The world's nuclear power industry is hoping that genuine public concern over global warming will translate into new atomic reactor orders for this beleaguered industry. In particular, the industry is seeking to take advantage of different schemes and mechanisms developed in the framework of the international climate negotiations. Under such schemes polluting countries could receive greenhouse emission "credits" for building new nuclear reactors in other countries or be given permission to subsidize new-build domestically with public money.
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What effect would nuclear war have on the climate? What has nuclear power generation got to do with nuclear proliferation? How could the massive amounts of radioactivity inside nuclear reactors, fuel and waste storages cause radiological contamination akin to nuclear weapons? Could nuclear facilities themselves be turned into weapons? This paper addresses the connections between our climate, nuclear weapons, nuclear power and the stuff that puts the 'nuclear' in nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons pose the greatest acute danger to earth's climate
Global warming is upon us – in overwhelming scientific evidence, increasingly palpable in our lives, impossible to ignore. It is accelerating. Most of us now understand how crucial to human and planetary health is a stable and hospitable climate and securing this is the defining challenge of our age. Human disruptions to climate are frequently discussed, yet too few of us are aware that the most acute, immediate danger to our climate comes from nuclear weapons.
Studies by some of the world's best atmospheric scientists show that less than 0.5% of the global nuclear arsenal, targeted on cities in just one region of the world, would ignite massive firestorms that would loft millions of tons of smoke high into the atmosphere, beyond the reach of rain and snow. This smoke would blanket the entire globe within a few weeks, and cool, dry and darken the world beneath for more than two decades. The dark smoke in the stratosphere and above would be warmed by the sun, heating the upper atmosphere by more than 50℃, and rapidly depleting the ozone which protects us from the Sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.1
100 Hiroshima size bombs – 0.1% of the explosive power of the global nuclear arsenal – for example used in a war between India and Pakistan, would produce over 5 million tons of smoke, cooling average surface temperatures by 1.5℃, with much greater declines of 5-8℃ over large land masses. The resulting sustained decline in food production worldwide would put 2 billion people at risk of starving to death.2 The combined current arsenals of India and Pakistan ‒ the world's most rapidly growing ‒ now consists of 270-290 nuclear weapons of at least Hiroshima size.3
This abrupt nuclear famine would be exacerbated by chemical and radioactive contamination of large areas; levels of UV radiation harmful to humans as well as plants and animals on land and in the sea; disruption to transport, agricultural trade and distribution of seed, fertiliser, fuel and pesticides. Historically, large-scale famines have inevitably been accompanied by epidemics of infectious diseases, and often by conflict within and sometimes between nations, all of which would magnify the human toll and environmental impact.
The burning cities from a nuclear war using only the long-range nuclear weapons that Russia and the US keep on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched within a few minutes, would put 50 million tons of smoke into the atmosphere. This would produce average ice age conditions, 5℃ colder than present. Launch of all Russian and US long-range nuclear weapons would result in global temperatures plummeting 10℃, a severe abrupt ice age that would in all probability end human ‒ and much other ‒ life.4
Nuclear weapons and unchecked climate change pose the twin existential threats to our future. They exacerbate each other and both need to be addressed. One diminishes our biosphere every day, the other could deplete it irrevocably and end human civilisation in less than a day. It is imperative for planetary and human health that we prevent both runaway global warming and an abrupt nuclear winter. The only reliable way to prevent nuclear war is to eliminate nuclear weapons before they are otherwise inevitably used again. If we do not succeed in eliminating nuclear weapons in time, achievements and aspirations in every other sphere could become tragically irrelevant in less than an hour.
A climate-stressed world is an even more dangerous place for nuclear weapons
"[A]fter nuclear war, human induced global warming is the greatest threat to human life on the planet." ‒ Admiral Chris Barrie, AC RAN Retired, Chief of the Australian Defence Force 1998-2002.5
The world's most senior diplomat, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, has said: "We are living in dangerous times. … We are on the brink of a new cold war" and described "a resurgence of civil conflict, after more than two decades of decline."6
Military and security establishments worldwide assess that global warming is a pre-eminent and accelerating threat to security that amplifies other threats. The United States intelligence community annual assessment of worldwide threats provided to the US Congress on 29 January 2019 warned that the effects of climate change and environmental degradation increase stress on communities around the world and intensify global instability and the likelihood of conflict, causing the danger of nuclear war to grow.7
The number of violent conflicts worldwide which are internationalised, involving at least one state outside the area of direct conflict, has increased sharply, from no more than 6 per year in the two decades prior to 2010, to 20 per year by 2017.8 Growing food and water insecurity and other stresses exacerbated by climate change are helping to drive this upsurge in armed conflict, and contributing to the highest ever number of people forcibly displaced worldwide ‒ reaching 70.8 million at end-2018.9
Nuclear power fuels nuclear proliferation
It was recognised by the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry in 1977, which preceded the expansion of commercial uranium mining in Australia, that nuclear power contributes to an increased risk of nuclear war, and that "this is the most serious hazard associated with the industry."10
Any uranium enrichment plant can be used to produce not only reactor grade uranium, but weapons grade uranium. Currently 14 nations have such plants.11 Laser enrichment technology initially developed in Australia could make enriching uranium more compact and concealable.12 Highly enriched uranium (HEU, containing >20% U-235) is one of the two fissile materials used to build nuclear weapons. The other is plutonium, inevitably produced inside nuclear reactors as uranium atoms absorb neutrons. Plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel can then be chemically extracted at some future time.
South Africa, Pakistan and North Korea primarily used the HEU route to build nuclear weapons; India and Israel primarily used a plutonium route. All used facilities and fuel that were ostensibly for peaceful purposes. Both France and the UK have used reactors which also produced electricity to produce plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons.13
Australian history underscores the inseparable 'Trojan horse' connections. The government of PM John Gorton commenced construction of Australia's first nuclear power reactor at Jervis Bay in NSW in the late 1960s largely to accelerate Australia's capacity to build its own nuclear weapons. Australian Atomic Energy Commission chair J.P. Baxter spoke of "the indissoluble connection between the peaceful and military uses of nuclear materials". A briefing to the Minister for the Interior in 1969 stated: "From discussions with the AAEC officers it is understood that in establishing the Australian nuclear power industry it is desired to provide for the possibility of producing nuclear weapons …". The same year Gorton ally minister WC Wentworth MP wrote to then Defence Minister Malcom Fraser: "… everything we do must be capable of presentation as a normal move in peaceful atomic industry. In this way we can hope to get a 'short-term nuclear option' without giving open offence, and then, at some future date, if events require it, take up the option without giving this offence time to accumulate …".14
Nuclear weapons, depending on their size and technical sophistication, contain several kg of plutonium, and/or about 3 times as much HEU. US nuclear weapons on average contain 4 kg of plutonium and 12 kg of HEU.15 Current global stockpiles of fissile materials – 1340 tons of HEU and 520 tons of separated plutonium16 – are sufficient to build around 200,000 nuclear weapons. Thus ending production of fissile materials, keeping current stocks extremely securely, preferably under international control, and eliminating these materials wherever possible will be crucial to achieving and sustaining a world free of nuclear weapons.
The twin concurrent existential threats that confront us, climate disruption and nuclear war, demand win-win solutions. Promotion of nuclear power as a claimed climate friendly energy source is a lose-lose proposition.
As noted in 2010 by the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in setting the hands of the Doomsday Clock – an authoritative indicator of our global proximity to existential peril, "Nuclear war is a terrible trade for slowing the pace of climate change."17
As the costs of nuclear power have risen to become more than twice as expensive as either wind or solar power with storage, the motivation of some governments to maintain civilian nuclear infrastructure and workforce expertise in order to support their nuclear weapons programs has become increasingly obvious, including in France, Russia, UK and US.18
Nuclear reactors create enormous radiological hazards
Nuclear reactors and their spent fuel pools contain large amounts of radioactivity which is more long-lived than that produced by nuclear weapons. Both require continuous cooling. Unlike the several layers of engineered containment around nuclear reactors, spent fuel pools have no containment other than a simple roof over them. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant severely damaged in the 2011 nuclear disaster, 70% of the total radioactivity at the site was in the spent fuel pools.
Nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Laureate Joseph Rotblat wrote in 1981 about nuclear reactors with remarkable prescience in his book Nuclear radiation in warfare:19
"But despite this heavy protection, modern precision-guided bombardment with conventional weapons could succeed in rupturing the containment vessel as well as the pressure vessel. Alternatively, the task might be achieved in a commando raid, as was carried out on a heavy water plant during World War II. … In a pressurised water reactor the melt-down of the core could occur within less than one minute after the loss of coolant; with other types of reactor it might take a few minutes. … If a group took over a reactor they would not need to blow up the heavy biological shield of the pressure vessel; all they would have to do would be to cut off the supply of cooling water to bring about core melt-down."
What happened in Fukushima because of poor design and a large earthquake and tsunami could equally happen because of commandos or terrorists disrupting the power or cooling water supply for reactors and/or spent fuel pools for long enough to cause meltdown and/or explosions. Such an event could also occur because of cyberattack; or as a result of electricity supply and electronic equipment failure caused by the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a single high-altitude nuclear explosion, which could simultaneously disrupt nuclear reactors across a whole continent.
Rotblat further showed that nuclear attack on nuclear reactors or spent fuel storages would massively increase the resulting radioactive fallout. A 1 megaton (Mt) nuclear detonation would typically blanket an area of 2000 km2 with a (sizable) radiation dose of 1 Gray between 1 month and 1 year afterwards. The area so contaminated following a 1 Mt nuclear explosion on a typical 1 GW power reactor would be 34,000 km2, and 61,000 km2 were a spent fuel storage tank targeted. While radioactive releases from nuclear reactors subject to attack have not been documented, this is largely fortuitous, and a number of attacks on nuclear reactors have taken place These include multiple attacks between Iran and Iraq during their 1980-8 war, Israel's destruction through airstrikes of nuclear reactors under construction in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), the South African ANC attack on the Koeberg nuclear power plant with mines while it was under construction, 1991 US attacks on various Iraqi nuclear facilities and Iraq's firing of Scud missiles at Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor.
Thus each of the 413 operating nuclear power reactors in 31 countries, spent fuel storage facilities, reprocessing plants and other large nuclear facilities are effectively large pre-positioned radiological weapons. Many are located in or near large population centres. While attacks on or other disruption of these would not produce nuclear explosions, they could cause severe and extensive radioactive contamination requiring the long-term evacuation of large areas.
The web of links between nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, and the materials that power both are deep and inextricable. Nuclear power cannot solve our climate crisis, and aggravates the existential danger posed by nuclear weapons. Out of the climate crisis frying pan and into the fire of radioactive incineration, nuclear ice age and famine is a lose-lose dance with extinction. Our understanding of our climate crisis challenge needs to broaden to include the jeopardy of abrupt nuclear winter. A healthy and sustainable future for all life on Earth requires that we act to rapidly transition to renewable energy systems and net zero carbon emissions, and that we prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, with the utmost urgency demanded of us.
The most effective way for Australia and all nations to lift the nuclear threat and build security for their own and all people is to join and implement the historic UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.20 The Treaty recognises the incontrovertible evidence: "that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation."
The Treaty provides a categorical and comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons. It further provides a path that all nations, with and without nuclear weapons, can take to fulfil their binding obligation to eliminate the world's worst weapons of mass destruction. It is the only internationally defined path towards a world freed from nuclear weapons.
The Treaty builds on the substantial progress made to control biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions. A treaty codifying rejection of the weapon and providing one standard for all nations has been key to progress for every indiscriminate and inhumane weapon. Indeed no unacceptable weapon has been controlled without a treaty proscribing it. Australia needs to get on the right side of history and join this Treaty, soon.
Assoc. Prof. Tilman Ruff is the founding international and Australian chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); a public health and infectious diseases physician, associate professor at the University of Melbourne; international medical advisor for Australian Red Cross; and Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Reprinted from ICAN Australia: https://icanw.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Nuclear-weapons-and-our-climate-...
1. Michael Mills, Owen Toon, Julia Lee-Taylor, Alan Robock, "Multi-decadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone loss following a regional nuclear conflict," Earth's Future, 2015; 2:161–76. Updated data are provided in brief here: Owen Toon, Charles Bardeen, Alan Robock, RJ Peterson, Lili Xia, "Rapid expansion of nuclear arsenals by Pakistan and India threatens regional and global catastrophes," American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, Washington DC, Dec 2018, GC33B-12.
2. Ira Helfand, Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk. Boston, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 2013.
3. Hans M. Kristensen, Matt Korda, "Status of world nuclear forces," Federation of American Scientists, July 2019, https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/.
4. Owen Toon, Alan Robock, Michael Mills, Lili Xia, "Asia treads the nuclear path, unaware that self-assured destruction would result from nuclear war," J Asian Studies 2017;76:437-56; Alan Robock, Luke Oman, Georgiy L Stenchikov, "Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences" J Geophys Res 2007;112: D13107.
5. Chris Barrie, Foreword, in: David Spratt, Ian Dunlop, Existential climate-related security risk: a scenario approach, Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, May 2019.
6. Office for Disarmament Affairs, Securing our common future. An agenda for disarmament, New York, UN, October 2018.
7. US Congress, "McGovern-Blumenauer House Resolution 302. Embracing the goals and provisions of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons," 8 April 2019, https://mcgovern. house.gov/uploadedfiles/mcgove_010_xml.pdf
8. World Bank Group, United Nations, Pathways for Peace. Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict. The World Bank, Washington DC, 2018:18.
9. UNHCR. Global Trends. Forced displacement in 2018. UNHCR, Geneva, 20 June 2019.
10. Commonwealth of Australia. Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. First Report. AGPS, Canberra, 1977:185.
11. International Panel on Fissile Materials. Facilities: Enrichment plants, updated 12 Feb 2018, http://fissilematerials.org/facilities/enrichment_plants.html
12. http://www.silex.com.au/SILEX-Laser-Uranium-EnrichmentTechnology; Ryan Snyder, "A proliferation assessment of third generation laser enrichment technology", Science & Global Security, 2016;24(2):68-91.
13. Harold Feiveson, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Frank von Hippel. Unmaking the bomb. MIT Press, 2014.
14. Lachlan Clohesy, Phillip Deery, "The prime minister and the bomb: John Gorton, W.C. Wentworth and the quest for an atomic Australia", Aust J Politics and History, 2015, 61(2):217-32.
15. International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Appendix 1. Fissile materials and nuclear weapons", Global fissile material report 2015.
16. International Panel on Fissile Materials, Fissile material stocks, Jan 2017, 12 Feb 2018, http://fissilematerials.org
17. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, It is 6 minutes to midnight, 14 Jan 2010.
18. Mycle Schneider, Anthony Froggat, et al, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2018, Paris, London September 2018.
