Nuclear Prevented 23 Billion Tons CO2 Emissions


Nuclear didn’t make electricity too cheap to meter, but it fortunately was a strong weapon against climate change.

Today in Fortnightly

Opponents sometimes mock utilities by invoking the infamous prediction that electricity will become "too cheap to meter." But it was the federal government, not utilities, that said this.

The Eisenhower Administration's chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, made the infamous prediction in a 1954 speech to science writers. He wasn't even referring to the nuclear technology that utilities would start using a decade later. 

Instead Strauss believed fusion, that never went commercial, would make electricity too cheap to meter. He likely wouldn't have won an NCAA March Madness pool either. 

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Strauss was also infamous for pushing the revoking of security clearance of Robert Oppenheimer, the heroic head of the Manhattan Project. And for the Dixon-Yates contract, that upset the Tennessee Valley Authority and public power community. As the 1960 presidential election approached, the U.S. Senate voted down his confirmation as Commerce Department Secretary.

The nuclear technology that utilities have used since the mid-sixties hasn't made electricity too cheap to meter. But ... 

Energy Department data shows that the nation's nuclear power plants have produced around 25 billion megawatt-hours to date, in the fifty years since the mid-sixties. Every year, these days, nuclear is producing nearly 0.8 billion more megawatt-hours. 

Suppose all that baseload power generation came from coal plants instead (not a bad assumption). Just that one change would have emitted about 50,000 billion pounds of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere.

That's about 23 billion metric tons of the greenhouse gas. It's a lot. The whole country, from industry to transportation to power generation to agriculture, emits about 5.5 billion metric tons annually. 

The 23 billion metric tons is so much that the U.S. would have to emit no carbon dioxide for over four years, to make up for the additional emissions from doing without nuclear power. Or, put another way, the earth's atmosphere would have in it 23 billion more tons of the greenhouse gas, as if the U.S. emitted twice as much as it normally emits for over four years.

Nuclear didn't make electricity too cheap to meter. But nuclear, unintentionally, did a magnificent job restraining the nation's greenhouse gas emissions from being much more than they would have been.

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Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly

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