This is Part 1 of a two-part series concluding in the August 2021 EXPLORER
The Nuclear Option
In the quest to reach net-zero emissions of
energy-related carbon dioxide by 2050, a
longtime goal of the United States, other
world governments and energy agencies, no
one is even close to achieving it.
Despite 2020’s largest decline in emissions
as a result of less energy usage during
the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Energy
Information Administration anticipates “a rapid
rebound in energy demand and emissions”
Furthermore, the EIA projects that by 2050,
U.S. energy-related emissions will be 5 percent
higher than 2020 levels.
Globally, emissions also are expected to
increase by at least 0.6 percent each year
“What happens to energy demand and
emissions in 2021 and beyond will depend
on how much emphasis governments put
on clean energy transitions in their efforts to
boost their economies in the coming months,”
the agency stated in a March 2 report titled,
“Global Energy Review: Global Emissions in
In an effort to turn the emissions curve
downward more quickly, President Joe Biden
announced at the April 22 Leaders Summit on
Climate that the United States should aim to
cut 2005 level emissions (which peaked at just
under 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide) by half
It’s a lofty goal, leaving many to question
whether or not it’s doable.
Fossil Fuel Dominance
Fossil fuels currently dominate the
global grid because the world needs energy
and its population continues to grow
toward a projected 10 billion, said AAPG
Member James Conca, a 33-year Earth and
environmental scientist and consultant for
federal and state environmental and energy
agencies as well as industry.
While it might seem ironic, access to
energy will be the world’s best environmental
protection. Studies, such as the United
Nation’s Human Development Index, have
shown that 3,000 kilowatt hours per person,
per year, results in lower birthrates.
“People become prosperous enough to not
depend on their children to feed them in their
old age,” Conca said. “You can’t save people
and the planet without energy.”
Yet that energy must be clean, sustainable
and – at this point – include a significant
presence of nuclear power, said Conca, who is
also a member of the Uranium Committee of
AAPG’s Energy Minerals Division.
Moving backward in its goal to reach
net-zero emissions by 2050 and 3 billion tons
by 2030, the United States must play a major
game of catch-up.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, the International Energy Agency,
the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions
Networks and the Global Commission on the
Economy and Climate are encouraging tripling
the amount of nuclear energy in the world to
stabilize global carbon emissions.
After five decades of significant strides
in safety, efficiency and cost, nuclear is a
major key to making net-zero emissions more
than “a pie in the sky” idea, said Conca, who
specializes in geologic disposal of nuclear
waste, energy-related research, planetary
surface processes and radiobiology.
Although wind and solar have dominated
mainstream discussions about clean energy,
nuclear has been quietly advancing to
become a power fuel that can most effectively
serve large and growing populations while
simultaneously lowering emissions.
The United States’ primary energy mix
relies on 37 percent petroleum, 32 percent
natural gas and 11 percent coal – a total of 80
percent dependence on fossil fuels, according
to the EIA.
While fuel for electricity generation varies
more, coal produces roughly 30 percent;
natural gas, 34 percent; nuclear, 20 percent;
hydropower, 7 percent; wind, 6 percent; and
others, 3 percent.
To get even remotely close to net-zero emissions and
Biden’s 2030 goal, Conca calculated that the United States
- Stop building new fossil fuel plants.
- Stop closing existing nuclear power plants that have been
deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
- Build wind turbines to generate an additional 500,000
- Install rooftop solar panels on all new buildings to
generate an additional 800 billion kilowatt hours.
- Double hydroelectric power using existing dams to reach
600 billion kilowatt hours.
- Secure sources of lithium, cobalt, iron and other metals
needed to build batteries for fully electric vehicles.
- Produce a fleet of 150 million fully electric vehicles and
100,000 charging stations along all roadways.
- Streamline the process to site and approve high-voltage
transmission lines to support this abundance of renewables.
Even if the United States could attain these high-reaching
goals, neither Biden’s 2030 proposal nor net-zero emissions
can be achieved without a significant nuclear energy
component, Conca said.
Currently, the United States has 94 operating nuclear power
reactors in 28 states, according to the EIA. These reactors
generate approximately 20 percent of the country’s electricity.
The United States would need to build an additional 100
standard reactors (1,000 megawatts) to generate 40 percent
of the nation’s power and, combined with existing operating
reactors, support approximately 132 million people, Conca said.
In lieu of large commercial reactors, the United States
could build 2,000 small modular reactors – a type of advanced
nuclear reactor designed to operate with accident-tolerant fuels
that won’t melt down, explained Paul Goranson, CEO of Encore
Energy Corp, a U.S. uranium company.