19. Joseph Rotblat, Nuclear radiation in warfare, SIPRI, Taylor & Francis, London, 1981:125-130.
20. ICAN Australia, Choosing humanity: Why Australia must join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, July 2019: https://icanw.org.au/choosinghumanity
1. Nuclear Power Would Inhibit the Development of More Effective Solutions
2. Small Modular Reactors vs. Small Modular Renewables
3. A Slow Response to an Urgent Problem
4. Catastrophic Cost Overruns: The Nuclear Power Industry is in Crisis
5. Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Nuclear Winter
6. Climate Change & Nuclear Hazards: 'You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive'.
7. Nuclear Waste
Proposals to expand nuclear power in order to reduce greenhouse emissions are misguided and should be rejected for the reasons discussed below ‒ and others not discussed here, including the risks and impacts of catastrophic accidents.
Nuclear Power Would Inhibit the Development of More Effective Solutions
"You can spend a dollar, a euro, a forint or a ruble only once: the climate emergency requires that investment decisions must favor the cheapest and fastest response strategies. The nuclear power option has consistently turned out the most expensive and the slowest." ‒ World Nuclear Industry Status Report project coordinator Mycle Schneider.1
Renewable power generation is far cheaper than nuclear power. Lazard's November 2018 report on levelized costs of electricity found that wind power (US$29‒56 per megawatt-hour) and utility-scale solar (US$36‒46 / MWh) are several times cheaper than nuclear power (US$112‒189 / MWh).2
Thus the pursuit of nuclear power would inhibit the necessary rapid development of solutions that are cheaper, safer, more environmentally benign, and enjoy far greater public support.
Globally, renewable electricity generation has doubled over the past decade and costs have declined sharply. Renewables account for about 26.2% of global electricity generation.3 Conversely, nuclear costs have increased massively over the past decade4 and nuclear power's share of global electricity generation has fallen from its 1996 peak of 17.5% to its current share of 10.15%.5
As with renewables, energy efficiency and conservation measures are far cheaper and less problematic than nuclear power. A University of Cambridge study concluded that 73% of global energy use could be saved by energy efficiency and conservation measures.6
The 2019 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report includes a chapter on climate change and nuclear power, which concludes with these words:7
"Stabilizing the climate needs solutions that are "granular, modular, mass-producible, fungible, quickly installable by diverse actors with little institutional preparation, and ‒ most importantly ‒ propelled by the powerful feedback of increasing returns and learning-by-doing." That describes energy efficiency and modern renewables but not nuclear power. Stabilizing the climate is urgent, but nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster.
"Even sustaining economically distressed reactors saves less carbon per dollar and per year than reinvesting its avoidable operating cost (let alone its avoidable new subsidies) into cheaper efficiency and renewables. Whatever the rationales for continuing and expanding nuclear power, for climate protection it has become counterproductive, and the new subsidies and decision rules its owners demand would dramatically slow this decade's encouraging progress toward cheaper, faster options, more climate-effective solutions."
2. Small Modular Reactors vs. Small Modular Renewables
Electricity from small modular reactors (SMRs) will almost certainly be more expensive than power from large reactors because of diseconomies of scale.8 A 2018 report by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator found that power from SMRs would be more than twice as expensive as wind or solar power with storage costs included (two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro storage).9 The cost of the small number of SMRs under construction is exorbitant.10 Both the private sector and governments have been unwilling to invest in SMRs because of their poor prospects.11
An article by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, concludes that to develop an SMR industry in the US, "several hundred billion dollars of direct and indirect subsidies would be needed to support their development and deployment over the next several decades".12
The prevailing skepticism is evident in a 2017 Lloyd's Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. They predict that SMRs have a "low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive".13
No SMRs are operating and about half of the small number under construction have nothing to do with climate change abatement ‒ on the contrary, they are designed to facilitate access to fossil fuel resources in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere.14 Worse still, there are disturbing connections between SMRs, nuclear weapons proliferation and militarism more generally.15
The 2019 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report states:5
"As a matter of physics, reactors do not scale down well, so the more-careful analysts acknowledge SMRs ‒ including in China ‒ would initially cost significantly (often about twofold) more per kWh than today's gigawatt-scale reactors. But ... today's new-build reactors already have ~5–10 times the levelized cost of modern renewables (let alone efficiency) per kWh. On durable observed learning curves (which nuclear power has never displayed), renewables will become another twofold cheaper by the time SMRs could be built, tested, and scaled. Two times 5–10 times two is a factor of 20–40 ‒ far beyond any plausible saving from mass production. No nuclear miracle is waiting to emerge.
"Small Modular Renewables, which do scale down well and whose economies of mass production have several decades' head start, have decisively won on cost."
3. A Slow Response to an Urgent Problem
Expanding nuclear power is impractical as a short-term response to climate change. Planning and approvals can take a decade (particularly for nuclear 'newcomer' countries), and construction another decade, and it can take five years or more to repay the energy debt expended in the construction of the reactor. A University of Sydney report states: "The energy payback time of nuclear energy is around 6.5 years for light water reactors, and 7 years for heavy water reactors, ranging within 5.6–14.1 years, and 6.4–12.4 years, respectively."16
Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in a nuclear newcomer country ... and then only assuming that nuclear power displaced fossil fuels.
The 2019 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report states:5
"According to a recent assessment, new nuclear plants take 5–17 years longer to build than utility-scale solar or onshore wind power, so existing fossil-fueled plants emit far more CO2 while awaiting substitution by the nuclear option. In 2018, non-hydro renewables outpaced the world's most aggressive nuclear program, in China, by a factor of two, in India by a factor of three.
"Stabilizing the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster. Even sustaining economically distressed reactors saves less carbon per dollar and per year than reinvesting its avoidable operating cost (let alone its avoidable new subsidies) into cheaper efficiency and renewables."
4. Catastrophic Cost Overruns: The Nuclear Power Industry is in Crisis
Supporters of nuclear power have issued any number of warnings17 in recent years about nuclear power's "rapidly accelerating crisis" and a "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West". They accept that "the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies", and they argue with each other about what if anything might be salvaged from the "ashes of today's dying industry".18
Consider the following statements, many of them from nuclear industry insiders:
- "I don't think we're building any more nuclear plants in the United States. I don't think it's ever going to happen. They are too expensive to construct." ‒ William Von Hoene, Senior Vice-President of Exelon, 2018.19
- Nuclear power "just isn't economic, and it's not economic within a foreseeable time frame." ‒ John Rowe, recently-retired CEO of Exelon, 2012.20
- "It's just hard to justify nuclear, really hard." ‒ Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric's CEO, 2012.21
- "I don't think anybody's pretending you can take forward a new nuclear power station without some form of government underwriting or support." ‒ Sir John Armitt, chair of the UK National Infrastructure Commission, 2018.22
- France's nuclear industry is in its "worst situation ever"23, a former EDF director said in November 2016 ‒ and the situation has worsened since then.24
- Nuclear power is "ridiculously expensive" and "uncompetitive" with solar. ‒ Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, and former executive board member of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, 2018.25
- Compounding problems facing nuclear developers "add up to something of a crisis for the UK's nuclear new-build programme." ‒ Tim Yeo, former Conservative parliamentarian and now a nuclear industry lobbyist, 2017.26
- "It sometimes seems like U.S. and European nuclear companies are in competition to see which can heap greater embarrassment on their industry." ‒ Financial Times, 2017, 'Red faces become the norm at nuclear power groups'.27
- "I don't think a CEO of a utility could in good conscience propose a nuclear-power reactor to his or her board of directors." ‒ Alan Schriesheim, director emeritus of Argonne National Laboratory, 2014.28
- "New-build nuclear in the West is dead" due to "enormous costs, political and popular opposition, and regulatory uncertainty" ‒ Morningstar market analysts Mark Barnett and Travis Miller, 2013.29
- "Nuclear construction on-time and on-budget? It's essentially never happened." ‒ Andrew J. Wittmann, financial analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co., 2017.30
US nuclear industry insider Jim Little summarizes one thread of the nuclear power crisis:31
"One of the more disconcerting and difficult issues facing the industry is a loss of talent and experience right at a time when it is most needed to transfer knowledge to the next generation. The nuclear workforce demographic contains a large percentage of experienced talent reaching retirement age within the next five to ten years. With fewer people entering the industry, addressing the needs of the operating fleet will become more and more difficult and expensive. Further efforts to reduce costs by trimming workforces would only exacerbate the problem."
It makes no sense to be pinning expectations on nuclear power when the industry is crisis-ridden and incapable of delivering. It does make sense to phase-out nuclear power, as a growing number of countries are doing including Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan and South Korea.
5. Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Nuclear Winter
"On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does." ‒ Australian academic Dr. Mark Diesendorf
Nuclear power programs have provided cover for numerous covert weapons programs32 and an expansion of nuclear power would exacerbate the problem. After decades of deceit and denial33, a growing number of nuclear industry bodies and lobbyists now openly acknowledge and even celebrate the connections between nuclear power and weapons.34 They argue that troubled nuclear power programs should be further subsidized such that they can continue to underpin and support weapons programs.35
For example, US nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger previously denied power‒weapons connections but now argues that "having a weapons option is often the most important factor in a state pursuing peaceful nuclear energy", that "at least 20 nations sought nuclear power at least in part to give themselves the option of creating a nuclear weapon", and that "in seeking to deny the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the nuclear community today finds itself in the increasingly untenable position of having to deny these real world connections."36
Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summarized the problem:37
"For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."
Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings the debate back to climate change. Nuclear warfare − even a limited, regional nuclear war involving a tiny fraction of the global arsenal − has the potential to cause catastrophic climate change. The problem is explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:38
"[W]e now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade − more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct. By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally."
Nuclear plants are also vulnerable to security threats such as conventional military attacks (and cyber-attacks such as Israel's Stuxnet attack on Iran's enrichment plant), and the theft and smuggling of nuclear materials. Examples of military strikes on nuclear plants include the destruction of research reactors in Iraq by Israel and the US; Iran's attempts to strike nuclear facilities in Iraq during the 1980−88 war (and vice versa); Iraq's attempted strikes on Israel's nuclear facilities; and Israel's bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria in 2007.39
6. Climate Change & Nuclear Hazards: 'You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.'
"I've heard many nuclear proponents say that nuclear power is part of the solution to global warming. It needs to be reversed: You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive." ‒ Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum.40
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change.41 These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms. Research by Ensia finds that at least 100 nuclear power reactors built just a few metres above sea level could be threatened by serious flooding caused by accelerating sea-level rise and more frequent storm surges.42
At the lower end of the risk spectrum, there are countless examples of nuclear plants operating at reduced power or being temporarily shut down due to water shortages or increased water temperature during heatwaves (which can adversely affect reactor cooling and/or cause fish deaths and other problems associated with the dumping of waste heat in water sources). In the US, for example, unusually hot temperatures in 2018 forced nuclear plant operators to reduce reactor power output more than 30 times.43
At the upper end of the risk spectrum, climate-related threats pose serious risks such as storms cutting off grid power, leaving nuclear plants reliant on generators for reactor cooling.
'Water wars' will become increasingly common with climate change − disputes over the allocation of increasingly scarce water resources between power generation, agriculture and other uses. Nuclear power reactors consume massive amounts of cooling water − typically 36.3 to 65.4 million liters per reactor per day.44 The World Resources Institute noted last year that 47% of the world's thermal power plant capacity ‒ mostly coal, natural gas and nuclear ‒ are located in highly water-stressed areas.45
By contrast, the REN21 Renewables 2015: Global Status Report states:46
"Although renewable energy systems are also vulnerable to climate change, they have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions. System modularity, distributed deployment, and local availability and diversity of fuel sources − central components of energy system resilience − are key characteristics of most renewable energy systems."
7. Nuclear Waste
Globally, countries operating nuclear power plants are struggling to manage nuclear waste and no country has a repository for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. A January 2019 report details the difficulties with high-level nuclear waste management in seven countries (Belgium, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland, the UK and the US) and serves as a useful overview of the serious problems that beset the industry.47,48
The United States has a deep underground repository for long-lived intermediate-level waste, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). However the repository was closed from 2014‒17 following a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel.49 Costs associated with the accident are estimated at over US$2 billion.50 Safety standards fell away sharply within the first decade of operation of the WIPP repository ‒ a sobering reminder of the challenge of safely managing dangerous nuclear waste for millennia.
WISE Nuclear Monitor #806, 25 June 2016, 'Nuclear power: No solution to climate change', https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/806/nuclear-power-no-s...
1. 24 Sept 2019, 'WNISR2019 Assesses Climate Change and the Nuclear Power Option', https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/WNISR2019-Assesses-Climate-Change-and...
2. Lazard, Nov 2018, 'Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis ‒ Version 12.0', https://www.lazard.com/media/450784/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-ver...
3. REN21, 2019, 'Renewables 2019 Global Status Report', https://www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/gsr_2019_full_report_en...
5. Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, Sept 2019, 'World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019', https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/WNISR2019-Assesses-Climate-Change-and...
6. Jonathan M. Cullen, Julian M. Allwood, Edward H. Borgstein, Jan 2011, 'Reducing Energy Demand: What Are the Practical Limits?', Environ. Sci. Technol., 45,4, https://doi.org/10.1021/es102641n or http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es102641n
7. Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, Sept 2019, 'World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019', https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/WNISR2019-Assesses-Climate-Change-and...
24. 'France Focus', World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019, https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/The-World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Rep...
31. Jim Little, 18 July 2017, 'Nuclear's Fork in the Road', https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/nuclears-fork-road-jim-little
34. Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 23 Oct 2018, ', A global picture of industrial interdependencies between civil and military nuclear infrastructures', Nuclear Monitor #868, https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/868/global-picture-ind...
42. John Vidal, 8 Aug 2018, 'What are coastal nuclear power plants doing to address climate threats?', www.ensia.com/features/coastal-nuclear.
45. Aaron Kressig, Logan Byers, Johannes Friedrich, Tianyi Luo and Colin McCormick, 11 April 2018, 'Water Stress Threatens Nearly Half the World's Thermal Power Plant Capacity', https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/04/water-stress-threatens-nearly-half-worl...
47. Robert Alvarez, Hideyuki Ban, Charles Laponche, Miles Goldstick, Pete Roche and Bertrand Thuillier, Jan 2019, 'Report - The Global Crisis of Nuclear Waste', https://www.greenpeace.fr/report-the-global-crisis-of-nuclear-waste/
48. Section 5 in: Australian environment groups, Sept 2019, Joint submission to the Federal Parliament's Standing Committee on Environment and Energy, 'Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia', https://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=9eee9d5f-4362-4b30-b0b8-3b6...
• How large would the present nuclear mitigation share be, assumed that nuclear power does not emit carbon dioxide CO2?
• How large could the reduction become in the future, starting from nuclear generating capacity scenarios published by the IAEA, and also assumed that nuclear power does not emit CO2?
