Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made a stunning statement on the radio show of climate change denier Glenn Beck this week:
... the French are able to generate 80% of their electricity with nuclear power. There's no reason why America shouldn't.
Why can't we? Wrong question, Senator. The right question is -- Why would we? Let's do the math.
The U.S. has some one hundred nuclear reactors providing about nearly 100 Gigawatts of capacity (see here) and nearly 800,000 Gigawatt-hours of electricity, roughly 20% of total U.S. power. For the record, France has only 59 reactors, capacity of about 63 GW, generating 550,000 GW-hr (some of which is exported), covering nearly 80% of their usage (see here). [Note to Sen. McCain: France is a much smaller country than ours.]
What would it take for us to be 80% Nuclear?
We would have to quadruple the number of reactors to 400, which would take decades even if we could somehow return to -- and sustain -- the fastest decadal rate of U.S. nuclear plant construction. But that wouldn't mean just building 300 new nuclear plants, for several reasons.
First, by 2050, almost all of the existing plants would need to be replaced, so that is another hundred to build if we want to hit the 80% goal.
And then, since McCain is not a big booster of energy efficiency (his McCain-Lieberman climate bill has no substantive energy efficiency provisions in it at all), we have to deal with some 1.1% annual electricity growth, which means we'll need more than 600 nukes in 2050.
Third, McCain wants to switch much of our oil consumption to electricity (a strategy I endorse). As he said in last year's energy policy speech:
I'll work to promote real partnerships between utilities and automakers to accelerate the deployment of plug-in hybrids.... Fifty percent of cars on the road are driven 25 miles a day or less. Affordable battery-powered vehicles that can meet average commuter needs could help us cut oil imports in half.
Bottom Line: To satisfy McCain's odd desire to be like the French and get 80% of our electricity from nuclear power in the coming decades would require building more than 700 (GW-sized) nuclear power plants by midcentury -- more than one a month.
Although we have been unable as a country to agree on even one storage site for our existing nukes' radioactive waste (Yucca Mountain), the McCain plan would require seven such sites -- for a longer discussion of just what 700 GW would entail, see the Keystone Center's 2007 nuclear study discussed at "Nuclear Power No Climate Cure-All."
And remember that the Bush administration just signed a deal permitting all reactor fuel to come from Russia post-2020 (see here). McCain trusts the Russians so much, he wants to exclude them from the G-8 meetings. So where would we get all our uranium from?
Finally, in October, Moody's Investors Service said "new reactors would cost up to $6,000 per kilowatt of capacity to build" -- I'll be posting a longer review of nuclear costs soon, and suffice it to say, Moody's estimate is not the high end these days. Since $6,000 per kw is $6 billion per GW, 700 GW would require a cost of some $4 trillion, assuming there was no significant cost escalation from production delays and from the serious bottlenecks in the nuclear supply chain (see "Look up nuclear bottleneck in the dictionary....") -- and not even counting the cost of the uranium.
Dontcha think the country could find a better use for that kind of money in the effort to avoid catastrophic global warming and the harsh consequences of peak oil -- something better than committing this country to an ultimately unsustainable high-cost energy source for the entire 21st Century?
Apparently the GOP nominee thinks the answer is "no." Caveat Emptor!
For my fellow energy realists, I would add that it would take an astonishing effort just to have nuclear power in 2050 provide the same 20% of U.S. power it does today -- an outcome I am not inherently opposed to, but I certainly wouldn't devote yet more tens of billions of federal subsidies to, as McCain would, especially given the myriad flaws nuclear power has.
That's why I have little doubt that if we can move beyond the uninformed platitudes of people like McCain and ever really get serious about global warming and peak oil, then the realistic, affordable solution is at hand -- namely energy efficiency to avoid significant load growth, concentrated solar power to replace most coal, and wind power for plug-in charging. And yes, we'll still have some hydro and nukes and combined cycle natural gas turbines and/or cogen in 2050, and possibly even some coal with carbon capture and storage, assuming that industry ever gets serious about that possible solution.