Nuclear power’s false new dawn?

I’ve long been on record as being somewhat sceptical about the potential role of nuclear power in our long-term energy future. Although I do have some environmental concerns, many of my doubts are based on how the long time frames which always seem to accompany new nuclear build don’t obviously square up with our need to move quite quickly over the next decade or three, to respond effectively to the dual threats of climate change, and the rising price – and possibly the reduced availability – of oil.
I was therefore interested by this story from New Scientist:

Rumours of a nuclear power renaissance have been greatly exaggerated. So says an audit of the nuclear power industry released on Wednesday…

…The Paris-based nuclear consultants who compiled the report argue that the industry is growing too slowly to meet this target, and may even be shrinking.

The report itself (pdf) was commissioned by a grand alliance of European parliamentary green parties, and makes interesting reading, if only because it shows that some people’s great white hope for cutting CO2 emissions is currently rather moribund: there has been only a small increase in the total nuclear generation capacity since the turn of the millennium, from 352 to 371 GW, which has mainly been achieved by upgrades of existing reactors rather than the building of new ones (wind capacity increased by 6 times as much in the same time period). Perhaps more disturbingly, many of the reactors currently operating were built more than 20 years ago – the average age of currently operating reactors is 23 years – and will come to the end of their operating life in the next couple of decades. The new reactors currently being planned or under construction are not enough to even maintain existing nuclear capacity, let alone increase it as a replacement for oil, gas or coal generation.
Thus, even if you accept that nuclear power could help to decouple our energy use from greenhouse gas emissions, on present trends it’s clearly not going to. It seems that despite the enthusiastic rhetoric from industry and governments alike, no-one is yet putting their money where their mouth is. In fact, from what I’ve seen governments are relying on the private sector to come up with the capital, whilst industry is waiting for the government to subsidise a sure thing for them. If that doesn’t change soon, then arguments over the possible role of nuclear power become moot – any new capacity will arrive too late.
I’m going to quote the concluding paragraphs of the report verbatim:

Former NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford, who was involved in the licensing of some 25 nuclear reactors, comes to a severe judgement on the prospects of nuclear power:

“Those who tell you things like “It could save the earth” or “Clean, green atomic energy can stop global warming” or “Nuclear energy just may be the energy source that can save our planet from catastrophic climate change” are inviting you into a dangerous lala land in which nuclear power will be oversubsidized and underscrutinized while other more promising and more rapid responses to climate change are neglected and the greenhouse gases that they could have averted continue to pollute the skies at dangerous rates.”

Long-time energy sector observer Walt Patterson, Associate Fellow of the Energy, Environment and Development Programme at the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) agrees. He has detected a sort of ramping “nuclear amnesia”:

“Those suffering from nuclear amnesia have forgotten why nuclear power faded from the energy scene in the first place, how many times it has failed to deliver, how often it has disappointed its most determined advocates, how extravagantly it has squandered unparalleled, unstinting support from taxpayers around the world, leaving them with burdens that may last for millennia.”

In June 2005, the trade journal Nuclear Engineering International published the analysis of the 2004 Edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report under their headline. “On the way out – In sharp contrast to multiple reporting of a potential ‘nuclear revival’, the atomic age is in the dusk rather than in the dawn”.

At the end of 2007, we have nothing to add.

Hard-hitting stuff.

Categories: environment

Comments (5)

  1. lab lemming says:

    So a report commissioned by a bunch of green groups is critical of nuclear power. Now there’s a big surprise.
    Saying that nuclear can’t grow because it isn’t currently growing is nonsensical. Nobody is currently building nuclear power plants because coal fired plants are more economical.
    Obviously, nuclear power is not a long term solution, unless you can generate supernovae to make more uranium. But none of the other non-combustion baseload power sources have been proving on a large scale. So if you want to start taking existing coal plants offline in the next 5-25 years, there are few other options besides uranium.
    What you replace those with 50-70 years from now is left as an exercise to the reader’s children.

  2. Chris Rowan says:

    It is of course no surprise that a Green-commissioned report would tend towards the negative side of things – but I think that there is a serious issue in that if present trends continue, we will not be able to replace coal with uranium in the next 5-25 years – and we may in fact be forced to do the opposite.

  3. Chris — The global nuclear industry has a number of problems with the report you’re pointing to, but I’ll just limit myself to one point that ought to help clear things up a bit.
    You mention that since the turn of the millennium, that wind capacity has increased six times faster than nuclear energy.
    Unfortunately, capacity isn’t the critical measure, actual electricity generated is. Here in the U.S., the average capacity factor of the fleet is about 90%, while wind’s average capacity factor is about 1/3rd of that. So while there might be six times more wind capacity, it will probably only produce about twice as much electricity.
    In addition, wind generation in the U.S. has been eligible for a production tax credit since the 1990s, while nuclear didn’t become eligible for a similar program until it was passed as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Taken together, it explains a lot about that figure you threw around so casually.
    Stop by our blog in the next day or so for more information on how we view this report.

  4. Chris Rowan says:

    Eric: Regardless of how casual my figure-flinging was, it’s somewhat tangential to the point: even with those tax credits wind power is not growing particularly speedily, is it? Given that total global generation capacity is going up by about 135 GW per year, neither a total increase over 8 years of 20 GW from nuclear, nor whatever between one and six times that we’ve gotten from installation of wind turbines, is amazingly impressive.

  5. Harold Asmis says:

    A lot of this stuff was in my blog. Areva, alone, claims they are going to build 20 nuclear stations, 10 of which will be simultaneous. I’ve always estimated that only 1-2 nuclear plants can be built at one time in the world, excluding maybe 1 in China, and 1 in Romania because they have captive engineers. Even though the Greens can be ridiculous, they do have the point that if we go willy-nilly and exceed rational capacity, then we’ll have the same old mess all over again.
    Through conferences and such, I have talked to a lot of the American nuclear people who were involved in the first binge, and they were total idiots. No disrespect to the dead, which most of them are….