Nuclear power and climate protection
Nuclear energy is a relatively minor industry with major problems. It covers just one sixteenth of the world’s primary energy consumption, a share set to decline over the coming decades. The average age of operating commercial nuclear reactors is 25 years. The number of operating reactors as of May 2011 was 443, less than at the historical peak of 2002.
In terms of new power stations, the amount of nuclear capacity added annually between 2000 and 2009 was on average 2,500 MWe. This was six times less than wind power (14,500 MWe per annum between 2000 and 2009). In 2009, 37,466 MW of new wind power capacity was added globally to the grid, compared to only 1,068 MW of nuclear. This new wind capacity will generate as much electricity as 12 nuclear reactors; the last time the nuclear industry managed to add this amount of new capacity in a single year was in 1988.
Despite the rhetoric of a ‘nuclear renaissance’, the industry is struggling with a massive increase in costs and construction delays as well as safety and security problems linked to reactor operation, radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation. The Fukushima nuclear accident (see below) 25 years after the disastrous explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in former Soviet Union, proves nuclear energy is inherently unsafe and raises additional doubts about the nuclear industry’s ability to deliver on their promises of safety and security.
3.1 a solution to climate protection?
The nuclear industry’s promise of nuclear energy to contribute to both climate protection and energy security needs to be checked against reality. In the most recent Energy Technology Perspectives report published by the International Energy Agency(IEA)15, for example, its Blue Map scenario outlines a future energy mix which would halve global carbon emissions by the middle of this century. To reach this goal the IEA assumes a massive expansion of nuclear power between now and 2050, with installed capacity increasing four-fold and electricity generation reaching 9,857 TWh/year, compared to 2,608 TWh in 2007. In order to achieve this, the report says that on average 32 large reactors (1,000 MWe each) would have to be built every year from now until 2050. This is not only unrealistic, but also expensive, hazardous and too late to protect the climate. Even if realised, according to the IEA scenario, such a massive nuclear expansion would only cut carbon emissions by less than 5%.
unrealistic: Such a rapid nuclear growth is practically impossible given the technical limitations. This scale of development was achieved in the history of nuclear power for only two years at the peak of the state-driven boom of the mid-1980s. It is unlikely to be achieved again, not to mention maintained for 40 consecutive years. While 1984 and 1985 saw 31 GW of newly added nuclear capacity, the decade average was 17 GW each year. In the past ten years, less than three large reactors have been brought on line annually, and the current production capacity of the global nuclear industry cannot deliver more than an annual six units.
expensive: The IEA scenario assumes very optimistic investment costs of $2,100/kWe installed, in line with what the industry has been promising. The reality indicates three to four times that much. Recent estimates by US business analysts Moody’s (May 2008) put the cost of nuclear investment as high as $7,500/kWe. Price quotes for projects under preparation in the US cover a range from $5,200 to 8,000/kWe16. The latest cost estimate for the first French EPR pressurised water reactor being built in Finland is $5,000/kWe, a figure likely to increase for later reactors as prices escalate. Building 1,400 large reactors of 1,000 MWe, even at the current cost of about $7,000/kWe, would require an investment of $9.8 trillion. At this price level, the South African government’s plans to build 9,600 MW of new nuclear capacity before 2030 would cost approximately $67 billion.
hazardous: Massive expansion of nuclear energy would necessarily lead to a large increase in related hazards. These include the risk of serious reactor accidents like in Fukushima, Japan, the growing stockpiles of deadly high level nuclear waste which will need to be safeguarded for thousands of years, and potential proliferation of both nuclear technologies and materials through diversion to military or terrorist use. The 1,400 large operating reactors in 2050 would generate an annual 35,000 tonnes of dangerous spent nuclear fuel (for light water reactors, the most common design for most new projects). This also means the production of 350,000 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough to build 35,000 crude nuclear weapons.
slow: Climate science says that we need to reach a peak of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 and reduce them by 20% by 2020. Even in developed countries with established nuclear infrastructure it takes at least a decade from the decision to build a reactor to the delivery of its first electricity, and often much longer. This means that even if the world’s governments decided to implement strong nuclear expansion now, only a few reactors would start generating electricity before 2020. The contribution from nuclear power towards reducing emissions would come too late to help save the climate.