Proponents of nuclear power have been coming out from under their rocks recently, as global warming has forced a new look at alternatives to fossil fuel. But in a recent letter published in Science magazine (and reprinted in the RMI Newsletter, August 1988), Rocky Mountain Institute researchers Bill Keepin and Gregory Kats make a compelling case against a rush to build more reactors.
Readers of IN CONTEXT are familiar with the concept of generating negawatts: electricity saved by efficiency measures is made available for other uses, and costs less than building more power plants. (See Issue #19, "Energy and Security: An Interview with Amory Lovins.") By comparing the best available cost estimates for both nuclear power and energy efficiency technologies, Keepin and Kats show that investing in efficiency buys a lot more abatement of the greenhouse effect for the buck.
Using even the most optimistic estimates for the price of new nuclear electricity – 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the Council for Energy Awareness – and the most conservative figures on the cost of generating new negawatts, efficiency still replaces 2.5 times as much fossil-fuel electricity for every new dollar invested. Hence it stops 2.5 times as many molecules of CO2 from entering the atmosphere and hastening global climate change. (See chart.)
RMI’s more optimistic estimates have efficiency outpacing nuclear by a factor of 10. And nuclear power only replaces power plants, which account for just one-third of all carbon emissions. "In contrast, powerful end-use efficiency options are available for the entire range of fossil-fuel uses, " write Keepin and Kats, "including the two-thirds of uses (transport and heat) for which electricity is an uneconomic or impractical substitute."
Moreover, energy efficiency has already cut U.S. carbon emissions by 30% since 1973, works to reduce acid rain, and has none of nuclear power’s many (and potentially lethal) attendant problems.