• How feasible are the projections of the nuclear industry?
• How large could the actual nuclear CO2 emissions be, estimated on the basis of an independent life cycle analysis?
• Does nuclear power emit also other greenhouse gases?
Nuclear power in particular cannot solve the climate crisis. Indeed, its continued use exacerbates global warming by preventing the deployment of clean energy systems. Among a myriad of other problems, nuclear power is:
The United Nations' COP22 climate conference finished in Marrakech, Morocco last week and there were quite alarming signs with a strong push by the Russian delegation and others to promote nuclear power.
The Russians were quiet at the Moroccan negotiations until Thursday, November 17. Then two events happened on same day. First, the deputy director of Rosatom, Kirill Komarov, and the head of the World Nuclear Association, Agneta Rising, held a joint press conference where they talked mostly about the Russian nuclear experience.1 They claimed that nuclear power is already saving the climate and has "postponed climate catastrophe for two years". Rising was nearly screaming into the microphone, calling on all world governments to immediately follow Russia and develop nuclear power right now. They promoted the World Nuclear Association's goal of tripling global nuclear power capacity such that it generates 25% of electricity by 2050.2
The press conference was organized in a truly Russian way ‒ very short, three questions allowed and it looked like the three people allowed to ask a question were brought there by Rosatom itself. Then, unexpectedly, UN police showed up and escorted Komarov to the exit. I don't think I've ever seen UN police at a press conference at a UN climate conference before.
Later on November 17, Russia organized a national side-event at COP22 which was formally about Russian strategy for low-carbon development and included Rosatom, an aluminum industry representative and a nanotechnology agency, as well as governmental officials. A lot of funny things were said, but Rosatom was the main player. Rosatom's video showed lots of people hugging each other, smiling and laughing in various countries of the world, as well as a nuclear ice-breaker and a sign: "Rosatom. Energy and More".
Rosatom's Komarov was again peddling falsehoods at the side-event, including things like Russia having achieved a closed nuclear fuel cycle (not true, spent fuel is mostly in storage with no chance for reprocessing), Russia is building over 70 reactors worldwide right now (not true, about 10% of that figure actually) and lots of other stuff. Any country in the world can order Russian reactors, he said (though few can afford to pay for them and Russia can't afford to build them). A few questions were allowed. A lot of people wanted to ask something from Rosatom but were ignored by the chairman who wanted to close down the side-event as soon as possible. In the end he just said we cannot continue because we have food and drinks waiting for us outside. The event was in Russian and the translation was quite poor.
After all this, we (five Russians were at COP22 this time, with some Ukrainians supporting us) went to mobilize the environmental community, in particular the Climate Action Network (CAN). As a result, Russia was given CAN's "Fossil of the Day" anti-award on November 17, specifically for promoting nuclear. The award citation read: "The third Fossil of the Day award goes to Russia for promoting nuclear power as a feasible solution to climate change. We all know that this outdated and risky technology is too slow and expensive to contribute to climate efforts ‒ and if deployed it will steal away resources needed to develop renewables. Not to mention the fact that nuclear is not even a zero-emissions technology ‒ it produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases during the uranium enrichment. Then, of course, there is the question of safety. The Russian government really need to take a look at the long-term, widespread consequences of the Fukushima and Chernobyl, for a start."3
The following day, Russia was given "Collosal Fossil" for being the worst offender throughout the COP22 conference and for its poor energy and climate policies. The award citation read: "This year's Colossal Fossil Award goes to Russia for peddling nonsense and generally being a massive drag on ambition. Throughout the UN climate change negotiations in Marrakech, Russia has blindly lobbied for nuclear power deployment, continued to abstain from ratifying the Paris Agreement, and said that they do not see phasing out fossil fuels as an element of their plan to reduce dangerous emissions."4
COP22 may be the beginning of a serious attempt to promote nuclear by Russia jointly with the World Nuclear Association and maybe others. They probably want to recruit new customers among developing countries, even if they don't succeed in securing UN climate funds to subsidize those projects. We have to mobilize for the next COP and other UN climate meetings to put pressure on the Russian delegation.
Industry front groups were noisy at the COP21 conference in Paris last December5, and some of them were at Marrakech. 'Nuclear for Climate' was one of the front groups promoting nuclear power at both COP21 and COP22.6 'Nuclear for Climate' calls itself a "grassroots organization" but it is no such thing; it is a front group for more than 140 nuclear societies around the world.
1. World Nuclear News, 18 Nov 2016, 'Nuclear vital to challenge of climate change', www.world-nuclear-news.org/EE-Nuclear-vital-to-challenge-of-climate-chan...
2. 4 May 2016, 'Uranium on the rocks; nuclear power PR blunders', Nuclear Monitor #823, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/823/uranium-rocks-nuclear-powe...
5. 17 Dec 2015, 'COP that: nuclear lobbyists on the offensive', Nuclear Monitor #816, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/816/nuclear-monitor-816-17-dec...
The nuclear industry and its supporters were busily promoting nuclear power − and attacking environmentalists − before and during the COP21 UN climate conference in Paris. All the usual suspects were promoting nuclear power as a climate-friendly energy source: the World Nuclear Association, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Energy Agency, the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute, and so on.1
The Breakthrough Institute has been promoting its pro-nuclear "paradigm-shifting advocacy for an ecomodernist future" and arguing against the "reactionary apocalyptic pastoralism" of anyone who disagrees with them.2 In reality the Breakthrough Institute is anything but 'paradigm shifting'. A glowing endorsement in the National Review states: "Ecomodernists are pro-fracking. They advocate genetically engineered crops (GMOs) ... Most distinctively, the ecomodernists are pro-growth and pro-free markets. "The Kardashians are not the reason Africans are starving," chides Alex Trembath, a senior researcher at the Breakthrough Institute ..."3
Bill Gates was in Paris to announce the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Gates was promoting 'clean energy' but it seems likely the capital the Coalition attracts will be directed disproportionately to nuclear R&D.4
Robert Stone, director of the Pandora's Promise pro-nuclear propaganda film5, launched a 'resource hub' called Energy For Humanity, promoting "more advanced, mass-producible, passively safe, reactor designs".6
Rauli Partanen and Janne Korhonen, members of the Finnish Ecomodernist Society, have been attacking environmentalists for opposing nuclear power − including WISE and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), the organisations that produce Nuclear Monitor. Rebutting7 a rebuttal8 by Michael Mariotte from NIRS, Partanen and Korhonen offer this gem: "even the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 nuclear project [in Finland] turns out to be very fast way of adding low-carbon energy production when compared to any real-world combination of alternatives." A single reactor that will take well over a decade to build (and is three times over budget) is a "very fast way" of adding low-carbon energy? Huh?
Partanen and Korhanan authored a booklet called Climate Gamble: Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering Our Future?, and crowdfunded the printing of 5,000 copies which were distributed for free at the COP21 conference.9
James Hansen and three other climate scientists were in Paris to promote nuclear power. Hansen attacks the "intransigent network of anti-nukes" that has "grown to include 'Big Green,' huge groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and World Wide Fund for Nature. They have trained lawyers, scientists, and media staff ready to denounce any positive news about nuclear power."10
By way of sharp contrast, the impoverished U.S. nuclear industry could only rustle up US$60 million (€55m) to lobby Congress and federal agencies in 2013−14.11
So is there an undercurrent of grassroots pro-nuclear environmentalism waiting to burst forth if only their voice could cut through Big Green hegemony? Perhaps Nuclear for Climate12, promoted as a "grassroots organization"1, is the environmental network to take on Big Green? Well, no. Nuclear for Climate isn't a network of grassroots environmentalists, it's a network of more than 140 nuclear societies. It isn't grassroots environmentalism, it's corporate astroturf.
And the list of 140 associations includes 36 chapters of the 'Women in Nuclear' organisation and 43 chapters of the 'Young Generation Network'.13 One wonders whether these organisations have any meaningful existence. Does Tanzania really have a pro-nuclear Young Generation Network? Don't young people in Tanzania have better things to do?
Nuclear for Climate has a website, a hashtag, a twitter handle and all the modern social media sine qua non. But it has some work to do with its messaging. One of its COP21 memes was: 'The radioactive waste are not good for the climate? Wrong!' So radioactive waste is good for the climate?!
Has the nuclear lobby achieved anything?
The nuclear industry's hopes for the COP21 conference were dashed. Michael Mariotte from the Nuclear Information & Resource Service writes:14
"The international Don't Nuke the Climate campaign had two major goals for COP 21: 1) to ensure that any agreement reached would not encourage use of nuclear power and, preferably, to keep any pro-nuclear statement out of the text entirely; and 2) along with the rest of the environmental community, to achieve the strongest possible agreement generally.
"The first goal was certainly met. The word "nuclear" does not appear in the text and there are no incentives whatsoever for use of nuclear power. That was a clear victory. But that is due not only to a global lack of consensus on nuclear power, but to the fact that the document does not specifically endorse or reject any technology (although it does implicitly reject continued sustained use of fossil fuels). Rather, each nation brought its own greenhouse gas reduction plan to the conference. "Details," for example whether there should be incentives for any particular technology, will be addressed at follow-up meetings over the next few years. So it is imperative that the Don't Nuke the Climate campaign continue, and grow, and be directly involved at every step of the way − both inside and outside the meetings.
"As for the strongest possible agreement, well, it may have been the "strongest possible" that could be agreed to by 195 nations in 2015. By at least recognizing that the real goal should be limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade rather than the 2 degrees previously considered by most nations to be the top limit, the final document was stronger than many believed possible going into the negotiations. That said, the environmental community agrees that the agreement doesn't go far enough and, importantly, that the commitments made to date do not meet even this document's aspirations."
There is a strong push from the nuclear lobby for nuclear power to be included in the UN's Green Climate Fund. This would enable subsidies for nuclear power − subsidies that would come at the expense of renewables and other climate change mitigation programs.
So the nuclear industry didn't make any gains at COP21, but is it making any progress in its broader efforts to attract public support? It's hard to say, but there's no evidence of a shift in public opinion. A 2005 IAEA-commissioned survey of 18 countries found that there was majority opposition to new reactors in all but one of the 18 countries.15 A 2011 IPSOS survey of nearly 19,000 people in 24 countries found 69% opposition to new reactors, and majority opposition to new reactors in all but one of the 24 countries.16
Is the nuclear industry having any success winning over environmentalists? Around the margins, perhaps, but the ranks of 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' are very thin. As James Hansen complained in the lead-up to COP21, the Climate Action Network, representing all the major environmental groups, opposes nuclear power. 'Big Green' opposes nuclear power, and so does small green. Efforts by nuclear lobbyists to split the environment movement have failed.
And the nuclear lobby certainly isn't winning where it matters: nuclear power has been stagnant for the past 20 years and costs are rising, whereas the growth of renewables has been spectacular and costs are falling. One of the recurring claims in the pro-nuclear propaganda surrounding COP21 is the claim that renewables can't be deployed quickly enough whereas nuclear can. But 783 gigawatts of new renewable power capacity were installed in the decade from 2005−2014.17 That's more power producing capacity than the nuclear industry has installed in its entire 60+ year history!
The nuclear lobby didn't even win the battle of the celebrities at COP21. James Hansen, Bill Gates and other pro-nuclear celebrities put up a good fight against pro-renewable celebrities such as conservationist David Attenborough. But the pro-renewable celebrities raising their voice during COP21 included Pope Francis. And he's infallible.
1. Nuclear Energy Institute, 3 Dec 2015, 'Pro-Nuclear Voices Raised at Paris Climate Talks', www.nei.org/News-Media/News/News-Archives/Pro-Nuclear-Voices-Raised-at-P...
2. Will Boisvert 18 Sept 2014, 'The Left vs. the Climate', http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/the-lef...
3. Julie Kelly, 2 Dec 2015, 'A New Breed of American Environmentalists Challenges the Stale Dogma of the Left', www.nationalreview.com/article/427855/new-breed-greens-pro-capitalism-pr...
4. Tina Casey, 3 Dec 2015, 'COP21 Gets a Spark of Nuclear Energy from Breakthrough Energy Coalition', http://cleantechnica.com/2015/12/03/cop21-gets-spark-nuclear-energy-brea...
5. 'Pandora's Propaganda', Nuclear Monitor #773, 21 Nov 2013, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/773/pandoras-propaganda
'Pandora's Promise' Propaganda, Nuclear Monitor #764, 28 June 2013, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/764/pandoras-promise-propaganda
7. Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen, 2 Dec 2015, 'Don't Nuke the Climate: A Response', http://energyforhumanity.org/featured/dont-nuke-the-climate-a-response/
8. Michael Mariotte, 30 Nov 2015, 'When a campaign strikes a nerve', http://safeenergy.org/2015/11/30/when-a-campaign-strikes-a-nerve/
10. Jarret Adams, 26 Nov 2015, 'No Climate Solution Without Nuclear, Experts Say', www.theenergycollective.com/jarretadams1/2293694/no-climate-solution-wit...
11. Daniel Stevens, 17 Feb 2015, 'Platts' Nuclear Conference Attended by Companies Spending Millions on Lobbying', http://maplight.org/content/platts-nuclear-conference-attended-by-compan...
14. Michael Mariotte, 12 Dec 2015, "The Paris Agreement on climate — a good start, but ...", http://safeenergy.org/2015/12/15/the-paris-agreement-on-climate/
15. Globescan, 2005, 'Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA: Final report from 18 countries', prepared for the IAEA, https://ideas.repec.org/p/ess/wpaper/id362.html
16. IPSOS, June 2011, 'Global Citizen Reaction to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster', www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos-global-advisor-nuclear-power-...
17. Greenpeace International, September 2015, 'Energy [R]evolution: A sustainable world energy outlook 2015', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Climat...
One of the principal claims used to justify a substantial role for nuclear energy in combating global climate change is that renewable energy cannot supply base-load electric power. Underlying this claim is the assumption that the only way of supplying base-load electricity demand is by means of base-load power stations, such as nuclear and coal, that operate at full power 24/7. This notion is being widely promulgated.
For example, former Australian Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane claimed at a uranium industry conference that: "Base load, zero emission, the only way it can be produced is by hydro and nuclear".1 UK Energy and Climate Secretary, Amber Rudd, attempted to justify the decision to build the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station on the grounds that "We have to secure baseload electricity".2
The concept of base-load demand is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the daily variation of electricity demand in summer in a conventional large-scale electricity grid without much solar energy. Base-load demand is the region across the bottom of the graph. Traditionally base-load demand has been supplied by so-called base-load power stations. Because they are inflexible in operation, in the sense that they are unsuitable for following the variations in demand and supply on timescales of minutes and hours, they are supplemented with flexible peak-load and slightly flexible intermediate-load power stations. Peak-load power stations are hydro-electric systems with dams and open-cycle gas turbines (GTs), essentially jet engines. They can respond to variations in demand and supply on timescales of minutes.
