Pro-nuclear does not mean anti-ESG
Nuclear and renewables alike have their pros and cons as energy sources, argues nuclear advocate and our latest podcast guest, Meredith Angwin, so the proper approach should be to work out how best to use both
In Changing the narrative, Meredith Angwin – our latest guest on The Value Perspective podcast’s spin-off miniseries, which sets out to challenge conventional thinking in ESG – outlined the considerable opposition committed advocates of nuclear power face every day. While the big objections are well-known – and without wishing to make her life harder still – are there other, subtler drawbacks to nuclear she would highlight?
“From my point of view, many of the drawbacks that people do talk about are kind of subtle,” replies Angwin – a chemist, both by training and throughout her career, during which she worked on numerous projects to lower pollution and increase reliability on the electric grid before, more recently, writing one of our new favourite books, Shorting the Grid.
“Every now and again, for example, someone will ask how I can be in favour of nuclear, given spent nuclear fuel will be radioactive for many thousands of years. I say, yes – and how long will the mercury in coal ash be dangerous? Forever. In other words, if you say human beings have never had to deal with something that is dangerous for thousands of years, I will say, sure – usually they deal with things that are dangerous forever.
“I suspect, though, that anti-nuclear feelings have more to do with nuclear bombs – at least in older generations. Anyway, I wish I could tell you some disadvantage to nuclear that has not already been trumpeted and exaggerated by the anti-nuclear people. There are disadvantages, but there are so many anti-nuclear people who will exaggerate them that I don’t know what to say.”
All right then, let’s flip the question – are there more positive aspects to nuclear power that Angwin believes are underappreciated by the wider public? “One thing is how easily you can site a nuclear plant,” she replies. “If you want a hydro plant, for example, you start with a river while the biggest nuclear plant in the US is Palo Verde, which is in the Arizona desert and uses wastewater from Phoenix as its cooling mechanism.
“Then there is the amount of waste produced and how little fuel is needed. As an example, a coal plant near where I used to work – Merrimack station in New Hampshire – needs 40 coal cars of 100 tonnes of coal each day to produce its full output of 400 megawatts of power. That is 40 cars each and every day – and the coal produces ash and CO2 and other things people really do not want made.
“Meanwhile, over at the local nuclear plant, two semis pull up every 18 months with fuel for the next 18 months. Just think about the difference there because, if you think coal ash is fun stuff, I assure you – it has to be dealt with carefully. OK, sometimes it is sold as an additive for concrete but there are a lot of coal-ash ponds in the US that just consist of coal ash in a reservoir that is always kept wet so it won’t fly around.”
Stability v emissions
So, if Angwin were put in charge of global energy policy, how would she go about negotiating the trade-off between power grid stability and reduced carbon emissions? “The first step of my plan would be to keep all existing nuclear plants running unless they are not capable of doing so,” she replies. “At Crystal River in Florida, for example, they attempted to make some changes, which actually kind of wrecked the plant.
“But most nuclear plants that are running – just keep them running. The second step would be to build more nuclear plants at the sites of existing nuclear plants because everything you need – substations, water supply and so forth – will already be in place there. And then the third thing would be to have advanced nuclear plants, which can use fuel from the existing nuclear plants and generally expand nuclear greatly.”
Angwin is quick to stress this does not mean she is advocating an all-nuclear power grid. “I actually think it is good for a grid to be varied,” she continues. “So I would like to see a grid that has some natural gas and some solar and maybe even some wind – so long as it blows a higher portion of the day. In short, I am in favour of renewables when they are planned for and you know how much you need and what they should generate.
“I mean, you would never decide to run a plant that is solely reliant on one kind of energy or another without running scenarios and thinking very hard about it – and yet people are happy to just say, oh, we are going to have 100% renewables. Well, maybe we should have 30% renewables, 50% nuclear and 20% natural gas. I mean, just think it through – think what a grid needs first and then put the renewables onto it.”
Fund Manager, Equity Value
I joined Schroders as a graduate in 2005 and have spent most of my time in the business as part of the UK equities team. Between 2006 and 2010 I was a research analyst responsible for producing investment research on companies in the UK construction, business services and telecoms sectors. In mid 2010, I joined Kevin Murphy and Nick Kirrage on the UK value team and manage the European Value, European Yield and Global Recovery funds.
Juan Torres Rodriguez
Fund Manager, Equity Value
I joined Schroders in January 2017 as a member of the Global Value Investment team and manage Emerging Market Value. Prior to joining Schroders I worked for the Global Emerging Markets value and income funds at Pictet Asset Management with responsibility over different sectors, among those Consumer, Telecoms and Utilities. Before joining Pictet, I was a member of the Customs Solution Group at HOLT Credit Suisse.
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