By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

On April 7, 2014, Professor Emeritus Mehdi Sarram gave a lecture at UCSD that addressed how increasing pressure to meet global energy needs must be met by both nuclear energy plants and renewable energy. [1] Professor Sarram is the president of Energy Security Consulting group, LLC, and has worked with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since its establishment in 1975, as well as with the Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facilities. Along with his impressive achievements in the realm of nuclear energy regulation and management, he was also one of the founders of Iran’s nuclear energy program and served as the Director of Nuclear Safeguards, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1973 to 1979. Despite the shutdown of a few nuclear plants across the United States and Germany’s recent divestment from nuclear energy, Professor Sarram argues that the world must not abandon nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is a significantly cost-efficient resource and provides an effective means of reducing global carbon emissions. [1]

According to Professor Sarram, a potential agenda for solving future energy needs in a more sustainable way is an expanded role for nuclear energy in conjunction with renewables and a global eradication of energy dependence on fossil fuels. Climate change scientists paint a dim portrait for our warming planet in the years to come. CO2 concentrations have increased by about 40 percent since the industrial era due primarily to anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions such as oil, gas and coal. The evils of fossil fuels cannot be denied. Coal produces about 100-200 times more of a carbon footprint than nuclear or wind power. [1] The Pacific Ocean is warming at a faster rate than has been observed overthe past 10,000 years, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying — the list is exhaustive. Whether or not you are an advocate for nuclear energy, all climate change scientists agree that the key to reducing the anthropogenic carbon footprint and mitigating the impending effects of climate change is the need for a complete global divestment from fossil fuels.

Moreover, Professor Sarram addresses how the world’s pressing energy needs are increasing due to the soaring global population growth. Developed, industrialized nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have a lower population growth rate than those in developing nations not affiliated with the OECD. Non-OECD nations thus consume more energy that inevitably places high demand on the environment and natural resources. To illustrate, non-OECD annual electricity demand growth is at 3.3 percent per year compared to only 1.2 percent of electricity demand increases per year in OECD nations. Since non-OECD nations are impoverished, the methods of energy extraction are often “dirty,” as people rely on cheap energy extraction methods such as burning coal and wood. Since forests naturally capture and store CO2, nations like China (which is the biggest polluter in the world) are eliminating natural sources of carbon storage through deforestation and enabling carbon to be stored in the atmosphere as a “sink.” OECD nations tend to be more environmentally conscientious. For example, OECD countries produce roughly half of the hydroelectricity produced worldwide. A highly important factor for future climate policy to address is how to get OECD countries to divest from fossil fuels, making renewables and nuclear power more economically appealing options for energy extraction. [1]

Professor Sarram’s argument for a global strengthening of the nuclear power industry is put into perspective with the recent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear station, which has negatively impacted the surrounding environment. The San Onofre Nuclear power plant was shut down in 2012 due to safety, equipment and political issues. What the public does not realize, however, is that the utility has increased its use of natural gas and other fossil fuels to replace the plant’s power generation, which provided up to 2000 MW of electricity for the San Diego county grid. In 2011, when San Onofre was still running, 50 percent of the utility’s energy sources came from carbon-free nuclear, hydroelectric and renewable sources. In 2012, only 30 percent of the utility’s electricity came from carbon-free resources. Professor Sarram insightfully identifies that the use of natural gas to replace the use of nuclear energy will create a significantly higher amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. With the shutdown of the nuclear plant, we need 2 million KWh of electric power. If we measure the carbon footprint of nuclear energy versus that of natural gas, we will see that natural gas produces 500 grams of CO2 per KWh more than nuclear energy. This increase in CO2 emissions per KWh amounts to a frightening 8.7 million tons of CO2 released per year into the atmosphere. [1] Despite the risks of nuclear energy, the loss of the environmental benefits from nuclear power plants is apparent with the end of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

Professor Sarram continues to argue that nuclear energy is, in fact, a “safe and reliable” electricity source. He makes an interesting observation that people continue to drive their cars, even with so many deaths related to car crashes. The probability of a core melt is less than one in a million for new designs, lower than the probability of death from a car accident which is already extremely low. While another nuclear accident may happen, civil management engineers have learned from previous human errors and poor design factors and have increased safety measures to avoid another accident. For the future, safety measures are also being established to mitigate the aftereffects of nuclear plant malfunctions so there is a fast “recovery” of the surroundings. Professor Sarram believes that society’s fear of nuclear energy is a fear based on misinformation, which is causing a divestment from nuclear energy and leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.[1] The public and government officials worldwide must be made aware of the immediate environmental benefits that nuclear energy provides rather than fear the possibilities of an accident.

