Most of us know the children’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. The hare runs out to a big lead in a race, while the tortoise keeps plugging along, eventually overtaking the hare when the hare runs out of energy. This analogy can be applied to other endeavors, including the development of electricity generating sources. In this analogy, nuclear energy is the tortoise, while other energy sources, including renewables, can be considered the hare. Renewables must stop and catch their breath when the sun stops shining or the wind stops blowing, while nuclear keeps plugging along.
In an effort to fight climate change, renewables such as solar and wind power have been aggressively pursued. There has been much success, but it has been recognized that renewables can only take us so far as they are not sufficient, by themselves, to win the race against climate change. Recently, John Kerry, the U.S. climate czar, admitted as much, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, as he noted that some component of nuclear was necessary to meet climate change abatement objectives. The Biden administration, of which Kerry is part of as the U.S. Climate Envoy, is committed to supporting nuclear energy through various initiatives.
Beyond climate change, the need for nuclear energy has been highlighted by growing concerns about energy security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If we changed the lexicon of a desired energy source from “renewable” to “dependable,” nuclear would be the clear winner. Obviously, wind and solar are not available 100% of the time. While we are not likely to run out of coal, natural gas, or oil anytime soon, there can be disruptions in the flow of these supplies, especially natural gas and oil, for political reasons. Further, if the desired energy source is “non-carbon emitting,” nuclear would again be the winner.
It is true that it takes a while for nuclear plants to be built, but once online, they’re around for a long time. Tortoises have long lifespans, ranging from 80 to 150 years. Nuclear power plants are now approaching lifespans of 80 years, but who knows how long they could be extended in the future. It is also true that nuclear requires a large upfront capital investment. However, when evaluating this cost, one must take into consideration not only the length of time a reactor will be in operation, but the attendant benefits such as clean and dependable energy, the value of which has only been increasing in recent years.
As the world confronts energy and climate crises, the value of having nuclear energy becomes clearer and countries are taking notice. An example of this is what is happening in Sweden. At one point, Sweden was going to abandon nuclear energy, but the imperatives for nuclear were too strong, and recently Sweden has re-embraced nuclear energy with plans to add more reactors. In contrast, Germany has elected to shutter all its reactors with no plans to build new ones. Germany is clearly losing the race, as its economy is stumbling in face of higher energy costs and less reliable energy supplies, to say nothing about depending more on environmentally unfriendly energy sources. One consequence of Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power is a recent government decision to authorize coal plants to come back online until March 2024 as the nation grapples with continued energy uncertainty.
Like tortoises, for nuclear power plants to have long lives, it must be ensured that they are protected and nurtured. Many subspecies of tortoises and turtles are endangered or critically endangered. Nuclear power plants face their own set of dangers, from misguided political calculations to being destroyed in a war. Somewhat ironically, climate change is a key factor threatening tortoises but is one of the things that nuclear energy mitigates. Support nuclear power and save the tortoises!
Jeff Combs is founder, owner, and Chairman of UxC, LLC (UxC) and is a leading expert in the nuclear fuel market, with over 45 years of experience providing economic analysis and forecasting for the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. He has extensive and varied expertise, overseeing UxC market reports, providing strategic consulting to major commercial companies in the nuclear fuel industry, and advising governments and international organizations on market and policy issues. Under his management, UxC has grown to become the world’s pre-eminent nuclear fuel market information and analysis company, issuing reports and publishing prices for all front-end nuclear fuel markets. In 2007, UxC teamed with CME/NYMEX to introduce the world’s first uranium futures contract. That same year UxC began reporting on the backend of the fuel cycle. In 2018, Mr. Combs created the atompeace.org website to advance understanding of peaceful uses of the atom in today’s world. During his career, Mr. Combs has presented papers at a variety of nuclear industry and energy economics conferences throughout the world. In addition, he has had his work published in academic and public policy journals. Mr. Combs earned a bachelor's degree in Economics at the University of Virginia, where he also completed his doctoral course work in economics. He is a charter member of the International Association of Energy Economics and is a member of the American Nuclear Society.