Climate change – is it still a good argument for nuclear?

15 April 2013 by Steve Kidd

Nuclear proponents tend to advance three main advantages in its favour, which can be summarised as cleanliness, affordability and reliability. Cleanliness encompasses the environmental advantages, both the possibility of clean air in the cities through avoiding the burning of fossil fuels and the longer-term advantage of reducing climate change by avoiding carbon emissions that heat up the atmosphere. Affordability brings in the economic dimension: once a nuclear power station is up and running, it should produce huge quantities of power at a predictably low production cost that, in many circumstances, will outweigh the penalty of high investment costs for the reactors. A nuclear facility should also run almost 24/7 for many years, providing very reliable power whose supply does not depend on large quantities of fossil fuel imports from potentially unreliable supplier countries.

[Cartoon: "All the same I can't get rid of the pleasant thought that Western countries are responsible for all this." By Alexey Kovynev]

The increased interest in nuclear which occurred in the early years of the 21st century (and often became referred to as the "nuclear renaissance") had its roots in each of these three positive arguments, depending on the particular country and their circumstances. It can be argued, however, that the environmental case was possibly the most powerful, particularly the potential role of nuclear in averting global warming. If we take the United Kingdom for example, it seems that Prime Minister Tony Blair's conversion from his previous policy (followed by most British politicians for decades) of sitting on the fence regarding nuclear energy was due to his chief scientific advisor David King convincing him that relying on renewable energy alone to meet carbon emission targets was simply not going to be sufficient. Many other people, including previous anti-nuclear environmentalists, went down the same road. A plausible weakness of this position was that it was rather a negative endorsement -- almost as if "we've tried everything else to combat climate change so we will favour nuclear as the last resort" -- that is potentially liable to be reversed once something better comes along, or once the perceived problem appears to be going away.

Nevertheless, within the work of the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its successive annual World Energy Outlooks, more nuclear began to be seen as an increasingly viable way of preventing the carbon concentration in the atmosphere rising to what are believed to be dangerous levels. Operating nuclear reactors and their attendant fuel cycle create very low levels of greenhouse gases and so building large numbers of new nuclear plants remains a possible solution to an apparent global problem.

The Fukushima accident should not have changed the advantages of the climate change argument in favour of nuclear. It has arguably had some impact on the economics of nuclear, through increased costs. And with all bar two of the Japanese reactors not operating, it has dented the reliability argument (even though it took a very rare major accident to do this). Other developments in the market may have conceivably weakened the case.

First, the global economic recession in itself has arguably lessened the attention environmental matters are receiving. In a recession, people become more concerned about jobs, inflation and retirement dates than environmental matters. Second, there is now rather more cynicism about the merits (or more precisely the limits) of the climate science that originally motivated the global warming fears. This was a perhaps inevitable backlash against any new theory that postulates that the world as we know it will come to an end. Combined with the new concentration on money during an economic recession, it has inevitably pushed interest in averting global warming to one side. This is despite the huge publicity given to extreme climatic events such as hurricanes, which seem to be becoming perhaps more frequent and severe in intensity. A general concern about the funny things that are happening with our weather is being countered by the belief that climate change is very complex. The way this logic runs is, despite the efforts of many researchers, we still don't really understand very much about it, so a simple proscription of burning carbon in the atmosphere is unlikely to fit the bill.

Third, another environmental argument for averting fossil fuel use, namely the build-up of dirty air in the cities of the developing world, has become more prominent than climate change. As well it should, because this problem now affects the lives of many millions of people today, causing high levels of respiratory disease and many premature deaths. For the Chinese, the prime reason for having huge programmes in nuclear and renewables is to clean up the air in the cities rather than curtail global carbon emissions. Although they recognise that burning coal is adding to the problem, as they see it, climate change has been caused by the developed world, so therefore Western countries are responsible for solving it.

Nevertheless, many people still consider climate change a very worrisome problem and continue to see averting the emissions of greenhouse gases as the solution. But how can this be achieved? A recent book by Dieter Helm, The Carbon Crunch - How We're Getting Climate Change Wrong and How to Fix it, provides much fertile food for thought. Helm, an Oxford University professor, is probably the best-known energy economist in Europe and has served on numerous bodies involved in energy policy and the environment. His book is well worth consideration.

