[This is an abridged amalgam of writings by me on nuclear power and climate change that I've published on BNC and elsewhere over the last two years. It has been updated with some commentary on recent events - the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, Germany's announced withdrawal from nuclear energy, and so on. I hope you find it useful].
Let’s start by establishing some common ground between my views and those ‘traditional’ environmentalists who oppose nuclear energy. As the Director of Climate Science and active researcher on the impacts of global warming on the biosphere at the University of Adelaide (Australia), I understand the seriousness of the climate crisis and the imperative for a rapid transformation of our energy system to technologies that emit no carbon when generating power. I also agree that atomic weapons pose substantial risks to the security of global society and need strict regulation, and that issues of nuclear safety must be held to high standards. I also suspect that most environmentalists recognise the dangers that many countries face – including Australia, Germany, Japan and so on – in being dependent of foreign oil for transportation infrastructure and agriculture, two of the arteries of the economy. Indeed, it is in the interest of all nations needs to move to energy independence that is based on clean, sustainable sources.
However, where I part way with many environmentalists in on our view as to what the solutions to these problems are. Many well-intentioned people hope to see a world without nuclear weapons or nuclear power, and unfortunately consider (wrongly) that the two are irrevocably intertwined. In the typical environmentalist worldview (I am, of course, deeply environmentally conscious), nuclear power is not only dangerous, but also unnecessary. Renewable energy, from sunlight, wind, waves and plant life, are clearly the answer, they believe. This is a widespread view – almost ‘common wisdom’ – and would be perfectly acceptable to me if the numbers could be made to work. Unfortunately, they can’t, and there is no prospect of this changing.
To keep things in proper context, let’s quickly review the challenge. In the developed world (US, Europe, and other members of the OECD), we’ve enjoyed a high standard of living, linked to cheap fossil energy. This has encouraged energy profligacy, and we clearly and should cut back on wastage where feasible (and in situations where it is not being done due to market failures) – but this doesn’t remove the fact that we must also replace oil and gas, and that means a future surge in electrical substitution. In the bigger, global picture, however, there is no realistic prospect of even reducing traditional stationary power demand. A third of the world’s people have little or no access to electricity yet strongly aspire to get it. Even if a country like India, with more than 1 billion people, reached just a quarter of Australia’s per capita use, that country’s national energy demand would more than triple! It’s a huge challenge.
If we aim for society to be nearly completely powered by zero carbon sources by mid century, what is the size of the task? This might require 8 to 10 thousand gigawatts of electrical capacity, worldwide. Let’s say we were to do it all with wind and solar. Even if we ignore the substantial issue of energy storage and backup, this would still require building 1,200 huge wind turbines and/or carpeting 45 square kilometres of desert with mirror fields, every day, for forty years. For wind, this would consume 1.25 million tonnes of concrete and 335,000 tonnes of steel. For solar, it would be 2.2 million tonnes of concrete and 690,000 tonnes of steel. That’s what’s required to be built every single day, for decades and decades. What if we did it with nuclear power? Using the AP1000 design currently being deployed in China, we’d have to build two reactors every three days, using 160,000 tonnes of concrete and 10,000 tonnes of steel per day. Once again, a massive task, but one that is substantially less material- and land-intensive than the wind and solar options. When large-scale energy storage and its required peak-capacity overbuilding is considered, the numbers blow out ever further in favour of nuclear.
So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that because the task for nuclear seems huge, the renewable alternative is the only sensible choice. The hard truth is that it will be inordinately tough no matter what route we choose.
Now let’s consider further the nuclear pathway. Since the 1970s, when the Sierra Club and other prominent environmental groups switched from being general supporters (a better option than large hydro dams) to trenchant detractors, nuclear power has fought an ongoing battle to present itself as a clean, safe and sustainable energy source. Today, a mix of myths and old half-truths continue to distort people’s thinking on nuclear power, whereas rose-tinted glasses are worn when looking at the other low-carbon technologies. Crises like that which occurred in 2011 in Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami impacting a 1960s vintage reactor technology, amplify these feelings for many people. Yet, given the global environmental challenges we must deal with in the coming decades, closing off our options on nuclear energy would be downright dangerous. Alas, I predict that the Germans will discover this quickly – already, two-dozen new coal-fired power stations are being planned.
Some of the other regularly raised concerns about nuclear energy are that uranium supplies will run out, long-lived radioactive waste will be with us for 100,000 years, large amounts of carbon dioxide are produced over the nuclear cycle, it’s too slow and costly, and a build-up of nuclear power will increase the risk of weapons proliferation. Yet the surprising reality is that most of these perceived disadvantages of nuclear power don’t apply now, and none need apply in the future. As other well-known environmentalists like climatologist James Hansen, Gaia-theory proponent James Lovelock, and environmental columnist George Monbiot have said, we just have to get serious about this.
Worldwide, nuclear power is not going away (although equally, it is not currently being deployed at a rate anywhere near sufficient to displace fossil fuels any time soon). Of the G20 economic forum nations, 15 have nuclear power, four are planning to take it up in the near future, although now, as noted above, Germany have stated that they wish to phase out their use within 10 years (we will see). An interesting fact that most people are unaware of is this: the countries that currently have commercial nuclear power already cover almost 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. When you add those nations who have commissioned plants, are planning deployment, or already have research reactors, this figure rises to over 90%. I know it’s an over-used cliché, but the nuclear genie truly is out of the bottle, and it is pointless discussing how to try and jam the stopper back in. In this context, the oft-repeated claim that new technologies ‘fail the crucial proliferation test’ is asinine nonsense, and counterproductive if our aim is to increase global security. We should instead be discussing seriously how, as a global society, we will use this low-carbon energy source safely and cleanly, with minimal risk and maximal advantage to all nations.
