Is nuclear power necessary? Is it sufficient?

I normally argue the importance of nuclear power, but recently I have run into a number of people asserting that nuclear power is sufficient. Of course, the question is sufficient for what.

My assumption is that scientific consensus is correct, and that the goal of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions of >50% worldwide by 2050 (and perhaps >80%), >90% per capita in the US, may still not be enough. Note, since we are really dealing with cumulative emissions, and we are dawdling about getting started, the goal could require even steeper cuts.

I stopped using the concept of the Socolow-Pacala wedge some years ago when I read once too often that we need only 7 – 8 wedges. A wedge is a large solution, able to reduce GHG emissions by 25 gigatonnes.

Socolow Wedge

I responded with How Many Wedges Do We Need? and calculated 18. In the September 10 Science, Farewell to Fossil Fuels? (subscription required), the estimate is now 25.

So we need enormous rapid reductions in GHG emissions. One argument I’ve seen recently is that those who say that we can do with efficiency in lieu of nuclear power are wrong, so we don’t need increased efficiency. Conservation includes both behavior change, and increased efficiency—better bulbs, better cars, better refrigerators. According to the major reports from the peer review community (uber reports), all means together of achieving greater efficiency comprise the single largest solution to climate change. An example is given below in the Fetter article. Conservation will also occur with behavior change, encouraged by policies such as the London congestion charge. Scientists are less optimistic about the potential for voluntary behavior change.

Is nuclear power necessary?

Every uber report says yes, eg, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III and Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy (pdf), signed by 10 directors of the national labs including now Secretary of Energy Steven Chu:

We believe that nuclear energy must play a significant role in our nation’s — and the world’s — electricity portfolio for the next 100+ years.

The arguments I read against the need for nuclear power come from outside the peer review community.

Those who argue that nuclear power is sufficient (with or without improved efficiency) say there is enough uranium and thorium, not to mention methods of using old nuclear fuel, and nuclear power can supply 100% of the world’s electricity for a long time. In Generating the Option of a Two-Stage Nuclear Renaissance (subscription required), part of the Scaling Up Alternative Energy discussion in the August 13 Science, the authors estimate nuclear could be an important source of electricity for >1000 years.) However, there is a difference between statements like “there is enough wind blowing over the Earth” and “100% wind will be feasible soon”. Besides public prejudice, and in some places laws prohibiting new nuclear plants “until the waste problem is solved”, there are other obstacles to nuclear power. Many of those obstacles may disappear, and perhaps all electricity on planet Earth 2100 will be nuclear, but no major analysis gets us there by 2050. These obstacles include how slowly we will add nuclear power if we do it with care (build the plants safely, make sure countries have the infrastructure needed to for meeting international standards of operation). There is presently a mismatch between nuclear plant size and the needs of some utilities: for many smaller utilities it makes more sense to build smaller plants. Nuclear power may work better in some of the developing world if the proliferation-resistant plant can be delivered, operate for years without refueling, and then be carried away—one of the possible Generation IV (Gen IV) designs. This and other smaller plants designs will appear over the coming years, and their success may make nuclear power more attractive. (Read more about the generations of nuclear power.)

Then there is the challenge presented by governments. In France and Hong Kong, the government makes a decision. In the US, good decisions depend on good laws. A number of utilities began campaigning almost a decade ago to get good climate change legislation: with $2 trillion in decisions pending, and an inevitable GHG cost, they wanted to know the rules. The US Congress and President have not made adding a cost for GHG a priority, though the (current) President and many legislators support it. So some US utilities are building natural gas, and others are building nuclear (eg, TVA has recently completed, and begun, nuclear plants and plans to decrease coal and increase nuclear) using a set of rules almost everyone knows will change.

Watts Bar 2
Construction continuing at Watts Bar 2

and a gen III+ in Georgia
generations described
generations described

How fast can we add nuclear power?

International Atomic Energy Agency keeps track of plant construction and decommissioning and provides estimates for future construction. In Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period Up to 2050: 2010 Edition (pdf), a range of estimates are provided. Their high estimates are not the highest that are technically feasible, nor their lowest as low as could occur. Additionally, the estimates evolve, so this year’s estimates are larger than those from a decade ago. IAEA says that 14% of 2009 world electricity, 5.5% of 2009 energy, came from nuclear. By 2030, the percentage of nuclear electricity will have increased to somewhere between 8.5 and 10.4%. By 2050, nuclear will supply between 5 and 11.9% of world electricity. In North America, as much as 40% of 2050 electricity could be nuclear; in west Europe, as much as 50%.

The highest estimates I’ve seen from a peer-review publication was in Science in 2000, A Nuclear Solution to Climate Change? (subscription required), co-authored by Steve Fetter, now Assistant Director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The authors estimate that if energy efficiency is improved rapidly, so that per capita energy use increases only 50% between 1997 and 2050, and population increases by 50%, nuclear could supply only 1/3 of 2050 energy, but over half of 2050 electricity.

According to the uber reports, it is unlikely at best that the world will achieve France’s 76% nuclear by 2050. There is no clear plan for reducing transportation GHG emissions to near 0—maybe electric cars powered by nuclear will be the future, but that isn’t clear today.

In conclusion

Nuclear power is one of the larger solutions. It is needed. Depending on the relative economics of different sources of electricity in 2030, the reliability of suppliers, whether the promise of Gen IV was met, and how other problems turn out (eg, the possibility that wind will cause climate change), the choices for 2050 will include more or less nuclear, more or less renewables, more or less carbon capture and storage for fossil fuels. All uber reports assume that all these methods are needed, and together they may not be sufficient.

An Enemy of the People
Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann is An Enemy of the People who innocently believed that the people of the spa town would welcome his warning about the spa, and fix the problem.

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