I have published a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy with the title “Could nuclear fission energy,etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case” (currently online first, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2011.11.041 — it will appear in the print version, with volume/page details, later this year). If you would like a PDF copy of the article, email me and I’ll be happy to send it to you.
My paper was written as a response to Ted Trainer’s (mostly) excellent 2010 article “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case” — hence my particular choice of title. I explain the purpose of my piece in the introduction:
…In this context of needing to replace fossil fuels with some alternative(s), Trainer (2010) examined critically the adequacy of renewable sources in achieving this energy transition. He concluded that general climate change and energy problems cannot be solved without large-scale reductions in rates of economic production and consumption.
However, Trainer’s (2010) sub-analysis of nuclear energy’s technical potential involved only a cursory dismissal on the grounds of uranium supply and life-cycle emissions… In this paper… I argue that on technical and economic grounds, nuclear fission could play a major role (in combination with likely significant expansion in renewables) in future stationary and transportation energy supply, thereby solving the greenhouse gas mitigation problem.
Thus my aim was to critique the only substantive weakness I could identify in Trainer’s analysis — the short sub-section on nuclear energy.
The abstract provides the core thrust of my argument:
For effective climate change mitigation, the global use of fossil fuels for electricity generation, transportation and other industrial uses, will need to be substantially curtailed this century. In a recent Viewpoint in Energy Policy, Trainer (2010) argued that non-carbon energy sources will be insufficient to meet this goal, due to cost, variability, energy storage requirements and other technical limitations. However, his dismissal of nuclear fission energy was cursory and inadequate. Here I argue that fossil fuel replacement this century could, on technical grounds, be achieved via a mix of fission, renewables and fossil fuels with carbon sequestration, with a high degree of electrification, and nuclear supplying over half of final energy. I show that the principal limitations on nuclear fission are not technical, economic or fuel-related, but are instead linked to complex issues of societal acceptance, fiscal and political inertia, and inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives.
Below I’ll fill in a few details, but I’d of course encourage you to read the actual paper (contact details above for the PDF).
The paper begins with one of my favourite quotes from one of the best books on energy, by Alvin Weinberg (you can get it as a Kindle e-book):
“I can still remember the thrill that came with my realization that the (nuclear fission) breeder meant inexhaustible energy… I became obsessed with the idea that humankind’s whole future depended on the breeder.” (Alvin M. Weinberg, 1994, The First Nuclear Era)
After setting up the context (climate change, energy crisis, issues facing nuclear) in the introduction, I lay out some assumptions and a future scenario. I explain:
Before the technical potential of nuclear fission and complementary low-carbon energy technologies (renewables and fossil fuels with CCS), a scenario must be set against which plausibility and sustainability can be assessed objectively… The future energy mix scenario offered… should not be considered a prediction – it is better thought of as a ‘working hypothesis’… consistent with the projected demand… and IPCC greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets…
I first present a summary of current energy use from low-carbon sources, based on a compilation of data from the IEA, EIA and other sources. I also develop a projection of possible final energy use in 2060 (~50 years time), under a ‘storyline’ where wholesale decarbonisation of global energy production has occurred. It is summarised in the table below:
I spend considerable space justifying the assumptions and calculations that underpin section (b) of Table 1, which I won’t detail here — but it is consistent with Trainer (2010), with some modifications, and also some projections from integrated assessment modelling (a family of computable general equilibrium simulations).
Table 2 offers a potential energy mix, based on current deployment, possible future major contributions and growth rates (including consideration of the boundary conditions outlined by Trainer), and some basic intuition on my behalf. It is not based on an economic forecast, because for these lengthy time frames, it is very difficult to assess the relative competitiveness of currently nascent renewable, energy storage and nuclear technologies. Instead, I take the position that “This is possible, and if this occurred, then could nuclear actually reach and sustain these levels of usage?”.
Note the massive growth here in wind/solar (over 8% p.a. over five decades, a 50-fold expansion on installed capacity compared to 2010), a substantial contribution from fossil fuels with CCS, and a more modest (though still major) expansion of the use of hydro, biomass and other renewables. The ‘gap’ is then filled by nuclear — this amounts to 52% of total final energy. The world in this scenario is almost completely electrified, so assuming a Carnot cycle efficiency for nuclear of 35%, this is equivalent to 13 TWt of primary energy (heat) from fission.
The final section of the article then justifies the large-scale nuclear component of Table 2, addressing the following major issues (briefly, naturally — this is not a book!):
- Technology options
- Is there enough fuel?
- Will carbon emissions intensity be sufficiently low to meet IPCC targets?
- Can nuclear plants be built quickly enough?
- Safety, proliferation and cost
I also note that:
In reality, there may be a greater or lesser supply from any of these low-carbon energy sources (i.e., the relative mix of nuclear fission, various renewable technologies, and CCS); this will depend on a broad range of complex factors, including carbon prices, subsidies and tariffs, energy security considerations, fossil fuel supply constraints, and technological, logistical, economic and socio-political circumstances…
If, for instance, renewables or CCS fail to reach the high penetration assumed in Table 2, then nuclear (or something else) will have to take up the slack.
I conclude with the following:
The critique of the future global role of renewable energy by Trainer (2010) underscored many important limitations associated with variability, dispatchability, large-scale energy storage, the need for overbuilding and geographical replication (and the likely consequence: ‘dumping’ of unused excess energy), energy returned on energy invested, and other key points. The meta-analysis by Nicholson et al. (2011) also considered technological maturity, cost and life cycle emissions as constraints on renewables’ capacity to displace fossil fuels. Although I support Trainer’s (2010) conclusion was that renewables alone will not be able to ‘solve’ the greenhouse problem, I argue that his dismissal of a major role for nuclear fission energy, working in complement with other low-carbon energy sources, was unjustified.
The principal limitations on fission energy are not technical, economic or fuel supply – they are instead tied up in the complex issues of societal acceptance and public education (Adamantiades and Kessides, 2009; Pidgeon et al., 2008), fiscal and political inertia (Hyde et al., 2008; Lund, 2010), and inadequate critical evaluation of the alternatives (Jeong et al., 2010; Nicholson et al., 2011; Trainer, 2010). Ultimately, as the urgency of climate change mitigation mounts, and requirements for sustainable growth in developing economies and replacement of aging infrastructure in the developed world come to the fore, pragmatic decisions on the viability of all types of non-fossil technologies will have to be made. Engineering and economics realities point to a large role for fission in this new energy future.
I hope this summary has interested you enough to read the full paper, and after that, to encourage others to do the same!