Potential for worldwide displacement of fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear energy in three decades based on extrapolation of regional deployment data

Hot on the heels of my previous collaboration with Dr Staffan Qvist (from Uppsala University) on the implications of phasing out nuclear energy in Sweden, I’ve just had published another new open access paper on energy policy, this time in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE. You can read it in full here.

Some details:

Citation: Qvist S.A. & Brook B.W. (2015) Potential for Worldwide Displacement of Fossil-Fuel Electricity by Nuclear Energy in Three Decades Based on Extrapolation of Regional Deployment Data. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0124074. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124074

Swedish total CO2 emissions and GDP per capita 1960–1990, normalized to the level of 1960.

Swedish total CO2 emissions and GDP per capita 1960–1990, normalized to the level of 1960.

Abstract

There is an ongoing debate about the deployment rates and composition of alternative energy plans that could feasibly displace fossil fuels globally by mid-century, as required to avoid the more extreme impacts of climate change. Here we demonstrate the potential for a large-scale expansion of global nuclear power to replace fossil-fuel electricity production, based on empirical data from the Swedish and French light water reactor programs of the 1960s to 1990s. Analysis of these historical deployments show that if the world built nuclear power at no more than the per capita rate of these exemplar nations during their national expansion, then coal- and gas-fired electricity could be replaced worldwide in less than a decade. Under more conservative projections that take into account probable constraints and uncertainties such as differing relative economic output across regions, current and past unit construction time and costs, future electricity demand growth forecasts and the retiring of existing aging nuclear plants, our modelling estimates that the global share of fossil-fuel-derived electricity could be replaced within 25–34 years. This would allow the world to meet the most stringent greenhouse-gas mitigation targets.


The key finding is that even a cautious extrapolation of real historic data of regional nuclear power expansion programs to a global scale, as shown in the table below, indicate that new nuclear power could replace all fossil-fuelled electricity production (including replacing all current nuclear electricity as well as the projected rise in total electricity demand) in about three decades—that is, well before mid-century, if started soon. This complements earlier top-down work I’d published on 2060 scenarios.

Time to replace global fossil electricity and current nuclear fleet.

Time to replace global fossil electricity and current nuclear fleet.

The methods of the paper are explained in detail, and I’d be happy to debate our assumptions.

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Environmental and health impacts of a policy to phase out nuclear power in Sweden

With Dr Staffan Qvist from Uppsala University, I’ve just had published a new open access paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy. It examines the ramifications of the announced policy by the Swedish Greens Party (who is part of the current coalition government) to phase out nuclear energy in Sweden. Their platform is: “we oppose the construction of new reactors in Sweden, or an increase in the output of existing reactors, and instead want to begin immediately phasing out nuclear power.”

The electricity mix of Sweden is a leading example of a successful historical pathway to decarbonisation.

Some details on our paper:

CITATION

Qvist, S.A. & Brook, B.W. (2015) Environmental and health impacts of a policy to phase out nuclear energy in Sweden. Energy Policy, 84, 1-10. doi: 1016/j.enpol.2015.04.023

Highlights

• The Swedish reactor fleet has a remaining potential production of up to 2100 TWh.

• Forced shut down would result in up to 2.1 Gt of additional CO2 emissions.

• 50,000–60,000 energy-related-deaths could be prevented by continued operation.

• A nuclear phase-out would mean a retrograde step for climate, health and economy.



Abstract

Nuclear power faces an uncertain future in Sweden. Major political parties, including the Green party of the coalition-government have recently strongly advocated for a policy to decommission the Swedish nuclear fleet prematurely. Here we examine the environmental, health and (to a lesser extent) economic impacts of implementing such a plan. The process has already been started through the early shutdown of the Barsebäck plant. We estimate that the political decision to shut down Barsebäck has resulted in ~2400 avoidable energy-production-related deaths and an increase in global CO2 emissions of 95 million tonnes to date (October 2014). The Swedish reactor fleet as a whole has reached just past its halfway point of production, and has a remaining potential production of up to 2100 TWh. The reactors have the potential of preventing 1.9–2.1 gigatonnes of future CO2-emissions if allowed to operate their full lifespans. The potential for future prevention of energy-related-deaths is 50,000–60,000. We estimate an 800 billion SEK (120 billion USD) lower-bound estimate for the lost tax revenue from an early phase-out policy. In sum, the evidence shows that implementing a ‘nuclear-free’ policy for Sweden (or countries in a similar situation) would constitute a highly retrograde step for climate, health and economic protection.


