Nuclear reactors cannot solve the climate problem

Realistically the world might build 100 or so new reactors over the coming decade or so – ..  Over this same period a similar number of existing reactors will reach the end of their lives and close, leading to a net growth rate close to zero.

Does the world need nuclear power to solve the climate crisis? Nuclear power looks expensive and repulsive compared to increasingly affordable renewable energy, arguesOliver Tickell, The Guardian, 20 Aug 12,  ”…..this is the question: does the world need nuclear power for us to solve the climate crisis, as Monbiot claims? To borrow a second thought, this time from Margaret Thatcher, must we accept that there is no alternative?…..

To solve the climate problem, the world
must not only reverse the trend of increasing carbon emissions over
the next few decades, but bring them down to less than they are now.
So can nuclear power do it? Assume a 2% growth in primary energy
demand per year over the next 35 years, and that demand will double to
some 24,000 Mtoe. Rely on nuclear power to accommodate all the growth,
and knock out 4,000 Mtoe-worth of coal, and it will have to produce
16,000 Mtoe of energy per year – a 25-fold increase on its current

Today the world has 440 operational nuclear reactors, so 25 times more
means 11,000 reactors. To have these in 35 years means building, on
average, about one a day. Or in an exponential growth scenario, the
world would need to sustain an annual increase of 8% per year in the
number of operational nuclear reactors for 35 years….
Given that nuclear power generation has flatlined over the last
decade, and has sharply declined in the last few years, that looks
like a tall order. There are currently plans for about 200 new nuclear reactors around the world, mainly in China, the Middle East and the USA. But few observers expect all of these to be built, since the economics of nuclear power are unattractive to private investors,
owing to high construction cost, long lead time, electricity price uncertainty, political hazard and long-term liabilities. Realistically the world might build 100 or so new reactors over the coming decade or so – perhaps one every 35–50 days. Over this same period a similar
number of existing reactors will reach the end of their lives and close, leading to a net growth rate close to zero.
That does not mean it’s impossible to build 11,000 reactors in 35
years if the world dedicates sufficient resources to the task. At a
construction cost of about US$10 billion per reactor, we would need to
dedicate US$110 trillion, or about two years’ gross world product,
while also providing for long-term liabilities. But before we
seriously consider doing so, we should ask what an 11,000-reactor
world would be like.

For a start, it would be much more radioactive than it is now. Routine
radioactive discharges, for example of gaseous fission products like
xenon-133, would be 25 times greater. Serious accidents, such as those
at Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima – the last of
which came very close to making Tokyo uninhabitable for decades to
come – would become commonplace events.

To date the nuclear industry has produced one major radiation release
for every 3,000 years of reactor operation. On that basis our 11,000
reactors would give us four such events a year. Safer reactor design
would reduce the danger, but as nuclear power reaches into countries
where safety standards are not so exacting as in the UK, the US,
Russia and Japan, and where suitably trained personnel may be hard to
recruit, the risk would surely rise.
And what about the nuclear fuel? The only naturally occurring fissile
substance, uranium-235, is in short supply, so to power all those
reactors we will have to ‘breed’ new fissile material. This may be
done in two ways: by irradiating abundant uranium-238 with neutrons to
make fissile plutonium-239, or by irradiating abundant thorium-232
with neutrons to make fissile uranium-233. And to use the newly bred
fissile material, it has to be reprocessed – a complex, expensive,
hazardous and polluting process that inevitably discharges significant
amounts of radiation into the environment.

A further hazard is that both plutonium-239 and uranium-233 can be
used to make nuclear bombs, so the wholesale expansion of nuclear
power and the widespread use of breeder reactors would create an
uncontrollable proliferation hazard. The world already has some 2,000
tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium, and is producing a
further 75 tonnes of plutonium per year from its 440 reactors. Just
8kg of plutonium is enough to make a small nuclear bomb, so it is
inconceivable that proliferation could be contained securely in a
11,000-reactor world producing enough plutonium for hundreds of
thousands of bombs every year.

So it seems that this 11,000-reactor world is not only an improbable
one, but also decidedly unpleasant.   But what’s the alternative?…
non-hydro renewables are growing very fast – up 15% in 2010. And
within this figure just three power sources are responsible for most
of the growth: wind power, solar PV and solar hot water. From 2005 to
2010, global solar hot water and wind power capacity both grew at 25%
per year, while solar PV capacity grew at over 50% per year. If these
growth rates were to be sustained for 35 years, wind capacity would
rise 6,300-fold from 200 gigawatts (GW) in 2010 to about 1.25 million
GW, solar hot water 6,300-fold from 185 GW to 1.15 million GW, and
solar PV 40 million-fold from 40 GW to 1.6 billion GW.

These figures are not predictions. Exponential growth will not
continue for so long, as prime sites for wind turbines and solar
panels get used up. Other technologies, such as concentrated solar
power, will also become important. And there will be demand-side
constraints: the projected 1.6 billion GW of solar PV capacity alone
would produce over 3 billion billion kilowatt hours per year,
equivalent to a primary energy burn of some 30 million Mtoe – over
1,000 times our projected world primary energy demand in 35 years. We
would not even know what to do with so much energy.

But while not predictive, the figures are highly indicative of the
low-carbon energy choices the world should make. The one, nuclear
power, is expensive and becoming more so. It will be a practical
impossibility to increase its capacity to a scale big enough to make a
real difference to global climate within a realistic time frame.
Worse, if we were somehow to build our 11,000 nuclear reactors, we
would face the certainty of repeated catastrophic accidents and the
spread of nuclear weapons, not to mention unimaginable liabilities for
decommissioning and long-term nuclear-waste management. We can fairly
say that nuclear power is both repulsive and utterly wrong.
The other choice, renewable power, already costs less than fossil
fuels for many applications, thanks in large part to generous
subsidies in Germany, Japan and other countries, which have had the
effect of greatly reducing prices. Solar electricity is now cheaper
than power from diesel generators in the tropics and subtropics – and
so the rapid spread of solar power across China, India, Africa and
Latin America is being driven not by subsidy but by the market. And it
is getting cheaper all the time as increased demand, caused by its
lower price, stimulates greater competition among manufacturers,
technological advance, and even greater price falls, in a delightful
virtuous circle. Moreover, renewable energy is free of catastrophic
dangers and long- term liabilities. It is both romantic and right.

That does not mean that the transition to a renewable energy world
will be easy or straightforward. We will need to reconfigure power
grids so they operate as networks accepting high volumes of ‘embedded
generation’, not just as distribution systems; to build new
long-distance electricity links to smooth out fluctuations in supply
and demand; to develop the technologies to convert electrical power
into liquid fuels for road vehicles and aviation; to create ‘smart
grids’ in which the demand for power responds to the available supply;
to find ways to store surplus power for those days or weeks when the
wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining; and to waste less of the
energy that we produce. All of this will require considerable
investment in research, development, manufacture and installation –
and will incidentally create many millions of jobs.

All the more reason then not to throw our finite national capital into
the bottomless pit of nuclear subsidies.

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