The assumptions that base-load power stations are necessary to supply base-load demand and to provide a reliable supply of grid electricity have been disproven by both practical experience in electricity grids with high contributions from renewable energy and by hourly computer simulations.
As an example of practical experience, in 2014 the state of South Australia had 39% of annual electricity consumption from renewable energy (33% wind + 6% solar) and, as a result, the state's base-load coal-fired power stations are being shut down as redundant.3 For several periods the whole state system has operated reliably on a combination of renewables and gas with only small imports from the neighbouring state of Victoria.4
The north German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern5 and Schleswig-Holstein6 are already operating on 100% net renewable energy, mostly wind. The 'net' indicates trading with each other and their neighbours. They do not rely on base-load power stations.
"That's cheating", nuclear proponents may reply, "they are relying on power imported by transmission lines from base-load power stations elsewhere." Well, actually the imports from base-load power stations are small. For countries that are completely isolated (e.g. Australia) or almost isolated (e.g. the USA) from their neighbours, hourly computer simulations of the operation of the electricity supply-demand system, based on commercially available renewable energy sources scaled up to 80-100% annual contributions, confirm the practical experience.
In the USA a major computer simulation by a large team of scientists and engineers found that 80-90% renewable energy is technically feasible and reliable. (They didn't examine 100% renewable electricity.) The 2012 report, Renewable Electricity Futures Study. Vol.1. Technical report TP-6A20-A52409-1 was published by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and can be downloaded.7 The simulation balances supply and demand each hour. The report finds that (p.iii): "renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States."
Similar results have been obtained from hourly simulation modeling of the Australian National Electricity Market with 100% renewable energy, published by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and me in 2013 and 2014, based on commercially available technologies and real data on electricity demand, wind and solar energy. (Peer-reviewed publications listed online.8) There are no base-load power stations in the Australian model and only a relatively small amount of storage. Recent simulations (to be published) span 8 years of hourly data.
These, together with studies from Europe, find that base-load power stations are unnecessary to meet standard reliability criteria for the whole supply-demand system, such as loss-of-load probability or annual energy shortfall. Furthermore, they find that reliability can be maintained even when variable renewable energy sources, wind and solar PV, provide major contributions to annual electricity generation, up to 70% in Australia. How is this possible?
Firstly, the fluctuations in variable wind and solar PV are balanced by flexible renewable energy sources that are dispatchable, i.e. can supply power on demand. These are hydro with dams, biofueled open-cycle gas turbines and concentrated solar thermal power (CST) with thermal storage, as illustrated in Figure 2. It is not essential for every power station in the system to be dispatchable. Being able to draw upon a diversity of renewable energy sources, with different statistical properties, provides reliability.
Secondly, spreading out wind and solar PV farms geographically reduces the fluctuations in their total output and so reduces the already small contribution from biofuelled gas turbines.
Thirdly, new transmission lines may be needed to assist achieving wide geographic distribution of renewable energy sources and to multiply the diversity of types of renewable energy source feeding into the grid. For example, an important proposed link is between the high wind regions in north Germany and the low wind, limited solar regions in south Germany. Texas, with its huge wind resource, needs greater connectivity with its neighbouring US states.
Fourthly, introducing smart demand management, to shave the peaks in electricity demand and to manage periods of low electricity supply, can further increase reliability. This can be assisted with smart meters and switches controlled by both electricity suppliers and consumers, and programmed by consumers to switch off certain circuits (e.g. air conditioning, water heating, aluminium smelting) for short periods when demand on the grid is high and/or supply is low.
As summarized by the NREL study (p.iii): "RE (Renewable Energy) Futures finds that increased electricity system flexibility, needed to enable electricity supply-demand balance with high levels of renewable generation, can come from a portfolio of supply- and demand-side options, including flexible conventional generation, grid storage, new transmission, more responsive loads, and changes in power system operations."7
A recent study by Mark Jacobson and colleagues went well beyond above studies. It showed that all energy use in the USA, including transport and heat, could be supplied by renewable electricity. The computer simulation used synthetic data on electricity demand, wind and sunshine taken every 30 seconds over a period of 6 years.
In the words of former Australian Greens' Senator Christine Milne: "We are now in the midst of a fight between the past and the future". The dissemination of the base-load myth and other myths denigrating renewable energy falsely9, and the refutation of these myths, are part of that struggle.
Diesendorf M 2014. Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change. Routledge-Earthscan and NewSouth Publishing. ISBN: 9781742233901. 356+xx pp. www.ies.unsw.edu.au/about-us/news-activities/2014/01/new-book-sustainabl...
Elliston B, MacGill I, Diesendorf M. 2013. Least cost 100% renewable electricity scenarios in the Australian National Electricity Market. Energy Policy 59:270-282. www.ies.unsw.edu.au/sites/all/files/profile_file_attachments/LeastCostEl...
Elliston B, MacGill I, Diesendorf M. 2014. Comparing least cost scenarios for 100% renewable electricity with low emission fossil fuel scenarios in the Australian National Electricity Market. Renewable Energy 66:196-204, http://ceem.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/documents/Low%20Emission%20F...
Jacobson MZ, Delucchi MA, Cameron MA, Frew BA 2015. A low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 112: doi:10.1073/pnas.1510028112, http://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CombiningRenew/co....
Mai T, Wiser R, Sandor D et al. 2012. Renewable electricity futures study. Vol.1. Technical report TP-6A20-A52409-1. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO. Available from www.osti.gov/bridge
Every successful campaign for social change causes reaction. After all, if the campaign wasn't hitting at vested interests, then there would be no need for a campaign − its goals would simply be adopted by acclamation.
Indeed, campaigns that don't generate reaction are campaigns that don't succeed: that means they haven't attained enough attention or backing to matter to their targets.
Thus, it's always a source of initial gratification when, after launching a new campaign, reaction sets in. When you can see you've struck a nerve. When your opposition attacks you directly. And that high point is elevated further when the best attack your opposition can muster is one against the least important of your arguments.
So it is that the international Don't Nuke the Climate Campaign − which includes the two organisations that produce Nuclear Monitor, the World Information Service on Energy and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service − last week began feeling that warm gratification, that recognition that we are beginning to have an impact.
A small group of Finnish people, who call themselves "ecomodernists" and are affiliated with a group called Energy for Humanity have taken it upon themselves to launch the first direct attack on the Don't Nuke the Climate campaign, in an essay titled 'A Most Unwise Campaign'.1 The essay appears to be a follow-up to a self-published tract called Climate Gamble: Is anti-nuclear activism endangering our future? They're planning to distribute 5,000 copies of these at COP21 in Paris over the next two weeks in an effort to promote nuclear power and beat back our campaign.
Following the distorted and factually-challenged logic of James Hansen2, the group begins by repeating the familiar argument that renewable energy cannot scale up fast enough to solve the climate crisis, that decarbonization of the world's power supply isn't happening quickly enough, and that, ergo, we need a massive amount of new nuclear power.
What does "massive" mean? The authors don't say, but the World Nuclear Association is less shy: it issued a statement3 calling for 1,000 gigawatts (about 1,000 large reactors) of new nuclear power by mid-century. More on that argument in a minute.
The essay then shifts gears to focus on one issue: the carbon footprint of nuclear power, which it calls our "key argument." Actually, it isn't. Indeed, we readily admit that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source when compared to fossil fuels. We assert that it is high carbon compared to renewables, but really, that's all relative. The essay devotes considerable effort to try (unsuccessfully) to debunk Professor Benjamin Sovacool's 2008 meta-analysis of studies comparing carbon footprints of various energy sources (the authors argue a study showing nuclear as relatively high-carbon should be excluded, although excluding such studies, without excluding studies showing nuclear with an essentially undetectable carbon footprint, defeats the purpose of a meta-analysis).
If nuclear's carbon footprint were really our key argument, the campaign would be far less compelling than it is − and far less threatening to nuclear industry interests.
You'd think that people in Finland, of all places, would get this. Because the most compelling argument against nuclear power as a climate solution (disregarding for the moment issues like nuclear meltdowns, radioactive waste, routine releases of toxic radiation, and nuclear proliferation, and focusing only on climate-related issues), proven over and over and especially in Finland, whose Olkiluoto-3 reactor under construction is the poster child for the failure of the nuclear renaissance, is the industry's inability to deliver a product that can generate electricity in a reasonable time at a reasonable price.
Construction of Olkiluoto-3 began in 2005, with commercial operation scheduled for 2010, at a fixed cost of €3.2 billion. A decade later, the reactor is nowhere near complete and may not be finished this decade either. Its cost has just about tripled − right in line with the U.S. experience of the reactor boom-building years of the 1970s and 1980s. The thing is Olkiluoto is not an outlier, as efforts to build new reactors at Flamanville in France, and Vogtle and Summer in the U.S. demonstrate. Each of these projects is well behind schedule (and slipping further) and well over budget.
Meanwhile, costs for solar and wind power have been plummeting. When construction of Olkiluoto-3 began, solar power was not competitive with other generation sources. Now, even the nuclear / fossil fuel industry dominated International Energy Agency (IEA) admits that solar is not only cheaper than nuclear, it's cheaper than fossil fuels.4 Wind power is so cheap they're literally giving it away in Texas. Energy efficiency remains even cheaper than any generation source.
No new nuclear reactors have come online anywhere in the West since construction of Olkiluto-3 began (Watts Bar-2 is close, but it's a stretch to call that "new," since construction on it began in the 1970s). Meanwhile, nearly half of all new generation last year was renewables, again according to the IEA.
Using outdated data, nuclear advocates like to say that renewables account for only a tiny percentage of worldwide electricity generation. While it certainly remains too low, the reality, according to the same IEA report, is that renewables are now the world's second largest power source, behind coal. And those who are paid to project growth and make money from accurate projections, like UBS, say the period of rapid growth has barely even started.5
So which technology can scale up faster to deal with what is, in fact, a climate crisis?
Nuclear proponents also argue that we should use all low-carbon generation sources, not just renewables. That we should include nuclear "in the mix."
The problem there is that nuclear has priced itself out of the conversation. With new reactor construction cost estimates pushing US$20 billion each (North Anna-3, Hinkley Point) at a time when equivalent amounts of renewables would cost a fraction of that, it makes no sense whatsoever to build nuclear. It would simply take money away from the cheaper, faster sources, which happen to be renewables. If we're facing a crisis − and we are − why divert resources away from the most effective means of addressing it to the least effective? The end result is that you get less low-carbon power, not more. That's why nuclear power is counterproductive at addressing climate change: because we get less carbon reduction per dollar spent.
The nuclear folks also submit that countries like China and India are continuing to pursue nuclear power, and are doing so faster and cheaper than the west. That's true; they're also pursuing renewables and are doing so faster and cheaper than the West as well. Major construction of all kinds is cheaper and faster there. Of course, they're also less transparent, and there are far more government subsidies, making it difficult to determine the real costs. That non-transparent, government-paid construction model isn't going to fly in most nations. And, in China's case at least, its renewables program is far outpacing its nuclear program, which is unlikely to ever get much above its current 2−3% of the nation's generation capacity.
Now add back in all those other arguments that we temporarily dropped before − the ones about nuclear accidents, already nearly one major accident per decade, a number that would soar with 1,000 new reactors; and radioactive waste, which still has (and may never have) no scientifically-defensible solution; releases of toxic radiation even in routine operation that are killing people6, the environmental devastation from uranium mining, and the rest. And, seriously, there are people out there who still argue that nuclear power is an answer to an environmental problem?
That there are those people is, of course, why we have to mount the Don't Nuke the Climate Campaign in the first place. That we've touched a nerve means we know we're beginning to win. That we can expect more pushback simply demonstrates that the time is right. A nuclear-free, carbon-free energy future is within our grasp. We're hoping for real movement at COP21 in Paris these next couple of weeks; and even if not there, inevitably across the world as the decade enters its second half and the reality that this really is the answer takes hold.
You can support the Don't Nuke the Climate Campaign at http://dontnuketheclimate.nirs.org/
This is a summary of a November 2015 report commissioned by the World Information Service on Energy (WISE). The full report is posted at www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-energy/studies-reports
Nuclear power is claimed to be nearly carbon-free and indispensable for mitigating climate change as a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Assuming that nuclear power really does not emit carbon dioxide CO2 nor other greenhouse gases (GHGs), how large is the present nuclear mitigation share and how large could it become in the future? Could the term 'indispensable' in this context be quantified? These issues are assessed from a physical point of view, economic aspects are left outside the scope of this assessment.
How large is the present nuclear mitigation share?
The global GHG emissions comprise a number of different gases and sources. Weighted by the global warming potential of the various GHGs 61% of the emissions were caused by CO2 from burning of fossil fuels for energy generation. Nuclear power could displace fossil-fuelled electricity generation, so hypothetically the maximum nuclear mitigation share would be 61% if the global energy supply were to be fully electric and fully nuclear.
In 2014 the nuclear contribution to the global usable energy supply was 1.6% and consequently the nuclear mitigation share was 1.0%.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asserts that the nuclear contribution to the global energy supply was 4.6% in 2014. However, this figure turns out to be based on a thermodynamically inaccurate statistical trick using virtual energy quantities.
How large could the nuclear mitigation to climate change become in the future according to the nuclear industry?
We found no hard figures on this issue, for that reason this study analyses the mitigation consequences of the envisioned developments of global nuclear generating capacity. During the past years the International Atomic Energy Agency and the nuclear industry, represented by the World Nuclear Association (WNA), published numerous scenarios of global nuclear generating capacity in the future, measured in gigawatt-electric GWe. Four recent scenarios are assessed in this study, as these can be considered to be typical of the views within the nuclear industry:
- IAEA low: the global nuclear capacity remains flat at the current level until 2050.
- IAEA high: the global nuclear capacity grows to 964 GWe by 2050, nearly three times the current global capacity of 333 GWe.
- WNA low: the global nuclear capacity grows to 1140 GWe by 2060 and to 2062 GWe by 2100.
- WNA high: the global nuclear capacity grows to 3688 GWe by 2060 and to 11046 GWe by 2100.
The nuclear mitigation share in the four scenarios depends not only on the nuclear generation capacity, but also on the growth rate of the global GHG emissions. The IAEA expects a growth rate of the global energy consumption of 2.0−3.5% per year until 2050. This study assumes that the global GHG emissions will grow during the next decades proportionally to the global energy consumption: also at 2.0−3.5% per year. Based on this assumption – and still assuming nuclear power is free of CO2 and other GHG emissions (which it is not) – the mitigation shares would be as follows, the high figure at a global growth of 2.0%/yr, the low figure at 3.5%/yr:
- IAEA low: 0.5−0.3% by 2050.
- IAEA high: 1.4−0.9% by 2050.
