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.