Pick your poison: nuclear or ‘clean coal’

One issue raised at the conference I recently attended was this: both Ontario and Germany are in the position where they want to phase out coal-fired power plants. In addition, Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power, whereas Ontario is strongly considering maintaining and expanding existing facilities. In order to phase out nuclear without continuing to rely on dirty coal, one presenter asserted that carbon capture and storage (CCS) on coal plants is the only feasible and politically acceptable option.

Assuming for the moment that maintaining adequate energy supplies in the near-term requires one or the other, which is the more suitable choice? With nuclear, the risks are largely known and the biggest uncertainties relate to costs. With CCS, there are huge uncertainties about cost, alongside big uncertainties about safety, scale, and feasibility. The worst you get with nuclear is a lot of wasted taxpayer money, more nuclear proliferation, contaminated sites, and some accidents. The worst you get by relying on CCS is wasted money, accidents, proliferation of coal plants, and the extension of the high-carbon phase in whatever countries bet wrongly that it will work.

To me, if the choice is exclusively between nuclear fission and CCS right now, it seems that nuclear is the most risk-averse option. That being said, the calculation may change a great deal when you factor in opportunities for conserving power, using it more efficiently, and generating it using renewables. That won’t make CCS more attractive, relative to nuclear, but it may mean we are presented with a less stark choice than was assumed at the outset of this discussion.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “Pick your poison: nuclear or ‘clean coal’”

  1. I think using power more efficiency will never cause a major reduction in power consumption, because it will produce reductions that simply lower the price of power and therefore the incentives to be more efficient.

    We need to use less power by, in fact, using less power. Living more expensive lives. I.e. the power costs need to go up.

  2. I agree that we are unlikely to use less power that we do now, as the result of energy efficiency improvements. That being said, we may use less power than we would in a scenario that includes the same economic and general technological development, but not the push towards efficiency. As such, the reductions are against an imagined business-as-usual (BAU) level, not our actual current level.

    See also: The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate

  3. If humanity burns all the oil and natural gas – as well as much of the coal – it will take 2000 years for 50% of the carbon dioxide to be removed from the atmosphere.

    It will take 10,000 years before the resulting temperature anomaly ends.

    These timescales are similar to those associated with radioactive waste.

  4. Assuming for the moment that maintaining adequate energy supplies in the near-term requires one or the other, which is the more suitable choice?

    I am going with nuclear – at least in states that have capable regulators.

  5. United Kingdom Faces a Quandary Over New Nuclear or Coal Power

    Published: August 27, 2009

    LONDON — The United Kingdom is nearing a crucial decision as it tries to tackle the climate crisis — whether to make a major push into new nuclear power or to proliferate coal-fired power plants constructed so their carbon emissions are captured and safely stored.

    While U.S. officials and America’s utility industry continue to mull this question, Britain’s decisional clock is ticking much faster. At stake are not just the government’s pressing legal commitments to slash the country’s contribution to global emissions of climate-changing carbon gases, but also a stated policy goal of reducing dependence on energy imports from unstable regions.

    In a recent report on the country’s future energy mix, Malcolm Wicks — a former energy minister and now Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s special representative on international energy — called for a tripling of the amount of electricity produced from nuclear power plants from 12.5 percent of the national total now to 35 percent to 40 percent by 2030.

  6. Hungary and Poland plan nuclear to replace coal

    Hungary is now the sixth European country to bring forward its coal phaseout plan, announcing that it will shut its last remaining coal plant in 2025. Meanwhile Poland says its first nuclear power unit will be built in Gdansk and the second one probably at the site of its Belchatów coal plant.

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