- WNA low: 1.4−0.7% by 2060 and 1.1-0.3% by 2100.
- WNA high: 4.5−2.4% by 2060 and 6.2-1.8% by 2100.
What next after 2050?
The IAEA scenarios are provided through 2050. Evidently the nuclear future does not end in 2050. On the contrary it is highly unlikely that the nuclear industry would build 964 GWe of new nuclear capacity by the year 2050 without solid prospects of operating these units for 40-50 years after 2050.
How does the nuclear industry imagine development after reaching their milestone in 2050? Further growth, leveling off to a constant capacity, or phase-out? Or: let tomorrow take care of itself?
What global construction rates would be required?
By 2060 nearly all currently operating nuclear power plants (NPPs) will be closed down because they will reach the end of their operational lifetime within that timeframe. The current rate of 3−4 GWe per year is too low to keep the global nuclear capacity flat and consequently the global nuclear capacity is declining. To keep the global nuclear capacity at the current level the construction rate would have to be doubled. The average global construction rates that would be required in the industry scenarios are:
- IAEA low: 7-8 GWe per year until 2050.
- IAEA high: 27 GWe/yr until 2050.
- WNA low: 25 GWe/yr until 2060 and 23 GWe/yr from 2060 until 2100.
- WNA high: 82 GWe/yr until 2060 and 184 GWe/yr from 2060 until 2100.
In view of the massive cost overruns and construction delays of new NPPs that have plagued the nuclear industry for decades it is not clear how the required high construction rates could be achieved.
How are the prospects of new advanced nuclear technology?
The nuclear industry promises the application within a few decades of advanced nuclear systems that would enable mankind to use nuclear power for hundreds to thousands of years. This promise concerns two main classes of closed-cycle reactor systems: uranium-based systems and thorium-based systems. For reasons discussed in the detailed version of this report, Uranium-Plutonium as well as Thorium-Uranium breeder concepts turn out to be based on inherently unfeasible assumptions. From this observation it follows that nuclear power in the future would have to rely solely on conventional once-through reactor technology based on natural uranium. As a consequence the size of the uranium resources will be a restricting factor.
How much uranium would be needed to sustain the various scenarios?
As pointed out above the nuclear generating capacity in the scenarios will not fall to zero at their end date.
The minimum amounts of uranium that would be required in the IAEA scenario's are estimated here by assuming no new NPPs would be build after 2050 and consequently the nuclear power plants operational in 2050 would be phased out by 2100. In case of the WNA scenario's extension after 2100 seemed too speculative. The masses of uranium are given in teragram (Tg): 1 Tg is 1 million metric tonnes.
- IAEA low: 2.3 Tg until 2050 plus 1.7 Tg during phase-out by 2100, total 4.0 Tg uranium
- IAEA high: 4.5 Tg until 2050 plus 4.8 Tg during phase-out by 2100, total 9.3 Tg uranium
- WNA low: 6.6 Tg until 2060 plus 12.7 Tg from 2060 until 2100, total 19.3 Tg uranium
- WNA high: 17.5 Tg until 2060 plus 58.4 Tg from 2060 until 2100, total 75.9 Tg uranium.
Obviously the uranium demand in the IAEA scenarios would be higher if the nuclear capacity were to remain flat after 2050, as opposed to phasing out after 2050 as assumed above; in case of a constant capacity after 2050 the total demand would be about 5.7 Tg in IAEA low and 14.1 Tg in IAEA high.
The known recoverable uranium resources of the world in the cost category of up to 130 USD/kg U amounted to 5.9 Tg in 2013 according to the IAEA; the market price in September 2015 was about 82 USD/kg U. An additional amount of 1.7 Tg of uranium is known to exist in the higher cost category 130-260 USD/kg U.
How are the prospects of the global uranium supply?
Uranium in the earth's crust is unevenly distributed among the rocks comprising the crust. The grade distribution of uranium in uranium-bearing rocks in the earth's crust show a geologic pattern common to other metals: the lower the grade of uranium the larger the amounts of uranium present in the crust. The size distribution of uranium deposits show a similar pattern as a result of the geologic ore-forming mechanisms: the larger the size, the more rare the deposits. From this observation it follows that the chance of discovering new resources increases with lower grades and smaller sizes of the deposits. One may assume that the most easily discoverable resources have been found already and that most easily minable deposits are already being mined. The chances of discovering new large high-grade resources seem low; in reality no such discoveries have been reported during the past two decades.
Based on a simple economic model the nuclear industry states that the global uranium resources are practically inexhaustable, apparently suggesting that any scenario could be materialized. However, the generation of nuclear energy from uranium resources is a physical phenomenon governed by the laws of nature, not by economic notions. The economic model does not include physical and chemical realities with regard to uranium deposits in the earth's crust. Thermodynamics sets the boundaries for the resources that fit the conditions of uranium-for-energy resources.
What are the thermodynamic boundaries of uranium-for-energy resources?
The energy content of natural uranium that is in any sense extractable is limited: the nuclear power stations that would form the backbone of future nuclear capacity could not fission more than about 0.6% of the nuclei in natural uranium.
The thermodynamic boundaries of the uranium-for-energy resources are determined by the energy required to extract uranium from the resources as found in nature. Analysis of the physical and chemical processes needed to recover uranium from the earth's crust and all the processes needed to release the potential energy in uranium and convert it to useful energy proves that the amount of energy consumed per kg recovered natural uranium rises exponentially with declining ore grades. Below a grade of 200−100 ppm (0.2−0.1 grams U per kg rock) no net energy can be generated by the nuclear system as a whole from a uranium resource, this relationship is called the energy cliff. From this conclusion it follows that only uranium resources at grades higher than 200 ppm (0.2 g U/kg rock) are actually energy sources.
The ore grades of the known uranium resources which are by definition economically recoverable varies widely: from about 200 down to 0.1 gram uranium per kg rock. A part of the resources classified by the IAEA as 'recoverable' falls beyond the thermodynamic boundaries of uranium-for-energy resources.
Unconventional uranium resources
The nuclear industry classifies the global uranium resources into two categories: conventional and unconventional resources. Phosphates are the main constituent of unconventional uranium resources, other types of uranium-bearing resources (e.g. black shales) are insignificant on global scale.
Phosphates are irreplaceable for agricultural use, so mining of these minerals should be tailored exclusively to agricultural needs. Moreover, the thermodynamic quality of phosphates as a uranium-for-energy source lies beyond the energy cliff: no net energy generation is possible by exploitation of phosphate rock; this holds true also for other unconventional uranium resources, including uranium from seawater.
How much CO2 does nuclear power emit?
Nuclear CO2 emission originates from burning fossil fuels in all processes and factories needed to extract uranium from the ground, prepare nuclear fuel from the recovered uranium, construct the nuclear power plant and to safely manage the radioactive wastes. The fission process in the nuclear reactor is the only process of the nuclear system that has (virtually) no CO2 emission. In addition CO2 is generated by chemical reactions during the production of necessary materials and chemicals, for example cement (concrete) and steel. A generic NPP contains some 150 000 tonnes of steel and 850 000 tonnes of concrete, in addition to several thousands of tonnes of other materials. The sum of all materials consumed by an NPP during its operational lifetime is about 76 grams per kilowatt-hour delivered to the grid, excluding the mass of rock displaced for mining and final sequestration of the radioactive wastes.
By means of the same thermodynamic analysis that revealed the energy cliff, see above, the sum of the CO2 emissions of all processes constituting the nuclear energy system could be estimated at 88-146 gram CO2 per kilowatt-hour. This figure is based on the assumption that all electric inputs of the nuclear process chain are provided by the nuclear power plant itself, to avoid discussions of the local fuel mix of electricity generation.
The large uncertainty range is chiefly caused by uncertainties regarding the processes of the back end of the process chain, these are the processes needed to safely isolate the inevitable radioactive wastes from the biosphere, including the dismantling of the NPP after its service life. The emission figure will rise with time, as will be explained below.
The energy consumption and consequently the CO2 emission of the recovery of uranium from the earth's crust strongly depend on the ore grade, and several other physical and chemical factors that are not discussed here. In practice the most easily recoverable and richest resources are exploited first, a common practice in mining, because these offer the highest return on investment. As a result of this practice the remaining resources have lower grades and uranium recovery becomes more energy-intensive and more CO2 intensive. Consequently the specific CO2 emission of nuclear power will rise with time; when the average ore grade approaches 200 ppm, the specific CO2 emission of the nuclear energy system will surpass that of fossil-fuelled electricity generation. This phenomenon is called the CO2 trap.
If no new major high-grade uranium resources are found in the future, nuclear power will run aground in the CO2 trap within the lifetime of new nuclear build.
Does nuclear power also emit other greenhouse gases?
No data are found in the open literature on the emission of greenhouse gases other than CO2 by the nuclear system, likely such data never have been published. Assessment of the chemical processes required to produce enriched uranium and to fabricate fuel elements for the reactor indicates that substantial emissions of fluorinated and chlorinated gases are unavoidable; some of these gases may be potent greenhouse gases, with global warming potentials thousands of times greater than CO2.
Unknown are the GHG emissions of the construction of a nuclear power plant, with its large mass of high-quality and often exotic materials. Unknown are the GHG emissions of the operation, maintenance and refurbishment of nuclear power plants. Unknown are the GHG emissions of the backend of the nuclear process chain: the handling and storage of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.
It is inconceivable that nuclear power does not emit other greenhouse gases, this matter is still a well-kept secret. Absence of published data does not mean absence of emissions.
Nuclear power stations and reprocessing plants discharge substantial amounts of a number of fission products, one of them is krypton-85, a radioactive noble gas. Krypton-85 is a beta emitter and is capable of ionizing the atmosphere, leading to the formation of ozone in the troposphere. Tropospheric ozone is a greenhouse gas, it damages plants, it causes smog and health problems. Due to the ionization of air krypton-85 affects the atmospheric electric properties, which gives rise to unforeseeable effects for weather and climate; the Earth's heat balance and precipitation patterns could be disturbed. Would nuclear power exchange alleged mitigation of CO2 emissions for enhanced emissions of climate changer krypton-85?
Are the published nuclear GHG emission figures comparable to renewables?
Scientifically sound comparison of nuclear power with renewables is not possible as long as many physical and chemical processes of the nuclear process chain are inaccessible in the open literature, and their unavoidable emissions cannot be assessed.
When the nuclear industry is speaking about its GHG emissions, only its CO2 emissions are involved.
Erroneously the nuclear industry uses the unit gCO2eq/kWh (gram CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour), this unit implies that other greenhouse gases also are included in the emission figures, instead the unit gCO2/kWh (gram CO2 per kilowatt-hour) should be used. The published emission figures of renewables do include all greenhouse gases. In this way the nuclear industry gives a false and misleading impression of things, comparing apples and oranges.
A second reason why the published emission figures of the nuclear industry are not scientifically comparable to those of renewables is the fact that the nuclear emission figures are based on a very incomplete analysis of the nuclear process chain, for instance the emissions of construction, operation, maintenance, refurbishment and dismantling, jointly responsible for 70% of nuclear CO2 emissions, are either not taken into account, or use unrealistically low figures. It is these exact components that are the only contributions to the published GHG emissions of renewables. Solar power and wind power do not consume materials for conversion into electricity, as nuclear power does.
What is the energy debt and what are the delayed CO2 emissions of nuclear power?
Only a minor fraction of the back end processes of the nuclear chain are operational, after more than 60 years of civil nuclear power. The fulfillment of the back end processes involve large-scale industrial activities, requiring massive amounts of energy and high-grade materials. The energy investments of the yet-to-be fulfilled activities can be reliably estimated by a physical analysis of the processes needed to safely handle the radioactive materials generated during the operational lifetime of the nuclear power plant. No advanced technology is required for these processes.
The energy investments for construction of the nuclear power plant and those for running the front end processes are offset against the electricity production during the operational lifetime. The future energy investments required to finish the back end are called the energy debt.
The CO2 emissions coupled to those processes in the future have to be added to the emissions generated during the construction and operation of the NPP if the CO2 intensity of nuclear power were to be compared to that of other energy systems; effectively this is the delayed CO2 emission of nuclear power. Whether the back end processes would emit also other greenhouse gases is unknown.
Claiming that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy system, even lower than renewables such as wind power and solar photovoltaics, seems strange in view of the fact that the CO2 debt built up during the past six decades of nuclear power is still to be paid off.
Assuming nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases (which is not true), the nuclear mitigation share would grow from the present level of less than 1% to at most 1.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050-2060, if the global nuclear capacity were to grow according to scenarios projected by the nuclear industry.
Materialization of the nuclear capacity scenarios proposed by the nuclear industry are doubtful because of the unrealistically high construction rates of new nuclear power plants that would be required.
Nuclear generating capacity in the future will have to rely completely on reactors in the once-through mode, because closed-cycle systems, including the thorium cycle, are inherently unfeasible. As a consequence future nuclear power depends exclusively on the availability of natural uranium resources.
Net energy contribution to the global energy supply by nuclear power is limited by the availability of uranium-for-energy resources. Exploiting resources at ore grades below 0.02-0.01% uranium the nuclear system becomes an energy sink instead of an energy source: nuclear power falls off the energy cliff.
The average ore grade and other qualities of the yet-to-be exploited global uranium resources decline with time, because the highest quality resources available are always mined first.
The chances of discovering new major uranium-for-energy resources are bleak.
Mining of phosphates should be tailored exclusively to agricultural needs, for phosphorus is irreplaceable in agriculture.
Uranium from seawater is no option. If feasible at commercial scale at all, this resource lies far beyond the energy cliff: no net energy generation is possible.
From a practical viewpoint only the low IAEA scenario seems feasible, resulting in a mitigation share of 0.5-0.3% of the global GHG emissions by 2050, provided nuclear power is GHG free. The mitigation share would become negligible if the nuclear GHG emissions are taken into account.
At present nuclear power emits 88-146 gCO2/kWh. Likely the nuclear CO2 emissions will grow from the current level to values approaching fossil fuel generation within the lifetime of new nuclear builds in the scenarios of both the IAEA and WNA.
Emissions of GHGs other than CO2 by nuclear power are not reported, but are almost certain from a technical point of view.
Krypton-85, discharged by all nuclear power plants and reprocessing plants, generates greenhouse gases in the troposphere, in addition it causes other weather and climate changing effects.
The published figures of nuclear GHG emissions are not comparable to the figures of renewables, because different quantities and estimation methods are applied.
Due to the après nous le déluge culture of the nuclear industry the health hazards posed by radioactive materials in the human environment will increase with time, in addition to risks of Chernobyl-like disasters and of nuclear terrorism.
Nuclear plants do not generate carbon dioxide, so why can't we have nuclear AND renewables, supporting each other, as a response to climate change? In evidence to the UK Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in July, Amber Rudd MP, DECC Secretary of State, suggested that despite its high cost nuclear baseload 'enables us to support more renewables' and was needed since, 'as we all know, until we get storage right, renewables are unreliable'. Can nuclear really support renewables, and is it really low carbon?