Private companies are currently testing the country’s
first commercial SMRs, and many expect them to become
an accepted and pervasive form of electricity generation
throughout the country and the world.
SMRs are ideal for small markets, Goranson said, pointing
to states with small populations, such as Wyoming and Alaska,
that would need just a handful to generate 1,000 megawatts
of power. Underserved markets in California would also benefit
SMRs are considered by those in the industry to be “small,
safe and manageable,” and they require minimal waste
handling, Goranson said.
Two thousand SMRs would provide electricity for an
estimated 132 million people.
Conca said both options would cost about $1.6 trillion –
“pretty much the same as installing windfarms to produce the
same amount of energy.”
“When you get to these numbers, whatever the energy
source, material availability becomes critical,” Conca said.
“Whether it’s steel or neodymium, replacing our 4 trillion
kilowatt-hours per year will take a lot of materials, and the
amount differs widely between renewables and thermal.”
As it stands, natural gas plants require the least amount
of concrete and steel (with wind farms requiring the most),
making them financially attractive, but a step backward in
reducing emissions, he said.
A Case for Nuclear
Over the past four decades, the operation of nuclear
reactors in the United States has been “a safer source of energy
by far than in generating oil and gas, coal and renewables,” said
AAPG Member Michael Campbell, chair of the EMD’s Uranium
Committee and senior principal and chief geologist/chief
hydrogeologist at I2M Consulting, LLC, in Houston and Seattle.
More than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel
pollution, according to research from Harvard University, in
collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University
of Leicester and University College London, published in
the April 2021 issue of the journal Environmental Research.
Researchers estimated that exposure to particulate matter
from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18 percent of total
global deaths in 2018 – just shy of one in five people.
Deaths from non-fossil fuels tend to be accident-related and
much lower, with nuclear power holding the lowest death rate,
Unlike wind and solar, which provide only intermittent power,
nuclear energy is a consistent power source that can easily be
turned on and off, Campbell said.
Many renewables rely on natural gas as a back-up fuel
when nuclear would better serve that function. “Natural gas has
long been touted as a bridge fuel to a non-fossil future beyond
this century. But that is nonsense,” Conca said. “We don’t have
a century. And if a lot of new gas plants are built, especially to
load-follow wind and solar, then we lock ourselves into gas for a
long, long time.”
Furthermore, as recently constructed wind and solar
projects mature, it’s been discovered that the cost of electricity
they are producing increases rapidly, Campbell said. This is
because of low conversion production efficiencies and the fact
that operation and maintenance costs were either overlooked
or underestimated, he said.
A quick glance at California underscores this fact, as
consumers struggle with rising electricity costs, blackouts and
power interruptions because the renewable systems cannot
produce sufficient power.
Uranium fuel costs represent just 5 percent of the operating
cost of a nuclear power plant, while fuel costs for power
plants using natural gas are much higher. The volume of fuel
needed is the principal difference in that 1 kilogram of uranium
contains the energy equivalent of 17,000 cubic feet of natural
gas, Campbell said.
“Not only is nuclear power climate-friendly,” he added, “it has
the potential to create thousands of high-paying jobs.”
More reactors are operating in the world today, so there is
growth in nuclear power, Goranson said. But there is no new
production in the United States.
“The point of the Cold War was to scare people, and it
worked,” Conca said, acknowledging that incidents at Three
Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi exacerbated a
longtime fear of nuclear energy. “But it was supposed to scare
people about nuclear weapons and not nuclear power.”
People need to get beyond negative perceptions of nuclear
power, Campbell added, emphasizing that scientists have
learned how to prevent such incidents from reoccurring.
In the race to slow the rate of warming, and with nuclear
energy rising as a viable, indispensable option, will the United
States and other countries be able to get on board?
“Companies are spending huge amounts of money
trying to hit the market first” as the dominant provider of
green energy, Campbell said. “Like any capitalist venture, if
you can produce a product and service that is good, safe
and cost effective, you will win. Nuclear is starting on a
new track in the United States.”
Excerpt for Part 2:
Nuclear scientists have learned how to build nuclear reactors for power generation that won’t cause meltdowns
experienced at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, said AAPG Member Michael Campbell, chair of the
Energy Minerals Division’s Uranium Committee and senior principal and chief geologist/chief hydrogeologist at I2M
“Small module reactors are coming on strong,” he said. “That’s the new nuclear industry that’s approaching. They are
built not to fail and not to produce radiation. I foresee them all over.”