solar. It also means that, for an optimal system, solar would only account for a small amount of energy production, potentially less than half as much as nuclear. This is a political problem, because most of the momentum is behind solar, and it's a practical problem, because much of our solar generation takes place on people's rooftops and isn't subject to any kind of central planning. It makes financial sense for people to have rooftop solar, but even though it saves those people money, it makes it so the nuclear plants they rely on for load-balancing are less financially viable.

Fortunately, there's a design for a new kind of nuclear reactor, called a Small Modular Reactor (SMR), which is currently in the approval process. SMRs are small enough to be mass produced in a factory and transported to their sites by truck, which dramatically reduces the construction costs. Reducing those upfront costs makes it less financially painful to turn the reactor off when renewable energy generation is high, which enables SMRs to load follow. Indeed, the SMR pilot project at Idaho National Laboratory is going to be load following the local wind farms.

If nuclear can be used to effectively load-follow renewables, that will open up a lot of doors to turning the dream of the Green New Deal into reality. Even if SMRs don't end up being the optimal solution, there's a very high chance that the optimal solution will involve nuclear in some way. We need to be careful not to shut the door on technologies we may need to rely on.

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