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.
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
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.
The methods of the paper are explained in detail, and I’d be happy to debate our assumptions.
Clearly, any climate change mitigation strategy will, due to the magnitude of the challenge, inevitably be based on extrapolation of existing data and assumptions about the future. This is true whether the technologies to displace the use of fossil fuel will be based on nuclear fission, fusion, wind, solar, waves, geothermal, biomass, pumped-hydro, energy efficiency, smart grids, electric cars or other technologies and any combination of the above. No renewable energy technology or energy efficiency approach has ever been implemented on a scale or pace which has resulted in the magnitude of reductions in CO2-emissions that is strictly required and implied in any climate change mitigation study—neither locally nor globally, normalized by population or GDP or any other normalisation parameter.
The goal of this paper is to make an extrapolation of actual available historic data from regional expansions of a low GHG-emitting energy technology, rather than trying to speculate further on future potential deployment strategies, as has commonly been done in the literature.
Our results indicate that a replacement of current fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear fission at a pace which might limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible—whether this will in fact happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance.
I think this is a genuinely exciting finding—yes we can!