It’s been a little over a week since bone-chilling, skin-mangling, tear-freezing temperatures gripped more than half the population of the United States and Canada, and the results are in: Nuclear Power 1, Polar Vortex 0.
It seems that America’s nuclear power stations, more so than its over-challenged gas-fired and coal-fired plants, kept the place warm, the lights on and businesses running when the sub-zero Fahrenheit numbers swept across the midwest to the eastern seaboard, taunting “see if you can survive this.”
Americans did get by – except for an unlucky few – thanks in large measure to nuclear power, which was able to stand up to the challenging conditions where other power sources could not, and which chipped in with a much higher share of the supply than normal.
To bring you the story in more detail, I’m going to crib from a few other sources, like Forbes Magazine. It ran an edifying piece headlined “Polar Vortex – Nuclear Saves the Day” by scientist James Conca, who noted that nuclear – and to a lesser extent wind – “stepped up to the plate to relieve natural gas and coal when they failed to deliver on demand.”
THE ATTACK OF THE VORTEX
Keep in mind that coal and natural gas are the leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S., far ahead of nuclear. In the nine months through October 2013, coal’s share was 39 percent, natural gas was 28 percent and nuclear’s was 19 percent according the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.
But not during a polar vortex, which in case your eyes and ears were frozen shut and you didn’t even hear about the whole thing, is basically when Arctic air spins further south than normal.
As Conca noted: “In New England, natural gas electricity generation faltered so much that regional grid administrator ISO New England had to bring up dirtier coal and oil plants to try to make up the difference. Nuclear energy didn’t have many problems at all and actually became the primary provider of electricity in New England, just edging out gas 29% to 27% (Hartford Business). Oil generation made up 15% while coal accounted for 14%.”
What went wrong with fossil fuels? Conca explained: “Coal stacks were frozen or diesel generators simply couldn’t function in such low temperatures. Gas choked up – its pipelines couldn’t keep up with demand – and prices skyrocketed.”
SO MUCH FOR “CHEAP” GAS
Ah, prices. Environmental impact aside, one of the great criticisms of the world’s reliance on fossil fuels is that they are subject to wild price volatility. The polar vortex delivered a jarring example. With many of the frozen states reliant on natural gas both for heat and electricity, the ravaging laws of supply and demand kicked in.
Yes, even all that “cheap” natural gas associated with America’s fracking craze is susceptible to the forces of market economies and the vagaries of weird weather.
“In Nebraska, natural gas prices were up more than 300 percent,” Conca reported, noting that in that state, a temporary boost in wind energy’s contribution to the grid helped keep down costs.
“The tight constraints on fuel supplies sent prices for gas soaring in New York City from about $13 per million British thermal units over the weekend to nearly $50 on Monday,” the Washington Times reported amid the event. “Wholesale electricity prices also soared from about $139 per megawatt hour to $225 on Monday in New York.”
In contrast, nuclear prices remained steady.
THE ROCK OF NUCLEAR
What’s more, the cold did not stagger the plants. On the contrary, output rose.
“Nuclear did quite well throughout the vortex period,” Conca wrote in Forbes. “The entire fleet operated at 95% capacity, a ridiculously high value (NEI).”
World Nuclear News chimed in on the same note, pointing out that nuclear plants in Canada as well as the U.S. operated at over 90 capacity.
WNN cited U.S. trade body the Nuclear Energy Institute, which described American nuclear reactors as “unfazed” and noted that “No nuclear energy facility has reported unusual issues during the cold snap, due in part to Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant procedures to ensure continued safe operation in extreme weather conditions.”
“Without nuclear, we would have had blackouts, and real public danger at these temperatures,” Conca concluded.
The vortex episode reminds us that nuclear is not a lumbering, centralised, un-resilient dinosaur, as detractors would have it. Rather, nuclear power’s stringent engineering and expert operators makes U.S. reactors more dependable in a crisis than other more “flexible” energy sources like fossil fuels or intermittent renewables. It is an ultra-reliable source of “base load” electricity.
Not only do we need nuclear power, but we should be developing new and even better reactor types than what the world operates today. As steady as the current fleet of reactors were in during the frosty spell, there are improvements on the horizon. Molten salt reactors and other high temperature models, for instance, could lower nuclear costs, improve on nuclear’s already impressive safety record, and mitigate waste and weapons proliferation concerns.
Of course, you could also read the wintry fossil fuel jams as a call for more fracking for natural gas and for more pipelines, to help keep the gas fired plants running in the future.
But do we really want that? Do we really want more fossil fuels, the finitely available stuff that with its greenhouse gas emissions (nuclear generation does not release CO2) is contributing to extreme weather? (That’s not to say that climate change specifically set off last week’s deep freeze, but the overall correlation between CO2 and the increasing incidents of unusual weather patterns is there). Do we want to subject ourselves to the ongoing price volatility that has forever been the whim of the fossil fuel industry?
That thought alone is enough to send a sub-zero shiver down the spine. Nuclear, on the other hand, can keep the fires burning.
Photo is from Shuvaev via Wikimedia