There is a stubborn opposition to actual facts among our fellow liberals and environmentally conscious folk. The only dispatchable energy technologies with low gaseous emissions, and indeed extremely low rate of solid waste, are hydro and nuclear. During 2000 and 2001, California discovered that even hydro is too weather-dependent, as of course is the hopelessly inadequate notion of biofuels. Winter snow-pack supplies the longest lasting reserve of water behind the dams, which amounts to being stored energy that can be called upon to serve sudden demand peaks.
I was working for the FERC at that time, and Congress had been dominated with people who imagined that the energy market, if government regulation were minimized, was a free market.
Adam Smith, who wrote on the “Wealth of Nations” while professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, would not have agreed. His chief criterion for a free market is absence of monopoly or anything like it.
So what happened was that it was possible for the operators and owners of gas turbines to charge ransom level prices for the maintenance of “spinning reserve”,.
That’s where the guarantor runs a gas turbine of 500 MW maximum capacity, on idle like a car at a traffic light, so that a sudden load of up to 500 MW can be met by it soon enough.
The synchronicity of a system alternating in voltage 60 times a second can be disarranged by differences of slowing in response to overload. “Soon enough” means before that can do any harm. Note that two equal generators out of phase by 1/120th of a second cancel each other out, and do worse things than that.
In short, if zero power capable of suddenly rising very sharply is worth enough to bankrupt some of the distribution companies, how much is it worth to have “free” power capable of dropping equally sharply?
There is another established fact, so little known that I learned it after I retired in 2002.
Three weeks before Chernobyl, in April 1986 the fast neutron, liquid-metal cooled reactor EBR-2 of the Integral Fast Reactor program was the second US experimental breeder to prove itself by actual test, immune to the meltdown risk of loss-of-coolant-pumping-power.
Note that a breeder reactor consumes slightly less than a ton of fuel, producing a ton of short-lived waste, per 1000 MW-years of electric energy production.
In 2013, the US fossil fuel production of electrical power produced 200 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide, and 100 thousand tons of nitrogen oxides, both of which were released to the air, and cause smog, lung damage, and acid rain. That’s before we argue about the millions of tons of carbon dioxide.
But even at present, the USA annually produces 2500 tons of slightly used fuel that is inaccurately called “spent fuel” or, calumniously, “deadly long-lived toxic nuclear waste”.
Indeed, for the first hour after extraction from the reactor, used fuel is very hot and radioactive. After a day, less so — because radioactivity is correctly attributed to radioactive decay, and so on. It is not hard to understand. An isotope with a half life of a day, half of it is gone in a day, half of the half that’s left is gone after another day, and if you know the tenth power of two, you know that less than a gram out of a kilogram of that isotope is left, after ten days.