A crucial part of the effort to mitigate climate change is finding alternatives to fossil fuels.
A recent conference at the University of Missouri in Columbia focused on one of the most controversial of those: nuclear power.
In mid-Missouri, Ameren's Callaway plant, which it calls the Callaway Energy Center, is the lone representative of nuclear power.
In 2014 it cranked out 9.3 million megawatt-hours of electricity, accounting for 19 percent of Ameren Missouri’s power generation.
And it didn’t produce substantial greenhouse gas emissions in doing so, which is what makes nuclear a potentially attractive option against climate change.
But nuclear power, and its role in the environment is contentious, as a panel discussion at the conference at MU recently demonstrated.
Environmentalists have long argued the issue of nuclear waste and contamination means nuclear isn’t actually an environmentally-friendly source of power.
The debate over storage has left the U.S. without a central location for keeping nuclear waste, which means Callaway stores its own waste on site for now. Shannon Abel, director of engineering projects explained, "We do call this an interim facility, but it is designed for life of the station and thereafter, so if they need to stay after, they can."
David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant and Harvard, sayswhile the issues of waste and safety in nuclear power have been hotly debated for decades, the reality is they might not be central in deciding nuclear’s future. "Everybody agrees that nuclear’s too expensive to build now against other fuels. Especially now, but also planning for the future, because the current market doesn’t allow for it," Ropeik said.
Everybody agrees that nuclear’s too expensive to build now against other fuels. Especially now, but also planning for the future, because the current market doesn’t allow for it
Mark McLachlan, the senior director of engineering at the Callaway plant explained, "A 500-600 megawatt plant is about 600 million dollars." Compare that to nuclear plants, which can cost billions to start up.
That has implications for renewables like solar and wind too. Advocates say renewable sources can provide a consistent power source, but McLachlan said natural gas seems a better fit for Ameren and its 1.2 million customers.
“That can run 24/7. When the wind isn’t blowing you’re not making wind power, when the sun’s not shining, you’re not making solar power," McLachlan said.
Callaway recently renewed its license to operate for another 20 years, and officials there say they can store their spent fuel indefinitely.