The first point to make is that although nuclear plants themselves do not generate CO2, producing the fuel they use does. The mining and fabrication of nuclear fuel is an energy-intense, and hence (at present) carbon-intense, activity and, as demand for this fuel rises, the energy (and carbon) debt will rise since lower grade uranium ores will have to be used, undermining the carbon saving benefits of using nuclear plants.
In theory, nuclear energy or even (perversely) renewables, could be used to power nuclear fuel production so as to avoid this problem but there would still be diminishing returns – there are finite reserves of uranium. Overall, if we attempted to expand the use of nuclear dramatically to deal with climate change, we would exhaust the reserves rapidly unless new more fuel-efficient nuclear plants were developed e.g. fast breeders, and even that would not extend the life of the uranium resource indefinitely.
Nor would it deal with the other problems of nuclear power – safety, security, weapons proliferation and terrorist attack risks, rising costs, inflexible operation and active waste disposal. Indeed it could make them worse. There may be some technical options for limiting some of these problems (e.g. the development of smaller plants, plants using thorium and perhaps recycling some nuclear wastes) but, although there are (strong!) disagreements, some say nuclear fission may not be a significant energy supply option for the future.
Even so, it might be argued that nuclear plants can still prove useful in the interim, before the fuel scarcity problem kicks in, for example to backup variable renewables, as Rudd suggested. For good or ill, in fact it does not seem so. Nuclear plants can't vary their output rapidly or regularly without safety problems. It takes time for the activated xenon gas that is produced when reaction levels are changed to dissipate – it can interfere with proper/safe reactor performance.
In any case nuclear plants need to be run 24/7/365 to recoup their large capital cost. So nuclear plants can just about deal with some of the daily energy demand cycles (demand peaks in the evening, low demand at night) but not with the fast irregular variations likely with wind etc. on the grid – they can't be used to back up the short-term variable output from renewables. It is conceivable that they could be used to cover the occasional longer periods when wind etc. is at minimum. This seems to be what is offered as one option in a new report from the Energy Research Partnership.1 However, that would mean running the plants at lower levels at other times, ready to ramp up slowly to meet the lull periods, which would undermine their economics.
Moreover, if there is a large nuclear contribution and also a large renewables contribution, there can be head-to-head operational conflicts when energy demand is low e.g. at night in summer, when in the UK demand is around 20 GW. The UK is aiming for 16 GW of nuclear by around 2030 and more later (there is talk of 75 GW by 2050) and maybe 30 GW of renewables by around 2020, perhaps more later. Assuming you can't export all the excess, or store it all, which do you turn off when demand is low? The nuclear operators do not want nuclear output to be "curtailed". Neither do the renewable plant operators – they would lose money. It would be a waste either way.
Basically the two technologies are incompatible at large scale on the grid. What you need is one or the other: large, essentially inflexible, nuclear plants with large (very expensive) energy stores to take excess output at low energy demand times, coupled possibly with exporting any excess (as France does) OR a renewables-based system, with a flexible smart grid that balances the variations, using back-up plants (small cheap-to-run gas-fired plants initially, but biomass-fired increasingly), some energy storage (but not much – it is expensive) and demand-side management to reduce/delay peak demand until later. Surplus power at times of low demand can be exported (as with nuclear) and balanced with power imported from overseas if available – the time difference in demand and local variations in wind availability, e.g. across the EU, would help. Having a large inflexible nuclear base-load component on the grid, in such a system, just gets in the way, though a small nuclear component might just about be accommodated.
Basically, in the new system, unless you have a vast energy storage capacity (which would be very expensive), having large base-load plants is a PROBLEM not a solution. The old system, with base-load plus top-up, was OK with large inflexible plant, although wasteful (with huge thermal conversion losses), but if we are to use variable renewables on a large scale we need a more flexible system.
There are some other angles: the surplus power from renewables can be converted into hydrogen gas by electrolysis of water and stored, ready for use in a gas turbine plant to make power when demand is high. Or for use as a vehicle fuel. Germany is already doing this via several wind-to-gas/power-to-gas plants, some of them converting the hydrogen to methane gas, using CO2 captured from the air or from power station exhausts, to feed into the national gas main. It has been argued that if you do happen to have a large, already built, nuclear component (as in France) you could do the same with the excess power from that at night, but that seems to be just a way to sustain the over large nuclear fleet for a bit longer! It would not be economic to build large numbers of new nuclear plants to do this, even if their fuel supply could be guaranteed and low carbon long term. On that last point, interestingly, a new study suggests that using thorium could lead to higher net carbon emissions.2
It is conceivable that nuclear fusion may be viable in the longer term (possibly post 2050). Some say that, rather than being used for base-load, fusion might be used for hydrogen production, in which case it might offer a way to balance variable renewables. However that is very speculative, and fusion is still some way off. Certainly, even if all goes well with the current research work, fusion won't be available in time to deal with the urgent problem of climate change, or to help renewables to do that in the near term.
In terms of the main focus for energy supply, both now and long term, it seems that we really do need to make a choice between nuclear and renewables.
(This material is also available as a PDF file.)
1. Nuclear Power is Not a Silver Bullet
Nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for less than 25% of global greenhouse emissions. Even tripling nuclear power generation would reduce emissions by less than 10% − and then only if the assumption is that it displaces coal.
2. Greenhouse Emissions from the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Claims that nuclear power is 'greenhouse free' are false. Nuclear power is more greenhouse intensive than most renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures. Life-cycle greenhouse emissions from nuclear power will increase as relatively high-grade uranium ores are mined out.
3. Nuclear Power – A Slow Response to an Urgent Problem
The nuclear industry does not have the capacity to rapidly expand production as a result of 20 years of stagnation. Limitations include bottlenecks in the reactor manufacturing sector, dwindling and ageing workforces, and the considerable time it takes to build a reactor and to pay back the energy debt from construction.
4. Nuclear Power and Climate Change
Countries and regions with a high reliance on nuclear power also tend to have high greenhouse gas emissions.
Some countries are planning to replace fossil fuel-fired power plants with nuclear power in order to increase fossil fuel exports − in such cases any potential climate change mitigation benefits of nuclear power are lost.
5. Climate Change and Nuclear Hazards
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms.
'Water wars' − in particular, disputes over the allocation of increasingly scarce water resources between power generation and agriculture − are becoming increasingly common and are being exacerbated by climate change
6. Weapons Proliferation and Nuclear Winter
Civil nuclear programs have provided cover for numerous covert weapons programs and an expansion of nuclear power would exacerbate the problem.
Nuclear warfare − even a limited nuclear war involving a tiny fraction of the global arsenal − has the potential to cause catastrophic climate change.
7. Renewables and Energy Efficiency
Global renewable power capacity more than doubled from 2004 to 2014 (and non-hydro renewables grew 8-fold). Over that decade, and the one before it, nuclear power flatlined.
Global renewable capacity (including hydro) is 4.6 times greater than nuclear capacity, and renewable electricity generation more than doubles nuclear generation. A growing body of research demonstrates the potential for renewables to largely supplant fossil fuels for power supply globally.
Energy efficiency and renewables are the Twin Pillars of a clean energy future. A University of Cambridge study concluded that 73% of global energy use could be saved by energy efficiency and conservation measures − making it far easier to achieve a low-carbon, non-nuclear future.
1. NUCLEAR POWER IS NOT A SILVER BULLET
"Saying that nuclear power can solve global warming by itself is way over the top".
-- Senior International Atomic Energy Agency energy analyst Alan McDonald, 2004.
Nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for less than 25% of global (anthropogenic) greenhouse emissions.
Doubling current nuclear capacity would reduce emissions by roughly 6% if nuclear displaced coal − or not at all if nuclear displaced renewables and energy efficiency. Doubling nuclear power generation would require building 437 reactors to add to the 437 existing 'operable' reactors (380 gigawatts). It would also require new reactors to replace shut-down reactors − the International Energy Agency anticipates almost 200 shut downs by 2040.
A 2007 report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) states that if nuclear power grew approximately three-fold to about 1000 GWe in 2050, the increase in global greenhouse emissions projected in business-as-usual scenarios could be reduced by about 10−20% − assuming that nuclear displaced coal. The IPFM scenario (which it does not advocate) assumes a business-as-usual doubling of greenhouse emissions by 2050, with 700 additional reactors reducing emissions from 14 billion metric tons to 13 billion metric tons. Thus the increase in emissions would be reduced by 1/7 or 14% and overall emissions would be reduced by 1/14 or 7% − assuming that nuclear displaces coal.
According to a 2007 article in Progress in Nuclear Energy, a ten-fold increase in nuclear capacity by the end of the century would reduce greenhouse emissions by 15%.
Clearly, nuclear power is not a 'silver bullet'.
2. GREENHOUSE EMISSIONS FROM THE NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE
Claims that nuclear power is 'greenhouse free' are false. Nuclear power is more greenhouse intensive than most renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures. Life-cycle greenhouse emissions from nuclear power will increase as relatively high-grade uranium ores are mined out and give way to the mining of lower-grade ores.
Greenhouse emissions arise across the nuclear fuel cycle – uranium mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment; reactor construction, refurbishment and decommissioning; waste management (e.g. reprocessing, and/or encasement in glass or cement); and transportation of uranium, spent fuel, etc.
Academic Benjamin Sovacool wrote in a 2008 paper:
"To provide just a rough estimate of how much equivalent carbon dioxide nuclear plants emit over the course of their lifecycle, a 1,000 MW reactor operating at a 90 percent capacity factor will emit the equivalent of 1,427 tons of carbon dioxide every day, or 522,323 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Nuclear facilities were responsible for emitting the equivalent of some 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005. Assuming a carbon tax of $24 per ton − nothing too extreme − and that 1,000 MW nuclear plant would have to pay almost $12.6 million per year for its carbon-equivalent emissions. For the global nuclear power industry, this equates to approximately $4.4 billion in carbon taxes per year."
In a ground-breaking study Sovacool screened 103 lifecycle studies of greenhouse emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle to identify the most current, original, and transparent studies. He found that the mean value from those studies was 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2e/kWh).
Sovacool's paper provides the following figures (gCO2e/kWh):
Sovacool states: "Offshore wind power has less than one-seventh the carbon equivalent emissions of nuclear plants; large-scale hydropower, onshore wind, and biogas, about one-sixth the emissions; small-scale hydroelectric and solar thermal one-fifth. This makes these renewable energy technologies seven-, six-, and five-times more effective on a per kWh basis at fighting climate change. Policymakers would be wise to embrace these more environmentally friendly technologies if they are serious about producing electricity and mitigating climate change."
In a 2009 paper prepared for the Australian Uranium Association, academic Manfred Lenzen concluded that life-cycle greenhouse emissions for nuclear power range from 10−130 gCO2e/kWh with the main variables being ore grades, enrichment technology, reactor fuel re-load frequency and burn-up, and to a lesser extent enrichment level, plant lifetime, load factors, and enrichment tails assay. Lenzen calculates a "worst case" – 0.01% ore grade, 75% load factor, 25 year lifetime, only diffusion enrichment, and a carbon-intensive background economy – resulting in emissions of 248 gCO2e/kWh.
Others calculate still higher values, for example by assuming energy- and emissions-intensive burial of large volumes of low-level ore, waste rock, and mill tailings, rather than the current practice of surface storage.
Life-cycle greenhouse emissions from nuclear power will increase as relatively high-grade uranium ores are mined out. In 2009, mining consultancy firm CRU Group calculated that the average grade of uranium projects at the feasibility study stage around the world was 35% lower than the grades of operating mines, and that exploration projects had average grades 60% below existing operations.
The extent of the increase in the greenhouse intensity of uranium mining is the subject of debate and considerable uncertainty. It depends not only on declining ore grades but also on other variables such as the choice of tailings management options at uranium mines.
Writing in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2012, Warner and Heath stated that emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle could increase by 55−220% with declining uranium ore grades.
Academic Dr Mark Diesendorf states: "In the case where high-grade uranium ore is used, CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are much less than those of an equivalent gas-fired power station. But the world's reserves of high-grade uranium are very limited and may only last a few decades. The vast majority of the world's uranium is low-grade. CO2 emissions from mining, milling and enrichment of low-grade uranium are substantial, and so total CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle become greater than or equal to those of a gas-fired power station."
Keith Barnham, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College London, states that for ore with uranium concentration around 0.01%, the carbon footprint of nuclear electricity could be as high as that of electricity generation from natural gas.
The German Environment Ministry stated in a 2006 report that a modern gas-fired power station in connection with heat production (co-generation) could be less carbon intensive than nuclear power.
Some nuclear lobbyists claim that Generation IV fast neutron reactors would reduce emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle by using waste products (esp. depleted uranium and spent fuel) as fuel instead of mined uranium. One of the problems with that arguments is that Generation IV reactors are − and always have been − decades away:
- The Generation IV International Forum states: "Depending on their respective degree of technical maturity, the first Generation IV systems are expected to be deployed commercially around 2030−2040."
- The International Atomic Energy Agency states: "Experts expect that the first Generation IV fast reactor demonstration plants and prototypes will be in operation by 2030 to 2040."
- A 2015 report by the French government's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety states: "There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen."
- The World Nuclear Association noted in 2009 that "progress is seen as slow, and several potential designs have been undergoing evaluation on paper for many years."
As for the real-world experience with fast neutron reactors, for the most part they have failed every test including carbon intensity. White elephants such as Japan's Monju reactor and France's Superphenix produced so little electricity that the carbon intensity must have been high. Monju operated for 205 days after it was connected to the grid in August 1995, and a further 45 days in 2010; apart from that it has been shut-down because of a sodium leak and fire in 1996, and a 2010 accident when a 3.3 tonne refuelling machine fell into the reactor vessel. The lifetime load factor of the French Superphenix fast reactor − the ratio of electricity generated compared to the amount that would have been generated if operated continually at full capacity − was just 7% percent, making it one of the worst-performing reactors in history.
3. NUCLEAR POWER – A SLOW RESPONSE TO AN URGENT PROBLEM
Expanding nuclear power is impractical as a short-term response to the need to urgently reduce greenhouse emissions. The industry does not have the capacity to rapidly expand production as a result of 20 years of stagnation. Limitations include bottlenecks in the reactor manufacturing sector, dwindling and ageing workforces, and the considerable time it takes to build a reactor and to pay back the energy debt from construction.
One constraint is the considerable time it takes to build reactors. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014 noted that the average construction time of the last 37 reactors that started up was 10 years; and that at least 49 of the 67 reactors listed as under construction have encountered construction delays.
