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We can’t abandon nuclear now

It won’t surprise many people that world carbon emissions have failed to slow down, but the fact we’re now at risk of surpassing targets set for nine years hence, intended to limit the global rise in temperature…

The move away from nuclear energy may be counterproductive. Greenpeace Finland

It won’t surprise many people that world carbon emissions have failed to slow down, but the fact we’re now at risk of surpassing targets set for nine years hence, intended to limit the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ºC, might.

Doctor Fatih Birol, chief economist at the the International Energy Agency (IEA), this week put the situation succinctly: “The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020.”

Although the prospect of a 2ºC warming is unlikely to be averted, there seems to be no logic in closing down nuclear power, a functioning, low cost, low emissions, large scale base-load electricity source, when there is nothing to take its place.

That would be turning our backs on reality.

Were it not for the three gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions avoided annually by the global nuclear power industry, for decades, we would already be past the point of no return.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022 – a move that will mean an extra 40 million metric tonnes os carbon dioxide emissions annually. Switzerland has likewise voted to phase out its nuclear fleet by 2034, which currently provides half of its electricity.

Other governments are looking at the safety of their reactors and fuel storage systems, although the chances of the freak circumstances that prevailed in Japan being repeated elsewhere are very remote.

Add to this the fact that the damaged reactors at Fukushima were old, and of an old design, and some of the current actions proposed, while understandable at an emotional level, seem unwarranted.

If a 1950s DC3 crashed today you wouldn’t ground all the jumbo jets in the world.

The reactors you would buy now have features such as passive safety that would avoid the catastrophic sequence of failures that occurred in Japan.

China has looked at its safety situation in light of events at Fukushima and intends to proceed with the construction of 26 new reactors and planning for another 26 or so, to add to their current fleet of 14.

Unfortunately, even that increase won’t keep pace with the country’s projected demands for power, and China’s continuing reliance on coal means overall emissions are bound to rise.

In its recently-approved twelfth five-year plan, The Chinese government announced it would expand wind and solar capacity. If not so already, it will soon be the world’s largest manufacturer of these technologies.

Despite that, wind and solar are not projected to provide more than a small proportion of China’s needs (they currently provide about 0.5%).

At least China, having the somewhat dubious advantage of being a communist country, can put in place an implementation plan, something democratic countries such as Australia fail to do. Unfortunately, aspiration is a poor substitute for action.

Perhaps that sentiment is echoed in the frustrations of people at the IEA, who see little real change.

Pacala and Socolow (Science 2004) made the point, accepted by many, that resolution of the issue of emissions worldwide would require a suite of complementary technologies.

It is not a question of substituting coal with some other resource, but of marrying low-emission technologies, with different attributes, to achieve practical, large-scale change.

The reality is that the expansion of renewable resources such as wind to the level where they can make such a contribution is likely to bring with it new problems over and above the known issue of weather and time-dependent variability.

It is not just the variability that matters, but the uncertainty in predicting that variability over short, intermediate and long time scales.

This will make it very difficult to incorporate satisfactorily (so that the lights stay on) more than a few percent into most existing grid systems.

Such uncertainty, and the eventual need to store electricity so that the desired increase in renewable generation does not overwhelm the ability of conventional resources to compensate, are challenges that have to be faced.

It is not obvious that they can be met.

We could wish it were different. Who would opt for the complexity and perceived burdens of a nuclear industry if there were a real substitute?

If one comes along and can be proven, that would be the time to change horses, not in the middle of the race.

For more information, see Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid, a report by APS Panel on Public Affairs.