Let's start with the premise that curtailing carbon emissions is at least advisable from the precautionary principle, even if we don't necessarily fully accept the relationship between the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures. In that case, Helm paints an alarming picture. Despite all the international negotiations over the past few decades, the Kyoto Protocol and the switch towards renewable energy in many countries, emissions continue to rise and coal has begun to play a more, rather than less, important role in world energy. Helm makes a particularly devastating critique of energy and climate change policy in the European Union (EU). It has involved a huge amount of useless posturing by politicians claiming the moral high ground, backed by foolish environmental NGOs who have advocated muddle-headed policies. This incestuous nature of the policy-making process in the EU has led to serious errors, so little has been achieved. Germany is probably the worst case: it has shut down nuclear power stations and replaced them with dirty coal stations rather than renewable energy (which was going to expand rapidly anyway). The much-cited Stern Review that argued that climate change could be averted at relatively little economic cost also comes in for strong criticism. Helm emphasizes that changing the way people produce and consume energy is a difficult transformation to make but can be achieved with sufficient will.

Our biggest error, according to Helm, is that we have tried to curb the production of carbon rather than its consumption. Thus the EU has succeeded in cutting carbon emissions in Europe overall, but only by shutting down industry and switching production to China and the developing world where dirty coal is the predominant energy source.

Our biggest error, according to Helm, is that we have tried to curb the production of carbon rather than its consumption. Thus the EU has succeeded in cutting carbon emissions in Europe overall, but only by shutting down industry and switching production to China and the developing world. So carbon emissions have simply transferred to another area of the world, where dirty coal is the predominant energy source. The number one challenge for the future, as the IEA keeps emphasizing, is to curb the use of coal (particularly in China and India) and to switch to less environmentally-damaging alternatives.

Helm's near-term solution is somewhat controversial but also in keeping with current IEA thinking. He emphasizes the magnitude (and expansion flexibility) of fossil fuel reserves (contrary to the "peak oil" hypothesis) and particularly of gas, buoyed by the ability now to exploit unconventional reserves such as shale gas. He forsees and advocates a worldwide dash for gas, with gas substituting for coal in power generation (and also for oil in the transportation sector) as the best way of curtailing carbon emissions over the next 20 years. This should be backed by carbon taxes at appropriate levels targeted at the consumption rather than the production side. Unlike many economists, he can see the disadvantages of emissions trading but the key point is to penalise carbon consumption. This runs the risk of becoming a bureaucratic nightmare and would need the imposition of border taxes to encourage exporting countries to change their generation mix. His vision seems a more feasible way of going forward than trying to achieve international agreements; it is bottom-up rather than top-down. Ultimately, however, Helm puts his faith in technological advances in the energy sector, emphasizing the amount of experimentation and ingenuity that will likely bring better long-term solutions in renewables and elsewhere (maybe even workable carbon capture and storage).

On the negative side, Helm doesn't see a major role for nuclear energy in all of this. Its role is rather marginal, as it is in some of the IEA scenarios and the EU Energy Roadmap - nuclear power is important in a few countries but not so much overall. His chapter on nuclear is rather cursory and tends to concentrate on the obstacles rather than the opportunities, particularly in an era where big capital investment projects are not easy to carry out. He mentions the significant Chinese nuclear programme but doesn't consider whether it could be several times its current magnitude: if France could build a reactor for each million of population in the late 1970s and 1980s, why can't China do the same by 2030 and build 1400 reactors? Despite the fact that any conceivable worldwide solution would have to put China and India at the centre, Helm doesn't seem to know very much about them. Hydropower is hardly mentioned, although it remains central to the Chinese clean energy plans and there remains plenty of potential for it in other developing countries that may otherwise use coal.

It is therefore still important for nuclear advocates to emphasize a bigger potential role for nuclear in avoiding carbon emissions and to overcome the objections we are only too familiar with. The economic challenge is currently the most pressing, stemming from rising nuclear construction costs, low gas prices in some markets (which could become more widespread) and the realisation that high levels of carbon taxes are not going to come very quickly.

The Chinese nuclear programme has suddenly become even more crucial for the international industry as a whole, and it is good that the approvals process for additional new reactors there has at last opened up again. The limitations of current renewables (as opposed to the advancements that Helm expects to come eventually) are well-understood in a country that needs huge quantities of reliable power in specific localities (lots of big cities) and hydro will eventually become site-limited. So assuming the (almost) 30 reactors under construction are built on time and operate safely, a huge programme in the 2020s is not inconceivable. Then the advantages of large-scale production of standardized reactors should flow to other countries too.

 


Steve Kidd is deputy director-general of the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute).

Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.



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