The development of new reactor types − even those which are just modified versions of conventional reactor technology − further delays the construction and deployment of nuclear power. For example the EPR in Finland is 7−9 years behind schedule, and the EPR in France is five years behind schedule (and counting).
Nuclear power is still slower for countries building their first reactor. The IAEA sets out a phased 'milestone' approach to establishing nuclear power in new countries, lasting from 11−20 years: a pre-project phase 1 (1−3 years), a project decision-making phase (3−7 years) and a construction phase (7−10 years).
The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) says that the initial development of a nuclear power industry requires at least 10−15 years in order to build up skills in safety and control and to develop a regulatory framework − that's 10−15 years even before reactor construction begins. Even with rapid progress, ASN estimates a minimum lead time of 15 years before a new nuclear power plant can be started up in a country that does not already have the required infrastructure.24
In addition to reactor construction, further years elapse before nuclear power has generated as much as energy as was expended in the construction of the reactor. One academic report states: "The energy payback time of nuclear energy is around 6½ years for light water reactors, and 7 years for heavy water reactors, ranging within 5.6–14.1 years, and 6.4–12.4 years, respectively."
By contrast, construction times for renewable energy sources are typically months not years, and likewise the energy pay-back period is typically months not years.
Another constraint is bottlenecks in the reactor manufacturing sector. Sharon Squassoni noted in a 2009 paper:
"A significant expansion will narrow bottlenecks in the global supply chain, which today include ultra-heavy forgings, large manufactured components, engineering, and craft and skilled construction labor. All these constraints are exacerbated by the lack of recent experience in construction and by aging labor forces. Though these may not present problems for limited growth, they will certainly present problems for doubling or tripling reactor capacity."
Another constraint is the pattern of ageing nuclear workforces − the 'silver tsunami'. In the UK, for example, a recent government report says that attrition rates in the ageing nuclear workforce are "high and growing" with more than 8,000 new employees a year needed every year for the next six years if the country's ambitious new-build programme is to succeed. In addition, research and training facilities and courses have been on the decline.
A major expansion of nuclear power is theoretically possible over the medium- to long-term. The depletion of uranium resources could be a constraint. According to the World Nuclear Association, the world's present measured resources of uranium (5.9 Mt) in the cost category around 1.5 times present spot prices, are enough to last for about 90 years at the current usage rate of 66,000 tU/yr.
4. NUCLEAR POWER AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Countries and regions with a high reliance on nuclear power also tend to have high greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the US operates 99 power reactors with a capacity of 98.8 GW (26% of the world total), with nuclear power generating over 19% of its electricity. Yet the US is one of the world's largest greenhouse polluters both in per capita and overall terms.
Some countries are planning to replace fossil fuel-fired power plants with nuclear power in order to increase fossil fuel exports. In such cases any potential climate change mitigation benefits of nuclear power are lost. World Nuclear News reported in 2010 that Venezuela, Russia, and some Middle East countries such as the UAE and Iran would prefer to export oil and gas rather than use them in domestic power plants. Saudi Arabia is another country planning to build nuclear power plants in order to boost fossil fuel exports.
5. CLIMATE CHANGE AND NUCLEAR HAZARDS
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change − discussed in detail in Nuclear Monitor #770.
A 2013 report by the US Department of Energy details many of the interconnections between climate change and energy. These include:
- Increasing risk of shutdowns at thermoelectric power plants (e.g. coal, gas and nuclear) due to decreased water availability which affects cooling, a requirement for operation;
- Higher risks to energy infrastructure located along the coasts due to sea level rise, the increasing intensity of storms, and higher storm surge and flooding;
- Disruption of fuel supplies during severe storms;
- Power plant disruptions due to drought; and
- Power lines, transformers and electricity distribution systems face increasing risks of physical damage from the hurricanes, storms and wildfires that are growing more frequent and intense.
At the lower end of the risk spectrum, there are many instances of nuclear plants operating at reduced power or being temporarily shut down due to water shortages or increased water temperature (which can adversely affect reactor cooling and/or cause fish deaths and other problems with the dumping of waste heat in water sources). Reactors in several countries have been forced to close during heat waves, when they're needed the most. For example, France had to purchase power from the UK in 2009 because almost a third of its nuclear generating capacity was lost when it had to cut production to avoid exceeding thermal discharge limits.
At the upper end of the risk spectrum, climate-related threats pose serious risks, such as storms cutting off grid power, leaving nuclear plants reliant on generators for reactor cooling. A 2004 incident in Germany illustrates the risks. Both Biblis reactors (A and B) were in operation when heavy storms knocked out power lines. Because of an incorrectly set electrical switch and a faulty pressure gauge, the Biblis-B turbine did not drop, as designed, from 1,300 to 60 megawatts. Instead the reactor scrammed. When Biblis-B scrammed with its grid power supply already cut off, four emergency diesel generators started. Another emergency supply also started but, because of a switching failure, one of the lines failed to connect. These lines would have been relied upon as a backup to bring emergency power from Biblis-B to Biblis-A if Biblis-A had also been without power. The result was a partial disabling of the emergency power supply from Biblis-B to Biblis-A for about two hours.
'Water wars' will become increasingly common with climate change − in particular, disputes over the allocation of increasingly scarce water resources between power generation and agriculture. Nuclear power reactors consume massive amounts of water − typically 36.3 to 65.4 million litres per reactor per day − primarily for reactor cooling.
Jellyfish swarms have caused problems at many nuclear plants around the world. Increased fishing of jellyfish predators and global warming are contributing to higher jellyfish populations. Monty Graham, co-author of a study on jellyfish blooms published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, blames global warming, overfishing, and the nitrification of oceans through fertiliser run-off.
The Union of Concerned Scientists argued in a 2013 report:
"Low-carbon power is not necessarily water-smart. Electricity mixes that emphasise carbon capture and storage for coal plants, nuclear energy, or even water-cooled renewables such as some geothermal, biomass, or concentrating solar could worsen rather than lessen the sector's effects on water. That said, renewables and energy efficiency can be a winning combination. This scenario would be most effective in reducing carbon emissions, pressure on water resources, and electricity bills. Energy efficiency efforts could more than meet growth in demand for electricity in the US, and renewable energy could supply 80% of the remaining demand."
The REN21 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report' states:
"All energy systems are susceptible to climate variability and extremes. For example, decreasing water levels and droughts can lead to the shutdown of thermal power plants that depend on water-based cooling systems. Dry periods, alternating with floods, can shift erosion and deposition patterns, altering growth rates of biomass and affecting the quality and quantity of the potential fuel output. The melting of glaciers, induced by temperature increases, can have a negative effect on hydropower systems by causing infrastructure damage from flooding and siltation, as well as affecting generation capacity. The efficiency of solar PV declines with high temperatures and dust accumulation, and most of today's wind turbines shut down in winds exceeding 100 to 120 kilometres per hour.
"Typical responses to reducing system vulnerability involve reinforcing existing infrastructure (including strengthening transmission towers and lines); ensuring redundancy of critical systems; building seawalls around power plants; reducing the need for power plant cooling water; and storing larger quantities of fuel at plants. More innovative strategies include local generation and storage, diversification of energy sources, use of a combination of smart grids and technologies, and improving capabilities to couple and decouple individual systems from the central grid system during emergencies.
"Although renewable energy systems are also vulnerable to climate change, they have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions. System modularity, distributed deployment, and local availability and diversity of fuel sources − central components of energy system resilience − are key characteristics of most renewable energy systems. Ultimately, renewable energy systems improve the resilience of conventional power systems, both individually and by their collective contribution to a more diversified and distributed asset pool."
6. WEAPONS PROLIFERATION AND NUCLEAR WINTER
Global expansion of nuclear power would inevitably involve the growth and spread of stockpiles of weapons-useable fissile material and the facilities to produce fissile materials (enrichment plants for highly enriched uranium; and reactors and reprocessing plants for plutonium). Global expansion of nuclear power would lead to an increase in the number of 'threshold' or 'breakout' nuclear states which could quickly produce weapons drawing on expertise, facilities and materials from their 'civil' nuclear program.
Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summed up the problem: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."
Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings the debate back to climate change − a connection explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
"As recent work ... has shown, we now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade − more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct. By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally."
Nuclear expansion would also increase the availability of nuclear materials for radioactive 'dirty bombs'. It would also increase the number of potential targets for terrorist attacks or conventional military strikes by nation-states (such as the repeated military strikes and attempted strikes on nuclear sites in the Middle East).
The US National Intelligence Council argued in a 2008 report that the "spread of nuclear technologies and expertise is generating concerns about the potential emergence of new nuclear weapon states and the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups."
As long ago as 1946, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report commissioned by the US Department of State identified intractable problems:
"We have concluded unanimously that there is no prospect of security against atomic warfare in a system of international agreements to outlaw such weapons controlled only by a system which relies on inspection and similar police-like methods. The reasons supporting this conclusion are not merely technical, but primarily the inseparable political, social, and organizational problems involved in enforcing agreements between nations each free to develop atomic energy but only pledged not to use it for bombs. National rivalries in the development of atomic energy readily convertible to destructive purposes are the heart of the difficulty."
A May 2015 report written by Zia Mian and Alexander Glaser for the International Panel on Fissile Materials provides details on stockpiles of fissile materials. As of the end of 2013, civilian stockpiles contained 57,070 weapon-equivalents: 61 tons of highly enriched uranium (4,070 weapons), and 267 tons of (separated) plutonium (53,000 weapons). The figures are far greater if plutonium in spent fuel is included.
Harold Feiveson calculates that with an increase in nuclear power capacity to 3,500 GW (compared to 380 GW as of June 2015), about 700 tonnes of plutonium would be produced annually. That amount of plutonium would suffice to build 70,000 nuclear weapons, and if we assume an average 40-year reactor lifespan the accumulated plutonium would suffice to build 2.8 million weapons.
Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maps out a scenario whereby nuclear capacity would grow to about 3,300 gigawatts in 2100 and the accumulated plutonium inventory would rise to 50-100 thousand tonnes (IPCC, 1995). That amount of plutonium would suffice to build 5−10 million nuclear weapons.
The challenge is still greater as a result of the practice of plutonium stockpiling. Japan's plutonium stockpiling, for example, clearly fans proliferation risks and tensions in north-east Asia. Diplomatic cables in 1993 and 1994 from US Ambassadors in Tokyo questioned the rationale for the stockpiling of so much plutonium. A 1993 US diplomatic cable posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"
A 2007 report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) states:
"Even a modest expansion of nuclear power would be accompanied by a substantial increase in the number of countries with nuclear reactors. Some of these countries would likely seek gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plants as well. Centrifuge-enrichment plants can be quickly converted to the production of highly enriched uranium for weapons. It is therefore critical to find multinational alternatives to the proliferation of national enrichment plants.
"If a large-scale expansion of nuclear power were accompanied by a shift to reprocessing and plutonium recycle in light-water or fast reactors, it would involve annual flows of separated plutonium on the scale of a thousand metric tons per year − enough for 100,000 nuclear bombs." 
7. RENEWABLES AND ENERGY EFFICIENCY
The REN21 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report' details the striking growth of renewables over the past decade. Renewable energy provided an estimated 19.1% of global final energy consumption in 2013, and growth in capacity and generation continued to expand in 2014. Heating capacity grew at a steady pace, and the production of biofuels for transport increased.
The most rapid growth, and the largest increase in capacity, occurred in the power sector, led by wind, solar PV, and hydropower. Renewables accounted for approximately 59% of net additions to global power capacity in 2014, with significant growth in all regions of the world.
Global renewable power capacity − excluding hydro − grew eight-fold from 85 GW in 2004 to 657 GW in 2014. Solar PV capacity has grown at a phenomenal rate, from 2.6 GW in 2004 to 177 GW in 2014. Over the same period wind power capacity increased from 48 GW to 370 GW.
Global renewable power capacity − including hydro − more than doubled from 800 GW in 2004 to 1,712 GW in 2014 (an estimated 27.7% of the world's power generating capacity in 2014).
In 2014, total installed renewable capacity (including hydro) increased by 8.5%, compared to 0.6% for nuclear power. Hydro capacity rose by 3.6% while other renewables collectively grew nearly 18%.
By way of sharp contrast, nuclear power has flatlined for the past two decades. Nuclear power capacity was 365 GW in 2004 and 376 GW in 2014, and the number of reactors declined from 443 to 439 over that period.
Renewable capacity (including hydro) of 1,712 GW is 4.6 times greater than nuclear capacity of 376 GW.
But the capacity factor of some renewables (e.g. solar PV and wind) is lower than that of nuclear power, so how do the figures stack up when comparing electricity generation? The REN21 report states that as of the end of 2014, renewables (including hydro) supplied an estimated 22.8% of global electricity (hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2%). Nuclear power's share of 10.8% is less than half of the electricity generation from renewables − and the gap is widening.
Renewables jobs have also increased dramatically, with more than 7.7 million people now employed in the sector worldwide.
The REN21 report notes that the growth of renewables is being driven by declining costs and that "in many countries renewables are broadly competitive with conventional energy sources." Further, "growth in renewable energy (and energy
efficiency improvements) continues to be tempered by subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power, particularly in developing countries."
One final point from the REN21 report warrants mention. The report states: "Despite rising energy use, for the first time in four decades, global carbon emissions associated with energy consumption remained stable in 2014 while the global economy grew; this stabilisation has been attributed to increased penetration of renewable energy and to improvements in energy efficiency."
Renewables are leaving nuclear power in their wake. But is the growth trajectory of renewables commensurate with the deep cuts in greenhouse emissions required to avert climate change? The short answer is: no.
Could renewables largely supplant fossil fuelled power plants if there was the political will to make the transition happen? Or is an 'all of the above' approach including renewables and nuclear necessary? There is a growing body of research on the potential for renewables to largely or completely supplant fossil fuels for power supply globally.
Of particular interest are:
- countries with a large number of reactors − only France (58) and the US (99) have more than 50 power reactors;
- countries with a very heavy reliance on nuclear power (e.g. nuclear supplies around 75% of France's electricity); and
- countries with very large and growing populations and increasing energy demand (e.g. India and China).
USA: The Nuclear Information & Resource Service maintains a list of reports demonstrating the potential for the US (and Europe) to produce all electricity from renewables.
France: A recent report by ADEME, a French government agency under the Ministries of Ecology and Research, shows that a 100% renewable electricity supply by 2050 in France is feasible and affordable. For an all-renewables scenario, the report proposes an ideal electricity mix: 63% from wind, 17% from solar, 13% from hydro and 7% from renewable thermal sources (including geothermal energy). The report estimates that the electricity production cost (currently averaging 91 euros per MWh) would be 119 euros per megawatt-hour in the all-renewables scenario, compared with a near-identical figure of 117 euros per MWh with a mix of 50% nuclear, 40% renewables, and 10% fossil fuels.
China: A 2015 report by the China National Renewable Energy Centre finds that China could generate 85% of its electricity and 60% of total energy from renewables by 2050.