You can read the full paper here.

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International Experience with Fast Reactor Operation & Testing

Below is a highly informative presentation given by Dr John Sackett (Idaho National Laboratory, Retired) at the International Conference on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles (Paris, 2013). John, with a 34-year career in advanced reactor and fuel-cycle development (including work on the Integral Fast Reactor from 1984-1994), provides a clear summary of historical-international experience with fast reactor programmes and initiatives to recycle used fuel.

This is important information for advocates of ‘Generation IV’ nuclear technologies to understand, because the question of “is it proven to work?” is often asked by the skeptical. Much of this will be familiar to those who have read “Plentiful Energy“, but this is an excellent condensed version of that material. This is also highly relevant in the context of the recently commenced Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.


There is a Long History of Fast Reactor Operation
• The first reactor in the world to produce electricity was a fast reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor I in December of 1951.
• International experience with fast reactor technology exists in the US, Russia, France, Japan, UK, Germany and India.
• The operating experience with these reactors has been mixed: early problems were associated with fuel cladding, steam generators, fuel handling, and sodium leakage.
• Excellent experience has been gained, however, that demonstrates the robust nature of the technology, the potential for exceedingly safe designs, ease of maintenance, ease of operation and the ability to effectively manage waste from spent fuel.
• It is a mature technology.

EBR-II was a Major Contributor to the Technology
• EBR-I was followed by EBR-II, which was a complete power plant. It was extremely successful, operating for 30 years and advancing the technology in many ways.
• Principal among its contributions were development of metal and oxide fast-reactor fuel, operational-safety tests which demonstrated the self-protecting nature of fast reactors, and fuel-recycle technology that was efficient and secure.
• Perhaps the most important advance in safety was the demonstration of the self -protecting response of sodium-cooled fast reactors in the event of Anticipated Transients without Scram.
• Tests of Loss of Flow without Scram and Loss-of –Heat-Sink without Scram were conducted at EBR-II from full power with no resulting damage to fuel or systems, ushering in worldwide interest in passively safe reactor design.

International Experience Compliments These Examples
• This experience base is fully supported by a combination of small test reactors that explored all aspects of the technology and larger operating reactors that provided power to the electric grid.
• Small experimental reactors were operated in the US (EBR-II), France (Rapsodie), Russia (BOR-60), Japan (JOYO), UK (DFR), Germany (KNK-II), and India (FBTR).
• Power reactors and larger experimental reactors were operated in the US (FERMI1, FFTF), France (Phenix, Superphenix), Russia (BN350, BN600), Japan (Monju). Current operating Fast Reactors are China (CEFR), and Russia (BN600, BOR60)

EBR-II_SiteUS Experience Followed Two Paths
• The US carried forward two separate tracks of technology development, primarily associated with the choice of fuel, metal or oxide.
• The first US commercial fast reactor, Fermi-I utilized metal fuel while the Fast-Flux-Test-Facility (FFTF) and the Clinch River Breeder Reactor (CRBR) utilized oxide fuel.
• Due to perceived low burnup potential for metal fuel, (a problem later solved), the U.S. approach turned to oxide fuel in the late 1960s.
• Russia, France, Germany and Japan all follow technology paths that use oxide fuel.
• It is worthwhile expanding this point because diversion of the technology paths has resulted in very different designs and performance, with the result that EBR-II is somewhat unique in this family of reactors.

Dry Reprocessing of EBR-II Fuel was Demonstrated in the 1960s
• Melt Refining was used to recycle fuel for EBR-II from 1964 through 1969
– More than 700 EBR-II fuel assemblies recycled using melt refining and returned to the reactor in four to six weeks
– ~34,000 fuel pins successfully reprocessed, including remote fabrication by injection casting
– Spent fuel was disassembled, chopped, placed into a Zr2O crucible, and heated to 1400 C
– Chemically reactive fission products reacted with the crucible to form oxides
– Uranium and noble metals remained in the metallic state and stayed with the melt to be returned with the re-cast fuel pins
– The fuel was fabricated remotely by injection casting, the resulting equilibrium fuel composition, called fissium, operated through the life of EBR-II. Continue reading

Nuclear power isn’t ‘economically feasible’ in Australia, but …

This is an article by Ben Heard and me, published today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.

