Nuclear should complement wind and solar — not compete

Nuclear should complement wind and solar — not compete
© Getty Images

Nuclear power is enjoying a resurgence politically, even as it stumbles financially. Republicans like Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzBuckingham Palace requests 'Trump Train' remove image of queen from bus Kinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Federal investigators seeking cooperation from former Gaetz girlfriend, second key witness: CNN MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE (R-Tenn.) are emphasizing nuclear in their climate plans, allowing them to be “for” something rather than just “against” the Green New Deal. One advocate suggests Republicans can “own the libs on climate change” by “defending” nuclear.

With or without the partisanship, advocates have long cast nuclear in opposition to wind and solar, dismissing them as costly and unreliable competitors. Those arguments no longer ring true. Costs have fallen 69 percent for wind and 88 percent for solar in just nine years. Research by my group and others has shown that blending the output from wind and solar farms can provide round-the-clock power with fewer batteries, which also are plunging in cost.

Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has struggled. No new plants have been built in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. A site in South Carolina is being left uncompleted after $9 billion in expenses, while another in Georgia is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. More than one-third of nuclear plants are at risk of early closure as they struggle to compete with cheaper wind, solar and natural gas.

Nuclear power has its merits. Although long-term waste storage remains unresolved, U.S. nuclear plants have operated safely for four decades. Their emissions-free power averts the deadly, water-polluting and climate-warming pollution from coal.

The merits of nuclear give reason to wish for its revival. But bashing wind and solar to boost nuclear won’t achieve it. Nuclear’s future depends instead on serving as a complement rather than competitor to wind and solar in a shared quest for clean, reliable and affordable electricity.

Given the recent stumbles, any significant revival in nuclear deployments won’t occur until at least the 2030’s. By then, power grids will feature far more wind and solar power than today, thanks in part to renewable portfolio standards in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Thus, the next generation of nuclear plants must be designed to play nicely with wind and solar. Old nuclear plants struggle to modulate their output as winds and sunshine vary. New plants will be more profitable if they can ramp up output when it’s needed most, and ramp down or divert power to purposes like producing hydrogen when it’s windy and sunny.

Research by scholars at MIT has shown that to affordably achieve very clean electricity, we’ll need not just batteries but also “firm low-carbon resources” to balance wind and solar. Those resources include anything from nuclear to geothermal to bioenergy that can be dispatched when needed. Without them, building enough batteries to get us through the coldest winter nights or the hottest summer evenings would be very costly. Thus, nuclear’s true competitors on a future clean grid will be other firm resources, not the wind and solar power that they would complement.

The future of nuclear power depends on two simultaneous pursuits: research and development of next-generation technology, and aggressive targets for very clean electricity. Republicans have been promoting the former, and Democrats the latter. But only with the two together can next-generation nuclear facilities become vital to balancing wind and solar for a clean and affordable power supply. If emissions targets are merely modest, batteries and natural gas will be adequate for affordably balancing wind and solar, the MIT research shows.

Thus, rather than tilting at windmills, nuclear advocates should be embracing wind and solar as potential partners for a cleaner grid. A synergy of Republican and Democratic priorities offers the nuclear industry its best shot at a brighter future after four decades of woes.

Daniel Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.