Friday, June 06, 2014

Nuclear Energy: Let's Get Real

First let me say off the bat that I consider nuclear power one of the best energy sources we have. Why?

Because nuclear is dense, reliable, constant, low carbon, relatively safe, scalable and proven technology.
It also generates little (although dangerous waste).

Actually, nuclear is so good that if humanity didn't have it, we would need to invent it.

Again, off the bat let me say that I consider that eventually nuclear will supply more than 50% of humanity's energy. By nuclear I mean fission and fusion. In fission we are including uranium and thorium and all sorts of reactor designs. On the other hand, "eventually" doesn't necessarily mean soon.

So, after stating the above, we don't want to sound like Greenpeacers promoting renewable energy and thus here is a dose of reality:

In a previous post,* we calculated that to expand nuclear generation to comprise 50% of global electricity requirements (and say, 25% of global energy requirements) we would need to commission 87 one GWe nuclear reactors every year for 30 years. Or, if you prefer, half that amount of reactors for 60 years.**

Today, only China seems serious about massively increasing their nuclear capacity and currently have 28*** reactors under construction. Comendable, but hardly enough.

Remember, if we want to produce 50% of our electricity with nuclear by 2040 we need to commission 87 reactors in 2014; 87 more in 2015; 87 more in 2016; 87 more in 2017; 87 more in 2018; 87 more in 2019...

Sure, we might say, we are not starting now, but later, still it is inescapable that a dramatic nuclear buildup is required. 

Thus, we have to differentiate what is technically feasible from what is probable.

Is it feasible to produce 50% of the global electricity with nuclear? If France is already producing close to 80% of its annual electricity with nuclear, there shouldn't be any insurmountable technical limitations for the world to "go the way of France." 

However, now we have to ask how probable it is that we will commission 87 reactors (average) per year for 30 years. I would say the probability is extremely low, almost zero.

OK, what about 43 per year for 60 years? Hmmm... that seems more probable.

And what about 29 for 90 years? This looks awfully more probable.

The EIA estimates that by 2040 nuclear energy will supply 14.1% of global electricity (and say, half of that for total energy usage).

For the other low carbon energies, the EIA estimates the following penetrations in global electricity generation:****

Hydro: 16%.
Wind: 4.7%
Solar: 1.2%

Adding all of the above (including nuclear) we reach a total of 36%. Thus the rest, 64% would still be comprised of combustible fuels by 2040.

And let's remember this is only electricity generation. The rest of our energy requirements would be even more heavily represented by fossil fuels.

Thus and if you ask me, the responsible thing to do is to plan for a world where fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy market for the rest of this century.

Conclusion: nuclear energy will eventually supply more than 50% of humanity's energy. "Eventually" means 100 to 150 years in the future. From now until then, fossil fuels will continue to provide the heavy lifting for our civilization.

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter: @luisbaram


** Considering energy requirements won't continue to increase after 2040.



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At 4:03 PM, Blogger TheTracker said...

I've been working on a post titled "Nuclear Energy For Grown-ups" with some of the same points, in a much less artful and more emotional way (as is my wont.)

Without a much greater degree of political commitment, fossil fuel energy will continue to dominate our economies. I have hope, though, because the political consensus is capable of changing much faster than the climate system or the scientific consensus.

Regardless of the specific solution, we need a large-scale commitment and some pretty revolutionary change to get to -80% emissions.

You need strong international agreements (which will likely require arm-twisting.) You need to discourage fossil fuel use. If you do that with a carbon tax, which would seem to be the most efficient way, you need broadly based utility reform -- a market price for carbon will not matter if your customers, the utilities, do not respond to market signals. We critically need a smart grid, so that power sources over thousands of km can compete. And so on.

Nuclear energy has some real advantages in terms of being able to deliver large amounts of baseload power with limited requirements as to sites (cooling water). But nevertheless, a nuclear low-carbon strategy requires radical reform and large investments; not so very different from an RE dominated strategy.

There's a tendency among some of the nuclear advocates I talk to to pretend that the one is easy and the other impossible, whereas the reality, I think, is that both are very hard. We could debate whether one is quite hard and the other extremely hard, but it's a pretty pointless debate if you understand the gravity of the situation we're in: the easiest, most reliable path will not be one power source, determined ahead of time, but an all-of-the-above low carbon strategy.

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Ed Pheil said...

We have 20% nuclear with 100 mostly < 1GW reactors built over about 15 years, so 30% more to get to 50% should be < 150 total of the new AP 1000s. So, that scales to ~23 years without major political road blocks.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Ike Bottema said...

Don't make the mistake of using past experience of building massive containment structures and complex redundant failsafe mechanisms to rate the feasibility of future nuclear technologies. It will be possible to build atmospheric pressure, liquid fueled MSRs using well-established assembly line technology, thus building many thousands of reactors in a relatively short period of time will be quite feasible.


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