If Australia’s to have nuclear power, there’ll have to be policies to support it.

No sooner had foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia should take a fresh look at nuclear power than Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded that nuclear power would only be supported if it was “economically feasible” and would not receive government subsidies.

Tony Abbott can rest easy in his position knowing this much to be true: thanks to an oversupply of incumbent, polluting electricity in the Australian market, nuclear energy is not economically feasible in Australia … but neither is any other new energy source without a policy to guide investment.

We do it for renewables …

Such a policy is exactly what the Renewable Energy Target is doing for renewable sources, and we are currently seeing what happens when you introduce uncertainty into the sector.

Cut the large-scale renewable energy target, and wind development will halt on a dime.

Cut the small-scale renewable energy scheme, and feed-in tariffs and rooftop solar will fall off a cliff.

Remove carbon pricing (as Australia did in July this year), and serious investment in carbon-capture and storage technology becomes a fantasy.

There is no policy-free pathway to replacing Australia’s established and highly polluting coal- and gas-fired power stations.

Too much electricity

Abbott’s position is reinforced by the current level of over-supply in the National Electricity Market.

Thanks to the combination of an exodus of several large industrial customers in the industrial and manufacturing sector, influx of new wind and solar with the assistance of the Renewable Energy Target, and a greater emphasis on energy efficiency in households, we have seen in the last few years a waning demand for electricity while supply remains high.

So there is no market incentive for investment in new large generation such as nuclear power … or anything else for that matter. Even if there were, this would just be new clean generation on top of old dirty generation.

Whether one prefers the flavour of solar, wind, geothermal, wave or nuclear power, the fact is nothing much will change in the foundations of the Australian energy scene in the foreseeable future unless we demand change. We are not running out of cheap coal; we have to choose to DO something.

Cleanest technologies

However, if we decide that we want to generate electricity without increasing carbon emissions, the story is completely different.

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@bionerd23 rescuing rationality from the suits

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Bionerd23She looks a little like Noomi Rapace playing the legendary Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not quite so tough, but not someone to mess with. Still, it takes more than a punk hair cut to make a real toughie. In one of her latest YouTube clips, she’s in a state of panic in the back of a minivan whimpering in fear and busily checking the doors and winding up windows. “Oh sh.t, it’s coming, I don’t want to die, it’s coming … f..k!” the voice quivers and the fear is palpable. “this sh.t is dangerous, he’s going to kill you.”

She’s in one of the scariest places on the planet. A place most people wouldn’t send their worst enemy to. But moments before she’s been wandering around like a kid in a candy store with an infectious sense of wonder, happiness and excitement.

The young woman is @bionerd23, a German geek YouTube flicking science student, and she’s at Chernobyl wandering around in the debris from the 1986 steam explosion which blew the top off one of the nuclear reactors and changed the course of history. Without it, more countries would have followed France and rolled out nuclear power and been generating electricity for 70 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour instead of the 850g that is typical in a non-nuclear country like Australia.

@bionerd23 has made a series of youtube clips in Chernobyl. Not your usual “me in front of the fountain” shots, but “Here’s me eating apples off abandoned trees 4km from the Chernobyl reactor” and “Here’s me finding a piece of the graphite core moderator spat out when the reactor exploded in 1986 … wow … look at my Geiger counter maxing out!.

So what’s frightening this radiation warrior?

A fox. This isn’t a red-riding-hood wolf, this is a fox. If you aren’t small and feathery or furry, then a fox is a cute creature with a big bushy tale and come hither eyes. “Wouldn’t you just love to pat me!”.

The facts are that @bionerd23 is behaving pretty bloody rationally because she’s far more brain than brawn … despite the haircut. Foxes carry rabies, Ukraine is a rabies hot spot and healthy foxes don’t normally approach in the middle of the day. If you aren’t vaccinated against rabies and you are bitten and infected, then you will die unless you can quickly get proper treatment … a post-bite vaccination plus some high tech supplemental treatment. Rabies kills about 50,000 people a year globally, which is more every year than the Chernobyl accident has killed in close to 3 decades. At a rough estimate, rabies has killed about 1.4 million more people over the period, but hasn’t changed the course of history.

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