India: A detailed 2013 report by WWF-India and The Energy and Resources Institute maps out how India could generate as much as 90% of total primary energy from renewables by 2050. The study develops and evaluates a potential growth path involving large deployment of renewables − especially solar, wind and hydro − for electricity generation, with second-generation and algal biofuels meeting the additional demands of the transport sector. It argues that aggressive efficiency improvements also have large potential and could bring in savings of the order of 59% by 2050.
Twin Pillars: Energy efficiency and renewables
A June 2015 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) compares an 'INDC' scenario, based on 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions' nominated by (some) countries in advance of the UN climate conference in December 2015, with a more ambitious 'Bridge Scenario'. Energy efficiency does much of the heavy lifting in reducing energy-related greenhouse emissions in the Bridge Scenario compared to the INDC scenario. Energy efficiency accounts for 49% of the reduction by 2030, renewables 17%, upstream methane reductions 15%, fossil-fuel subsidy reform 10%, and reducing inefficient coal 9%.
The IEA report's comments on renewables are worth noting. In the Bridge Scenario, 60% of new power capacity between 2015 and 2030 comes from renewables (23% wind, 17% solar PV, 14% hydro, 6% other renewables) compared to just 6% for nuclear, with fossil fuels accounting for the remaining 34%. In the Bridge Scenario, nuclear accounts for 13% of global power capacity in 2030, almost three times lower than renewables' share of 37% (hydro 18%, wind 9%, solar PV, 4%, bioenergy 4%, geothermal 1%, and concentrated solar power 1%).
In the scenario presented in the International Energy Agency's 'World Energy Outlook 2014', which envisages modest efforts to reduce emissions, oil demand in 2040 would be 22% higher without the cumulative impact of energy efficiency measures, gas demand 17% higher and coal demand 15% higher. The report states: "Beyond cutting energy use, energy efficiency lowers energy bills, improves trade balances and cuts CO2 emissions. Improved energy efficiency compared with today reduces oil and gas import bills for the five largest energy-importing regions by almost $1 trillion in 2040."
The REN21 report notes that renewables and energy efficiency are twin pillars of a sustainable energy future − enabling applications that otherwise might not be technically or economically practical and rendering the outcome greater than the sum of the parts. The report provides examples of the synergies:
- Synergies for greater system benefits: Efficient building systems and designs, combined with on-site renewable energy generation, reduce end-use energy demand, electrical grid congestion and losses, and the monetary and energy expenditures associated with fuel transportation.
- Synergies for greater renewable energy share in the energy mix. Improving end-use efficiency and increasing use of on-site renewables reduce primary energy demand. With lower end-use energy requirements, the opportunity increases for renewable energy sources of low energy density to meet full energy-service needs. Targets to increase the share of renewables in total energy consumption can be achieved through both increasing the amount of renewable energy and reducing total energy consumption.
- Synergies for greater investment in renewables and efficiency. Improvements in end-use energy efficiency reduce the cost of delivering end-use services by renewable energy, and the money saved through efficiency can help finance additional efficiency improvements and/or deployment of renewable energy technologies. These synergies exist across numerous sectors, from buildings and electrical services to transportation and industry.
A 2011 study by University of Cambridge academics concluded that a whopping 73% of global energy use could be saved by practically achievable energy efficiency and conservation measures. Julian Allwood, one of the authors of the study, said: "We think it's pretty unlikely that we'll find a good response to the threat of global warming on the supply side alone. But if we can make a serious reduction in our demand for energy, then all the options look more realistic."
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 Zia Mian and Alexander Glaser, 2015, 'Global Fissile Material Report 2015: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production', International Panel on Fissile Materials, http://fissilematerials.org/library/ipfm15.pdf
 Harold Feiveson, 2001, 'The Search for Proliferation-Resistant Nuclear Power', The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, Volume 54, Number 5, www.fas.org/faspir/2001/v54n5/nuclear.htm
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1995, 'Climate Change 1995: Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation of Climate Change: Scientific-Technical Analyses', Contribution of Working Group II to the Second Assessment of the IPCC, R.Watson, M.Zinyowera, R.Moss (eds), Cambridge University Press: UK.
 Greenpeace, 1 Sept 1999, "Confidential diplomatic documents reveal U.S. proliferation concerns over Japan's plutonium program", http://web.archive.org/web/20081114064230/http://archive.greenpeace.org/...
 REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century), 2015, 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report', www.ren21.net/status-of-renewables/global-status-report/
 International Atomic Energy Agency, 'Nuclear Power Capacity Trend', www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/WorldTrendNuclearPowerCapacity.aspx
 Mycle Schneider, April 2015, World Nuclear Industry Status Report, http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/356082/26159765/1429631468703/2015...
 Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, Nov 2009, 'A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables', Scientific American,
Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, July/August 2013, 'Meeting the world’s energy needs entirely with wind, water, and solar power', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69: pp.30-40, http://thebulletin.org/2013/julyaugust/meeting-world%E2%80%99s-energy-ne...
WWF International, Ecofys and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, 2011, 'The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050', http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/climate_carbon_energy/energy_s...
Greenpeace International, 'Energy [R]evolution 2012', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Climat...
A number of other useful reports are listed at the following webpages:
http://go100re.net/e-library/studies-and-reports/ (Global, Europe, America, Asia, Pacific, Others)
 Nuclear Information & Resource Service, 'Nuclear-Free, Carbon-Free', www.nirs.org/nuclearfreecarbonfree/nuclearfreecarbonfreehome.htm
See also the NIRS 'Alternatives to Nuclear page' resources: www.nirs.org/alternatives/alternativeshome.htm
For European studies see also www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/clean-energy/links#3
 English language summary: Terje Osmundsen, 20 April 2015, www.energypost.eu/french-government-study-95-renewable-power-mix-cheaper...
Full report (in French): L'Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie (ADEME), 2015, 'Vers un mix électrique 100% renouvelable en 2050',
Report: 'China high renewables 2050 roadmap − summary', www.scribd.com/doc/262740831/China-high-renewables-2050-roadmap-summary
Summary: Emma Fitzpatrick, 17 Jan 2014, 'Even India could reach nearly 100% renewables by 2051', http://reneweconomy.com.au/2014/even-india-could-reach-nearly-100-renewa...
 International Energy Agency, June 2015, 'World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change', www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/weo-2015-special-r...
 Ibid., p.74
 Ibid., p.155
 Jonathan M. Cullen, Julian M. Allwood, and Edward H. Borgstein, Jan 2011, 'Reducing Energy Demand: What Are the Practical Limits?', Environmental Science and Technology, 45 (4), pp 1711–1718, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es102641n
 Helen Knight, 26 Jan 2011, 'Efficiency could cut world energy use over 70 per cent', www.newscientist.com/article/dn20037-efficiency-could-cut-world-energy-u...
On June 16, seven international clean energy organizations launched a major new campaign aimed at keeping nuclear power out of all negotiations at the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris. The UN Climate Change Conference ('COP-21') will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11.
The seven initiating groups are the two organisations behind the Nuclear Monitor − the World Information Service on Energy (WISE-Amsterdam) and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) − along with Sortir du Nucleaire (France), Ecodefense (Russia), Global 2000 (Austria), Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), and Burgerinitiative Umweltschutz (Germany).
Some of the same groups were critical to a similar effort at the UN negotiations in The Hague in 2000, which succeeded in barring nuclear power from the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. And some of the groups also organized the large Nuclear-Free, Carbon-Free contingent to last year's People's Climate March in New York City.
Peer de Rijk of WISE-Amsterdam said: "We are calling on 1,000 civil society organisations to join us for a campaign to block the nuclear industry's lobby activities at COP-21 and instead ensure the world chooses clean energy."
Sign the petition! The first step of this new international campaign is a petition that will be presented to world leaders in December.
Organizations can sign the petition at:
Individuals can sign the petition at:
The text of the petition is available in English French, Spanish, and German.
Join us in Paris. On December 12, groups will organize an anti-nuclear block in the Global Climate March. Buses and trains will bring people to Paris.
Danyel Dubreuil from Sortir du Nucléaire said: "The government keeps extending the lifetime of aging reactors and supporting a dirty, expensive, dangerous and declining nuclear industry and will most probably use the COP-21 to try saving its national nuclear industry while promoting it as clean and climate-friendly. We condemn the sponsoring of the COP by polluting companies − and especially by EDF − and will denounce the greenwashing of the nuclear industry in Paris."
International day of actions against nukes. On October 10−11 an international day of action against false solutions will take place in as many countries as possible.
Sascha Gabizon from the global women's network WECF said: "Nuclear power manifests a wide range of human rights violations, from the universal human rights to life and health, to disproportionate impacts on indigenous peoples, women, children, and future generations."
Vladimir Sliviak of Moscow-based Ecodefense said: "Russia has had a catastrophic experience with nuclear power and nuclear waste management. At the same time, the Russian government is increasing its efforts to sell new reactors across the world as safe and climate friendly. This is cynical and irresponsible and must be stopped. There must be a clear statement made in Paris: no nukes; yes to clean energy."
Join the virtual march. You can buy a banner (for as little as 5 euros) which will appear on the campaign homepage (www.wiseinternational.org/campaign). Your donation will be used to finance the Don't Nuke the Climate campaign. The best banner messages will be printed on real banners and taken to the march in Paris.
Websites. NIRS has set up a new 'Don't Nuke the Climate' website for US organizing and actions: www.nirs.org/cop21/dontnuketheclimate.htm
The international campaign website is: www.wiseinternational.org/campaign
This issue of the Nuclear Monitor is a feature on the topic of nuclear power and climate change. We report on the launch of a new campaign − Don't Nuke the Climate! − and dissect and debunk the nuclear industry's claim that nuclear power is necessary for climate change abatement.
The case for expanding nuclear energy is based on myths about its status, greenhouse gas emissions, proliferation, accidents, wastes and economics. Let's take each in turn.
Nuclear is not, and has never been, a major energy force. Global annual nuclear energy generation peaked in 2006. Meanwhile its percentage contribution to global electricity generation has declined from its historic peak in 1993 of 17% to about 10% today. The only countries with significant growth are China, India, Russia and South Korea. In the rest of the world, retirements of ageing reactors are likely to outweigh new builds.1
Nuclear advocates are fond of claiming that nuclear energy has negligible greenhouse gas emissions and hence must play an important role in mitigating climate change. However, the greenhouse case for new nuclear power stations is flawed.
In a study published in 2008,2 nuclear physicist and nuclear energy supporter Manfred Lenzen compared life-cycle emissions from several types of power station. For nuclear energy based on mining high-grade uranium ore, he found average emissions of 60 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity generation, compared with 10–20 g per kWh for wind and 500–600 g per kWh for gas. Now comes the part that most nuclear proponents try to ignore.
The world has, at most, a few decades of high-grade uranium ore reserves left. As ore grades inevitably decline, more diesel fuel is needed to mine and mill the uranium, and so the resulting CO2 emissions rise. Lenzen calculated the life-cycle emissions of a nuclear power station running on low-grade uranium ore to be 131 g per kWh.
This is unacceptable in terms of climate science, especially given that Lenzen's assumptions favoured nuclear energy. Mining in remote locations will be one of the last industries to transition to low-carbon fuels, so new nuclear reactors will inevitably become significant greenhouse gas emitters over their lifetimes.3
The next generation of reactors
Some generation IV reactors4 are potentially lower in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, but these are not yet commercially available.
All are likely to be even more expensive than conventional reactors. The fast breeder reactor is even more complex, dangerous, expensive and conducive to weapons proliferation than conventional nuclear reactors. Despite several decades of expensive pilot and demonstration plants, fast breeders have not been successfully commercialised, and may never be.
Advocates try to justify the integral fast reactor and the thorium reactor on the fallacious grounds that they cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons explosives. However, if not operated according to the rules, the integral fast reactor can actually make it easier to extract weapons-grade plutonium and hence make bombs.4 To be useful as a nuclear fuel, thorium must first be converted to uranium-233, which can be fissioned either in a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb, as the United States has demonstrated.
The small modular reactor (SMR) has been a dream of the nuclear industry for decades, amid hopes that future mass production could make its electricity cheaper than from existing large reactors. However, offsetting this is the economy of scale of large reactors. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which is not anti-nuclear, has serious safety and security concerns about SMRs.6
Nuclear proponents dismiss the danger that civil nuclear energy will drive the development of nuclear weapons, by saying that the nuclear industry is now under strong international oversight. This ignores the harsh reality that India, Pakistan, North Korea and South Africa have all used civil nuclear energy to help build their nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Libya, South Korea and Taiwan all used civil nuclear energy to cloak their commencement of nuclear weapons programs, although fortunately all except Iran have now discontinued them.7
Thus nuclear energy contributes to the number of countries with nuclear weapons, or the capacity to build them, and hence increases the probability of nuclear war.
Analyses of the damage done by major nuclear accidents, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, should properly consider not just the short-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome, but also the cancers that appear over the ensuring decades, and which represent the major contribution to death and disabilities from these incidents.
Estimates of future Chernobyl deaths by reputable impartial authors range from 16,000 by the International Centre for Research on Cancer8, to 93,000 by an international group of medical researchers.9
Four years after Fukushima, the plant is still leaking radiation10, while a reported 120,000 people remain displaced11 and Japanese taxpayers face a bill that could run to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Proponents often cherry-pick highly optimistic projections of the future cost of nuclear energy. However, past and present experience suggests that such projections have little basis in reality. Apart from the Generation IV reactors, which are not commercially available and hence cannot be costed credibly, all of the much-touted current (Generation III+) power reactors under construction (none is operating) are behind schedule and over budget.
In Finland, Olkiluoto-3 is nearly a decade behind schedule and nearly three times its budgeted cost; in France, Flamanville-3 is five years behind schedule and double budgeted cost; in Georgia, USA, Vogtle is three years behind schedule and about US$700 million over budget. Britain's proposed Hinkley Point C will receive a guaranteed inflation-linked price for electricity over 35 years, starting at about US$180 per megawatt hour – double the typical wholesale price of electricity in the UK. It will also receive a loan guarantee of about US$20 billion and insurance backed by the British taxpayer.12 It's doubtful whether any nuclear power station has ever been built without huge subsidies.13
Nuclear waste vs renewable energy
High-level nuclear wastes will have to be safeguarded for 100,000 years or more, far exceeding the lifetime of any human institution.
Meanwhile, Denmark is moving to 100% renewable electricity by 203514, and Germany to at least 80% by 2050.15 Two German states are already at 100% net renewable energy.16
The variability of wind and solar power can be managed with mixes of different renewable energy technologies, at geographically dispersed locations to smooth out the supply.17 Why would we need to bother with nuclear?
Reprinted from The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/accidents-waste-and-weapons-nuclear-power-is...