Nuclear and renewables: can they be partners?

27 February 2007

There is a popular view that nuclear power and renewable forms of energy, such as wind, solar and tidal, are competing for a place in the energy mix. Advocates of both are fond of issuing ‘knocking copy’ about the other, stressing the various difficulties and limitations in them playing an enhanced role in the energy future, while views are getting polarised by carbon emissions becoming a very live popular issue.

The recently published book Nuclear or Not? (published by palgrave-macmillan), contains a variety of contributions which touch on the issue of whether nuclear and renewables are naturally competitive, or can coexist as happy bedfellows. The general conclusion of most of the authors is that they cannot and that nuclear should not have a major place in any future generation mix.

Although all of the usual arguments trotted out against nuclear are repeated, it is clear that the real opposition to nuclear lies somewhere much deeper. The sceptics know that the industry can put up a stout defence on each of these issues – for example reactor safety, the risks of nuclear proliferation and waste disposal. Yet the nuclear opponents will continue to present them as a cover for a deeper complaint. This is that they are essentially opposed to the way the modern world works and wish to move to a much more decentralised economy where energy is supplied on a more localised basis. Nuclear power embodies everything they dislike about today’s world – as a large-scale centralised form of generation, with the involvement of big government and large corporations, inevitably somewhat remote from local decision-making. They are deeply uncomfortable with the way the modern capitalist system works, with the trend towards globalisation of production and (implied at least) imposition of outside cultures on local people.

Their alternative would be to move towards a more localised and small scale form of electricity provision, often called distributed generation. This could ultimately result in people generating power in their own homes, using low carbon-emitting technologies, with the addition of a very localised grid system to take up any surpluses or cover deficits. In some ways, this can be characterised as a rather naïve and romantic vision of a return to the world as it was before we developed centralised power generation, but it is certainly realistic as a very long-term vision of where we may head. Unless very small nuclear units become a workable proposition, nuclear power as it stands today doesn’t fit at all well into this vision, hence the strong opposition to expanding nuclear today.

Although it is realistic to propose that rich industrialised societies can try to move away from centralised generation, this cannot happen overnight. They have developed a very different pattern of providing electricity and this will dominate for many years in the future. The most important question is how to provide large quantities of electricity at a few locations, in ways that are economic, environmentally friendly and contribute to security of supply. Renewable forms of energy can certainly contribute to this, but too much cannot be expected of them as they will be limited by both economics and their intermittent character.

For rapidly growing developing countries such as China and India, it is also unrealistic to believe that they can achieve their economic objectives without large-scale centralised power generation, hence they have to seriously consider nuclear if they also wish to minimise carbon emissions. They already have large cities with huge power demands from residential, commercial and industrial demand sectors and further widespread urbanisation is unavoidable. In their rural areas, however, distributed generation is a workable proposition, hence their interest in renewable energy systems as well as large-scale generation. This also goes for many other developing countries, not so far extensively urbanised, where millions of people still do not yet have regular access to electricity. The amount of research and development work directed at renewable energy forms, currently underway around the world, will surely produce a lot of new options for these countries. It is likely, however, that they will still require some generating units of 100-300MWe and this is where smaller nuclear reactors such as the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) could find a ready market.


Nuclear power embodies everything they dislike about today’s world – as a large-scale centralised form of generation, with the involvement of big government and large corporations

For major industrialised countries such as the UK and USA, there is also now a significant requirement for replacement capacity, as existing generation facilities are shut down for economic or environmental reasons. In the case of UK, some of these will be nuclear, as the Magnox and AGR reactors are shut down. Renewables cannot yet hope to replace these shutdown facilities and must await a more wholesale change in the electricity supply infrastructure to gain a greatly enhanced share of the total. It would certainly be useful to experiment with alternative power supplies for newly developed residential areas, so a better idea of costs and benefits can be obtained.

