California’s Blackouts Show Nuclear’s Importance

  • Date: 01/10/20
  • Sam Rutzick, Real Clear Energy

Renewable energy, as it stands, cannot work as an independent power source without nuclear power. 

If California were an independent nation, it would have the fifth-largest economy in the world. With a GDP of $3.2 trillion, it would sit just behind Germany and just ahead of India. It’s the home of Hollywood, one of the most important cultural centers in the world, and it’s one of the most vibrant areas for technological development. The Golden State shouldn’t have trouble keeping the lights on. 

Yet last month, two million Californians were left without power during a record-breaking heatwave as the state performed its first rolling blackouts in nearly two decades. The shutoffs were necessary because of the state’s reliance on renewable energy. Cloudy days and still weather meant renewable power sources could only serve 18% of Californian’s demand — nowhere near enough. The state used to make up for that shortfall by importing power from other western states; which it couldn’t do this time, as those other states needed the power as everyone was stuck inside. California could avoid this problem in the future by embracing nuclear power. 

Moving away from fossil fuels has a whole laundry list of positives, even beyond the simple fact of climate change. But renewable energy needs to be reliable for it to be useful. Barring that reliability, you need an alternate power source to fill in the gaps. There is, of course, the option of natural gas—but natural gas still has the issue of carbon emissions.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, generates zero carbon. Yet Californians, and Americans more broadly, have chosen to abandon nuclear as a potential power source. Fourteen states  put restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power plants. So has Massachusetts, New York, and thirteen other states. Nuclear waste ( solid, radioactive fuel leftover from reactors) is a continual fear in the eyes of nuclear skeptics, despite the fact that in the last 50 years there have been no leaks or accidental releases. There will be no more reactors until a solution can be found for nuclear waste disposal. 

What the state legislatures have chosen to ignore is that such a solution practically exists. France, for example, sources nearly three quarters of its power from nuclear sources. Germany — until political concerns forced it’s shutdown — used to source 25% of its power from nuclear energy. But in these nations, nuclear waste is reused, and reprocessed into new fuel for extant reactors — the waste itself won’t need to be disposed, practically until the end of the century; by which time the nuclear storage facilities that are planned, developed, and only held up due to political bickering can be operational. 

Nuclear is a highly, highly regulated industry. It’s one that’s beset by a laundry list of requirements and licenses before a reactor can go online. Partially, you can’t fault that. After all, they are dangerous, as even the most enthusiastic of nuclear’s advocates will admit. But most of these worries are overblown. Rather than considering the actual risks, the American mind is occupied by images of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

But modern nuclear reactors are designed such that a meltdown can’t occur in the way it did in those disasters. In older reactors, water was pumped electrically. A meltdown occurs when the fuel can no longer be cooled by the water that is pumped around the fuel, and it overheats. At Fukushima, that’s exactly what happened: the power went out, the pumps stop working, and the reactor overheated.  These days, reactor designs use gravity to move the water, and even when the electricity goes out, gravity won’t. It’s essentially failproof. 

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