Through the 21st century: how much nuclear?

9 May 2005

Energy is very much in the news these days, with the interest in global warming, oil and gas price escalation, the threat to security of supply and the attention cast on the renewable sources. What are anticipated to be the predominant energy trends throughout the 21st century and how does nuclear power fit into the picture?

Most energy forecasts go to only 2030, notably those of the respected International Energy Agency. A 25-year forecasting period is already ambitious, given the inability of many predictions for even a few years ahead to be accurate. For example, The Economist magazine hates to be reminded of its cover story from March 1999 entitled Drowning in Oil, which predicted oil prices were “headed for $5 per barrel.” So it’s always best to be humble. Yet forecasters occasionally venture out further ahead, right to the end of the century. They recognise that different techniques are required here, as so much can change, so usually talk in terms of alternative scenarios. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes use of a large number of alternative energy scenarios to judge their impact on global warming.

Looking as far as 2100, it is useful to characterise two extreme positions on where energy supply and demand will go. Advocates of one side believe that things will change only slowly and there will be no dramatic shifts whereas the alternative stresses that change will be more dramatic, forced by rising shortages of energy resources or environmental concerns.

Those believing that change will be evolutionary, not revolutionary, believe that fossil fuels will remain an important (and indeed essential) part of the energy mix throughout the 21st century. As far as demand is concerned, they emphasise the slowing of energy demand growth once countries reach a certain level of economic development, as less energy-intensive sectors predominate. They also believe that world population will grow less quickly than some forecasters. Also that higher prices for energy will help curb demand.

On supply, they make the (good) point that consistent talk of the world running out of oil has been proved wide of the mark and that exploration and production respond dynamically to economic criteria. They believe that coal will remain an important part of the energy mix in the first half of the century, as both China and India must make use of their abundant reserves to underpin their economic growth strategies. Oil supply will not peak until 2030 or 2040 because reserves (notwithstanding the recent measurement and reporting problems at Shell) are usually revised upwards over time and non-conventional reserves (from tar sands and the like), will become important. The latter depends on the oil price remaining firm, as production costs are substantially in excess of those of current wells.

The biggest feature of the century, however, will be the rise of natural gas, both through pipelines and in the form of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). This is essentially a continuation of the recent trend where gas has risen sharply as a component of world energy supply. Indeed, this group characterises the 19th century as the coal era, the 20th century as the oil era and the 21st century as the period of natural gas domination. Renewables only become important in the second half of the century, as technology advances and their economic competitiveness improves. Nuclear is largely seen by this group as an aberration; an unwarranted panic response to the oil price hikes in the 1970s and 1980s, which were unsustainable as the market adjusted. So nuclear plants are expected gradually to close down throughout the century and there will be few new ones — so by 2100 nuclear power will be no more.

This group is doubtful that global warming will be a trigger for substantial change in energy supply. This is not necessarily because they doubt the link between carbon emissions and warming – rather that they believe that energy demand will rise much more slowly than many forecasters (particularly the IPCC scenarios) while the gradual substitution of coal and oil by natural gas and renewables is sufficient to minimise the worst effects.

The alternative view sees more dramatic and revolutionary change, based on forecasts of likely depletion of fossil fuel resources and their adverse environmental impact. Many accept the thesis that global warming is, indeed, the biggest problem affecting mankind in the 21st century and that all possible measures must be taken to mitigate this. The use of all fossil fuels, including natural gas, will be curtailed by carbon taxes, emissions trading schemes and other measures and renewable sources will rise rapidly to meet the gap. The use of coal, oil and gas will be gradually replaced by the rise of hydrogen as a low-emissions fuel. This will become necessary, as demand, led by the developing countries, will rise quickly throughout the century, increasing the imperative to do everything possible to cut carbon emissions.


The next generation of reactors have a good chance of overcoming many of the public perception problems that turn people off nuclear

The whole energy supply infrastructure, built up in the second half of the previous century, will need replacing. The existing oil product distribution system to meet the demands of the transportation sector will need to be replaced by one adapted to delivering hydrogen where and when it is needed. Electricity supply will become decentralised with generation taking place more locally, with many small units contributing to the grid, including possibly households with small heat and power units. Large generating units, with their substantial transmission losses, will gradually become a thing of the past.

Nuclear may or may not find a substantial place in this world. Some would argue that it is unwanted and unnecessary because a combination of renewables and hydrogen will be sufficient to meet demand and the public acceptance and waste problems will never be overcome. Others claim that nuclear is essential, as renewables cannot be expected to take up the slack from fossil fuels until well into the century, while nuclear reactors can also play a major part in hydrogen production.

The two extreme positions on 21st century energy are clearly poles apart, but nuclear has an uncertain future in both. It is essentially dismissed in the first and may or may not play a role in the second. It is possible, however, to see a better place for nuclear somewhere between the two extreme views and particularly if we believe that the technology can move steadily forwards.

It is clear that the current generation of evolutionary light water reactors may be adequate to engineer a nuclear revival in the period to 2030, if capital costs can be cut and natural gas prices are high (as described in my article in the December 2005 edition of NEI). Nevertheless, a new generation of nuclear reactors will be required to meet the demands of the remaining years of the century, more economical to build and operate, producing less waste and more proliferation-resistant. This is essentially what the Generation IV and INPRO projects are currently trying to do, by developing a range of designs that meet these key criteria.

If these can achieve much of what they promise, a substantial role for nuclear may even be found if the first of the extreme energy worlds turns out to be closer to the mark. Natural gas may become the fuel of the 21st century, but it will have to compete with nuclear for power generation. Unless gas prices can remain low (which seems unlikely as more supply must come in the form of LNG, requiring substantial port infrastructure and transport costs) it can be argued that new nuclear plants will have a excellent chance of competing. Clean coal technology plants may be another option, which should not be ruled out, but the costs are uncertain and may not be competitive with nuclear.

If fossil fuels gradually lose their grip in energy supply, as the second case advocates, the chances of nuclear could be even better. The next generation of reactors have a good chance of overcoming many of the public perception problems that turn people off nuclear. Doubts about how quickly renewables can expand will necessarily push attention towards nuclear as the only large-scale option that can replace fossil fuels. Nuclear may conceivably come to be regarded as a renewable source of energy as well as clean. Nuclear’s possible role in hydrogen production may then additionally reinforce its position. It makes little sense to produce hydrogen with fossil fuels, as the net environmental benefit will be substantially reduced, particularly if it is coal that is used to fuel the plants.

In reality, the energy world is more likely to evolve as the complex mixture of the two extreme cases. Some of the demand scenarios developed by the IPCC, for example, seem rather on the high side, as they would bring many developing countries up to per capita consumption figures common in some of the more wasteful developed countries today. A more energy-conscious way of living should be possible by then. It is also unlikely that fossil fuels will have as clear as run as the first case believes, partly for geopolitical reasons (notably concerns about security of supply from unstable regions of the world) but also due to price pressure as resources become increasingly depleted.

So nuclear has an excellent chance in the period beyond 2030, provided that the Generation IV and INPRO reactors are developed in the envisaged way. Their development is going to require many years of substantial public funding, to be justified by the need to invest in the world’s future energy supply infrastructure.

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