There is also an important claim of the renewables advocates that investing in more nuclear, even if it contributes to curbing carbon emissions, will somehow ‘crowd out’ investment in their favoured technologies. The past may supply some grounds for harbouring such worries, as the existing power supply systems grew up by strongly favouring one generating mode after another, based initially on coal, then followed by strong successive pushes towards oil, nuclear and finally gas. But there is today a more mature recognition that each power generating technology has significant costs and benefits. It is therefore highly unlikely that any mode should completely dominate production and that a mix of new capacity is likely to be the optimum in nearly all circumstances. In addition, if curbing carbon emissions is the prime objective, we will need to seriously consider every generation technology which could assist this.

Nuclear is well-suited to covering baseload electricity requirements while renewables can add substantial power increments on top. Yet nuclear is somewhat inflexible and doesn’t work well economically while load following, so cannot easily act as backup to intermittent generation modes. Renewables themselves contain their own individual mixes of advantages and disadvantages, but some of their proponents unfortunately display the same arrogant and blinkered thinking displayed by many nuclear advocates in the 1950s and 1960s. For both OECD nations and the developing world, a mixture of generating options is surely appropriate, determined by resource endowments, geography, energy security, environmental and other considerations. To rule out any option through ideology is not appropriate.

It should also be said that determining the generation mix should, as far as it’s possible, be informed by reference to the facts. Yet it can’t be settled solely with regard to the facts as people have very different value systems and will interpret the available information differently. But the more ridiculous arguments against nuclear, such that it provides no net incremental energy addition, must be quickly dismissed from the equation. Considering France, with an 80% nuclear share in its electricity generation mix, should be sufficient to demonstrate that nuclear can provide large quantities of cheap low-carbon emissions power. It is abundantly clear that the public still needs better information on energy matters as years of cheap fossil fuels have induced complacency. Yet there is no need for advocates of any energy solution to engage in further knocking copy against the others. The expected growth in world electricity demand, doubling by 2030 according to the International Energy Agency, should leave plenty of room for substantial growth for all modes of generation.

It must also be recognised that emerging energy technologies should receive public subsidies in order to allow them to develop. Nuclear received substantial public backing in the past and renewables deserve the same today. The first new nuclear units to be built should not now need financial subsidies, as the economics now look sound, assuming that investors can take a long-term view. The key requirement is for the public authorities to develop a clear regulatory environment and develop national policies on waste management and decommissioning – new plants can then set aside appropriate funds to cover these future liabilities. Nuclear power does not necessarily have to be, in the future, a creature of ‘big government’ and need not crowd out a desirable rapid expansion of renewables. Providing cheap and largely carbon-free baseload power 24 hours per day is a sound basis for any electricity system, with other generation options supplying the balance. To some extent, there may be a competition for limited government attention and funding, but if low carbon energy solutions are important, it should not be impossible for government to encourage nuclear and renewables to expand simultaneously.

It therefore makes good sense for the advocates of both nuclear and renewables to try to throw off the baggage of the past and move forward together. Neither is going to go away and so friendly coexistence would seem to be a good policy. If a reduction in carbon emissions is needed, nuclear technology is available today. That it will take some time to build new nuclear plants argues for streamlining the regulatory regime as far as is compatible with meeting reasonable requirements for public review. The argument that new nuclear cannot quickly help curb carbon emissions is somewhat disingenuous when coming from those doing all they can to slow down approvals for new plants. The share of renewables in world electricity is also clearly capable of rising substantially, but it will similarly take time for this to occur. The long-term energy future is very uncertain – if we move to systems based largely on hydrogen rather than hydrocarbons, there are good possibilities for both nuclear and renewable technologies. Yet decisions should be made after careful presentation and discussion of all the facts, and no side has any true interest in these being hidden or obscured.

Nuclear power embodies everything they dislike about today’s world – as a large-scale centralised form of generation, with the involvement of big government and large corporations Quote1 Steve Kidd is head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association Steve Kidd Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy and Research at 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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