There are about 60 so-called Gen-III reactors under construction, including 25 in China, many more in the late stages of planning. In terms of costs and build times, modular, passive-safety designs, which can be factory built and shipped to site, look to be game changers for the industry. Standardised blueprints with inherent safety systems are the clear way to remove the regulatory ratcheting that killed deployment of nuclear power in the US in the 1980s. France, with 80% of its electricity supplied by nuclear power, is a good example of how it can and should be done. The modern reactor designs are efficient, with capacity factors exceeding 90 per cent, and have a high degree of passive safety based on the inherent principles of physics. For instance, the risk of a meltdown as serious as the Three Mile Island incident in the US (which resulted in no fatalities) for GE-Hitachi’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor has been assessed as once every 29 million reactor years. Very low, but not zero. To demand zero is to ask the impossible – of any energy technology, and to ignore the trade off involved in fixing other major environmental problems with extremely high probabilities attached if we DON’T try to tackle the fossil-fuel-elimination problem rationally.
The future of nuclear power is potentially bright, IF we choose to make it so. Although government reports and the media hardly ever mention so-called ‘fast reactors’, these can provide vast amounts of clean, reliable energy for thousands of years. For instance, a technology developed between 1964 and 1994 at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), fissions over 99 per cent of the nuclear fuel, leaves only a small amount of waste (one thirtieth of current reactors) which drops below background levels of radiation within 300 years, shuts itself down if the control systems fail or the operators walk away, and its fuel cycle is extremely proliferation resistant. As an added benefit, all of the spent nuclear fuel generated over the last 50 years can be consumed as fuel in these new reactors. The IFR, and other Gen-IV designs using depleted uranium and thorium, offers a realistic future for nuclear power as the world’s primary source of sustainable, carbon-free energy with resources to power the world for millions of years. All the details you need for this, and related technologies, are on this and similar websites.
Ironically, it’s in places like China and India that these Gen IV designs are now being most actively implemented, and we need to do more to support their efforts in a multi-lateral ‘clean fission energy’ initiative. China has just commissioned two commercial fast reactors based on a successful Russian design, the BN-800. India has just announced that it plans to install almost 500 gigawatts of thorium-based nuclear power by 2050 and is opening a 500 megawatt fast reactor in 2012 (it’s currently under construction). The die is cast. It’s time for all energy intensive nations to fast track the deployment of sustainable nuclear. But of course this won’t happen with sufficient urgency until people get realistic about our future energy options. For climate’s sake, we must start thinking critically.
Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, and energy efficiency and conservation, might allow for a partial transition to a low-carbon economy, at a high cost. Indeed, these are realistic prospects for emissions reductions for some countries, such as Australia, with vast land area and relatively few people. For many other countries, including Japan, Germany and Switzerland, with little land and many people, the options (beyond hydroelectricity in some places) are far more limited. Indeed, because of huge material requirements and severe difficulties in managing variability through large-scale energy storage, I am convinced that renewable energy – if pursued to the exclusion of nuclear – will prove to be grossly insufficient and uneconomic in meeting the problems we face. We will need both, but we must accept the great need for concentrated sources of ‘baseload’ energy that are not constrained by geography or intermittency.
Most countries are now moving slowing in progressing their use of nuclear energy, or are rolling them back (or halting them), as evidenced by recent decisions in Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Italy. The best light one can cast on such extreme measures is that such nations have chose to conduct the grand experiments that must, it seems, be tried, before enough of the general populace (and most environmentalists) can be convinced of the reality of the phrase: ‘it’s nuclear power, or it’s climate change’.
So although this is, in one sense, a great concern for me, because I fear it is putting short-term socio-political considerations ahead of long-term need, it perhaps is also inevitable. To me, it’s absolutely clear that we must start the process of deploying sustainable forms of nuclear energy – those which rely on inherent safety systems and full waste recycling – right now. Others, it seems, need more convincing, and failure of alternatives to deploy at scale and within reasonable budget, and to displace fossil fuels and reduce emissions, must be starkly demonstrated. Again, and again, and again. But at some point, things will have to change.
As a climate scientist, I consider the public dialogue on nuclear power to be every bit as urgent as the debate on carbon prices and the need for climate change adaptation. It is time for the everyman to become nuclear savvy. Yet much of the developed world is dragging its feet when places like China and India are leading – out of necessity, and on the basis of prudent economic and environmental rationality. But probably not fast enough…
Our sustainable energy future depends critically on choices made today. Some countries in the developed and developing world has already made their choice – for them, the only open question is, how big will their nuclear programmes get? For most others, there remains great uncertainty. I urge green groups to become rational ‘Promethean environmentalists’ – ecopragmatists – and support all forms of low-carbon energy such that they can work together and compete on a fair and level playing field to displace coal, gas and oil as quickly as possible. There may be no silver bullet for solving the climate and energy crises, but there are bullets, and two are made of uranium and thorium. As Ben Heard and I say in our sustainable energy choices video, we have to choose to act – now.