Is climate change the worst argument for nuclear?
21 January 2015
Jumping on the environmental bandwagon may not be the best choice for the nuclear industry. The other benefits of nuclear power such as reliability and security of supply deserve more emphasis. By Steve Kidd
My articles over the past three months have covered the failure of nuclear advocates to make much progress with gaining public acceptance over the past few years, with the prime need now to undertake a serious effort to gain better public understanding of radiation and counter the adverse impacts of a perverse radiological protection regime. There remains one piece in the jigsaw and that is to abandon climate change as a prime argument for supporting a much higher use of nuclear power to satisfy rapidly-rising world power needs.
This immediately sounds like heresy. The mooted nuclear renaissance in the early years of this century was founded on a perceived need for nuclear to replace fossil fuels. Carrying on as we were doing would have disastrous climatic consequences for mankind. The World Nuclear Association was created out of the old Uranium Institute to give substantive industry backing to this notion, backing the concept of “Nuclear Green”. In contrast to fossil fuels, nuclear has an almost trivial environmental footprint and can supply the billions of kilowatt hours necessary to satisfy mankind’s requirements. There is inevitably some degree of competition with renewable sources, but the gap created by phasing out fossil fuels over the ensuing decades would be so large that there would be plenty of room for both.
Although we have seen no nuclear renaissance (instead, a notable number of reactor closures in some countries, combined with strong growth in China) the story has not changed very much. The 2014 edition of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook shows nuclear playing a small but indispensable part in those scenarios maintaining greenhouse gas emissions at much lower and environmentally safer levels to 2030 and beyond. The message is that everything is needed for climatic salvation - more energy conservation and efficiency and the gradual replacement of fossil fuels in the mix by renewables and nuclear, plus a significant and probably highly-unlikely element of carbon capture and storage. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also just released the 2014 edition of its publication Climate Change and Nuclear Power which addresses the perceived need for a lot more nuclear power for this reason, together with the range of issues which inevitably surround this transition.
The problem is that the hoped-for process is not working. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland that claim environmental credentials are moving strongly away from nuclear. Even with rapid nuclear growth in China, nuclear’s share in world electricity is declining. The industry is doing little more than hoping that politicians and financiers eventually see sense and back huge nuclear building programmes. On current trends, this is looking more and more unlikely. The high and rising nuclear share in climate-friendly scenarios is false hope, with little in the real outlook giving them any substance. Far more likely is the situation posited in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report covered in September’s article (September 2014, ’The world nuclear industry - is it in terminal decline?’). Although this report is produced by anti-nuclear activists, its picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth given the recent trends.
What about China? The climate change proponents will point to the recent accord between the US and Chinese presidents on clean energy at the APEC summit. The Chinese commitment (if it can be called anything as strong as this) is to have carbon emissions peaking in 2030, when clean sources of energy should achieve 20% of the total (as opposed to today’s 5%). Media articles have speculated that this will require maybe 800-1000 nuclear power stations, together with a lot more renewable energy. Yet there some obvious problems with this.
First, the problem of dirty air in China goes way beyond electricity generation. Other major causes include the transport sector and dirty industrial plants such as steel and cement works. Achieving the 20% level (note that it is for total energy and not just power generation) will require huge clean-ups in both these sectors, perhaps moving quickly towards electric vehicles (or at least the latest hybrids). The nuclear programme as it stands, even if it gets to 150-200 reactors by 2030 (which is not inconceivable if there is an uplift to 10 reactors per year in the 2020s) may be something of a sideshow in this.
Second, most articles about nuclear in China confuse two things: air pollution and carbon emissions. China indeed has serious air pollution problems from soot, particulates, SOx, NOx and ground-level ozone, and the loose commitments it has for 2030 are directed at this. They have little to do with curbing greenhouse gases, which the Chinese still view as a problem created (and needing to be solved) by the developed world. They are mindful that they are now the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases and will face increasing pressure to take account of this is in future policy making, but China’s clear priority just now is to clean up the air in its cities. Averting greenhouse gases will be a happy by-product of this but is not a primary motivation.
This suggests that advocates should have been concentrating more on highlighting nuclear’s other “clean air” credentials, on the basis that this is a terrible problem in many countries today. Millions of people are dying prematurely though respiratory diseases. This has now largely disappeared in the developed world, due to regulatory action on emissions standards and changes in the structure of its economies. But all that has done is shift the dirty air to other, less well-regulated, parts of the world.