Although Professor Sarram refers to nuclear energy as a “safe and reliable” source of electricity, this poses controversial insight amidst the recent disaster of Fukushima and the lingering aftereffects of Chernobyl. With all the concerns raised about nuclear disasters, why not just expand renewables like wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, tidal waves and biomass? Is it possible to rely solely on renewables and avoid nuclear energy altogether? Professor Sarram identifies a key limitation to renewables — a geographical barrier in terms of location. Wind or sun cannot be produced just anywhere, and the locations where wind and sun are produced may be the areas that need them the least. This poses a good argument in favor of nuclear power plant installations because, unlike a wind turbine or a solar panel, a nuclear power plant can be built anywhere on the planet and produce energy for the surrounding population. In fact, in 2006, 16 percent of the world population’s energy was nuclear and 25 of the OECD countries derived their energy from nuclear power. In the United States in the same year, about 20 percent of electricity was produced by 105 nuclear plants. [1]

In opposition, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, intends to make a world largely based on renewables where fossil fuels and nukes are a thing of the past. Jacobsen’s plan calls for the massive installation of millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar panels both on and offshore around the globe. Looking at the state level, in California, the potential benefits of such installations would create a net 137,000 permanent jobs. If the entire globe were powered by renewable energy, according to Jacobsen, this would prevent hazardous oil spills polluting water supplies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and clean up air pollution. Professor Sarram, however, disagrees with this proposal, as he reveals how Spain and the United Kingdom ran into deep trouble trying to produce more electricity from wind and solar. Spain has accumulated a debt of 26 billion euro for subsidies to wind and solar. [1]

Jacobsen claims that while renewable installations appear costly and inaccessible to non-OECD countries, the renewable infrastructure is long-lasting, furthering his ideal notions of dependency on renewables. We “do not need to keep feeding steel into a wind turbine that’s already up and running unlike the hungry beasts of fossil fuels, which endlessly devour coal, oil and gas” says Jacobsen. Professor Sarram, however, argues that the life of a wind tower is in reality only 15-20 years. Also, renewables have low capacity factors, unlike nuclear energy that has a capacity factor of 92 percent as compared to wind that has a capacity factor of 27 percent. In general, the costs of renewables have a decreasing trend in cost, while conversely the cost for fossil fuels is steadily rising. To put things into perspective, in the past four years costs for installing wind turbines have decreased by 50 percent. In the past year solar has declined in cost from between six percent and 14 percent. However, Professor Sarram reveals that currently the actual cost in cents per Kwhr is higher than both coal and nuclear, which remains the cheapest energy source along with hydropower. Again, this reveals that nuclear is presently a cost-effective source to replace the use of “dirty” energy sources in global marketplaces. Professor Sarram also poses another problem to renewables regarding intermittency. If the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing when the energy is most needed, then what? Jacobsen proposes combining wind and solar and using hydroelectric to fill in the gaps. While Professor Sarram agrees with this part of Jacobsen’s proposal, yet again, renewables alone are not enough — there is still a need for nuclear energy. [1] Renewables are part of the ideal energy portfolio for the future, but alone they cannot produce enough electricity for the world. We simply cannot meet all our energy needs by these three sources alone; we need nuclear energy as a base load.

Nevertheless, while we have the renewable energy we need to power the world, numerous obstacles come in our path that force us to stay dependent on fossil fuels. “Humankind faces a vicious circle: a shift to renewable energy will replace one non-renewable resource (fossil fuel) with another (metals and minerals),” wrote researchers Olivier Vida, Bruno Goffe, and Nicholas Arndt. The demand for base metals like iron, copper and aluminum is predicted to rise drastically. Therefore, it cannot be expected that fossil-fuel dependent nations will be eager to adopt renewables when facing such a prospective trade off.

Yet what fossil-fuel dependent nations are not acknowledging is how their present activities will affect future generations. Oil, gas and coal will not last forever. As they become scarcer in the future, their prices will rise dramatically. While renewable energy continues to be seemingly inaccessible and its potential benefits misunderstood (primarily by non-OECD nations), global dependence on nuclear energy must be the alternate solution to avoid the continued application of fossil fuels. While many want to forgo nuclear energy in light of the potential disasters, our thirst for energy is making nuclear energy a necessity if our goal is to create a more sustainable world for future generations.

Image by exquisitur


[1] Sarram, Mehdi. University of California, San Diego. La Jolla, Ca. 7 April 2014. Lecture.

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