The other beneficial environmental side of nuclear which should also receive more emphasis is its sheer efficiency in using natural resources. The world’s supply of nuclear fuel is effectively infinite: there are significant uranium and thorium resources and small quantities produce a huge amount of power. We should certainly not be squandering valuable hydrocarbons that are better used for petrochemicals and transport and for which there are no easy alternatives. Extracting and transporting huge quantities of coal, oil and natural gas needs to be depicted as essentially 19th and 20th century activities - so the future has to be nuclear. It should also be noted that per megawatt of installed capacity wind turbines use about twice the steel and three times the concrete of nuclear. When you consider that nuclear has a capacity factor of roughly four times that of wind, the steel and concrete requirements rise to about eight and twelve times that of nuclear, respectively, per kilowatt hour.
While it is true that some previously anti-nuclear activists and advocates have moved over to the nuclear side on account of their new conviction that nuclear is essential to curb climate change, these are very uncomfortable bedfellows. They are likely to do as much damage to the nuclear case as good. The industry has hailed the recent “Pandora’s Promise” movie, but the five new nuclear disciples look rather like enemy turncoats in a war-time propaganda movie, trying to urge their former colleagues also to “see the light”. Why, after so many years of being “wrong”, should anyone have faith in the new (and apparently deeply-held) convictions of these people? Will they not change their minds again once the wind changes? Why on earth would one cosy up to the very people who killed your market in the first place because their foolish advocacy led to much higher costs? Their general lack of soundness is invariably amplified by attaching themselves to next generation reactor technologies, thorium or whatever. There are indeed important issues with the reactors available today (see January 2014, ’Moving beyond today’s reactors - a viable route?’). They can, however, do the job required of them perfectly adequately, and will earn the necessary profits to invest in the next generation of plants if they achieve sufficient volume today.
The other issue with those who belatedly come to endorse nuclear is that it becomes a “last resort” technology. Once everything else has been tried and found lacking, we simply have to use nuclear, or the world will risk coming to an end. Even though they still believe that nuclear has the same host of problems, they also now believe we need it badly. But this won’t work for one minute. As soon as anything goes wrong, the support of these people will melt away. Nuclear needs a strong positive endorsement from supporters who recognise that the arguments marshalled against it were always phony.
The climate change gamble
Avoiding using the climate change argument for nuclear does not mean absolute denial of the science. Also, it would be wrong for the industry to completely turn its back on support from this lobby group. It’s all a question of emphasis. There is a strong argument that questions the view of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that irreversible effects on the climate from human activity have already started. And that they will necessarily follow with the expected level of greenhouse gases in the environment. There is a significant risk in nuclear hitching itself to this type of view, as it may eventually be found to be unproven and in that case the nuclear industry, along with the renewables sector, will be discredited.
The nuclear industry giving credence to climate change from fossil fuels has simply led to a stronger renewables industry. Nuclear seems to be “too difficult” and gets sidelined - as it has within the entire process since the original Kyoto accords. And now renewables, often thought of as useful complements to nuclear, begin to threaten it in power markets when there is abundant power from renewables when the wind blows and the sun shines.
Climate change is also an issue now seemingly irretrievably linked to some combination of higher taxes and prices, bigger and more intrusive government intervention, lower economic growth, and less disposable income. The nuclear sector doesn’t want to be associated with any of this. Although President Obama may seek to impose anti-carbon measures, he is unlikely to succeed. Nor will other governments, once the lessons from Germany have been absorbed. Nuclear has suffered far too much throughout its history from government intervention and controls. It now needs to sell itself on grounds of cheapness, reliability and security of supply. Nuclear advocates in the United States would do better if they could get the Department of Energy to back off on the tangle of regulations put into place post-Three Mile Island, which have helped stall further development of nuclear there.
Nuclear should not be cosying up to anything that costs money. It should promote itself as inherently cheap energy, vital for economic growth. The costs of averting climate change by curbing emissions are huge (and were vastly under-estimated in the Stern report). How much of the slower growth in Europe today is due to more expensive energy - some of which must be due to the foolish renewables obsession?
As often argued in these columns, nuclear now needs to break free and become more like other industrial sectors. The aircraft manufacturing sector is a good example. Air travel was once an expensive luxury available only to a few but now fleets of standardised planes send people cheaply from place to place. Air travel has become a basic service, rather like the provision of electricity. Producing it by nuclear can often seem rather expensive today, but it can be made a lot cheaper in future through simplifying and standardising the current generation of reactors. The aircraft industry has not moved to supersonic transport, as technological leaps often make little sense. With something so basic as going from A to B or powering your home, it makes sense to perfect what we already have.
About the author
Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.