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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.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Brett Hardman

    CEO, R&D

    Professor Dracoulis states that "there is nothing to take its [Nuclear] place". I acknowledge the merits of nuclear energy with respect to low operational carbon emissions. However their construction generates high carbon dioxide emissions, uranium is a non-renewable source that creates emissions to mine and there is already a proven economic way to produce a sufficient amount of baseload zero carbon emission power for Australia's consumption which has operated in Spain & the USA for some time now…

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  2. Paul Richards
    Paul Richards is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Implementing ‘sustainable development’ needs to be our energy technology qualifier.

    The lesson learned from our transition from the agrarian era to our present day, is that we humans have used technology without genuine foresight. Most importantly that we can’t ignore the possibility of future "Black Swan' incidents like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

    All the energy models causing greenhouse emissions have been the responsibility of corporations or based on exponential profitability models…

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  3. Alastair Leith

    logged in via Twitter

    Since Dr Dracoulis fails to convince on the merits of Nuclear power on economics, risk, waste and resource depletion (huge amounts of artesian water being consumed in yellow-cake mining and eventual energy extraction below well 10% efficient) I'm wondering how he arrives at such easy conclusions.

    Rhetorically wondering because my father was a radiation physicist and scientists in the nuclear fields in my experience absolutely _always_ discount real world factors (corruption, disasters, human error…

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    1. George Dracoulis

      Professor, Department of Nuclear Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Alastair Leith

      My academic affiliation is clearly stated.
      I have no affiliations with any (other) company or organization in the nuclear industry or in any other industry.
      Dispute the content by all means, but I don't stand to gain out of it.

    2. Alastair Leith

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to George Dracoulis

      Thanks for your reply Professor.

      Please re-read my comment and feel free to dispute my assertion that radiation and nuclear scientist in Australia would tangibly benefit from an expansion of Australia's nuclear power industry, in particular if it expanded to include power generation.

      Benefits include, but not limited to: job opportunities in (highly-paid) private industry, consultations for scientists and their institutions, contracts to develop regulatory frameworks and standards (much of my…

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  4. Simon Mason

    "nuclear power, a functioning, low cost, low emissions, large scale base-load electricity source, when there is nothing to take its place."

    The assertion that nuclear power is "low cost" is false. The cost of new nuclear power plants is increasing with time rather than decreasing like most technologies. This is because the safety risks have never been properly dealt with and with increasing public awareness of the risks comes increased safety requirements on the new plants. Current levelised…

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  5. wilma western

    logged in via email

    3 excellent comments so far on an article that would qualify as pronuclear propaganda rather than academic analysis. Is it also true that governments have to back nuclear facilities since no insurance company is willing to cover them?

  6. Jamie Anderson

    logged in via Facebook

    Err, wouldn't a university nuclear physics department stand to benefit from the wider acceptance of nuclear power.

    1. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Jamie Anderson

      "However their construction generates high carbon dioxide emissions, uranium is a non-renewable source that creates emissions to mine"

      Whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas intensity of nuclear energy is well studied, and it is extremely small but of course it is not zero, exactly like it is very small but non-zero for wind energy or solar thermal or hydro or every single other possible energy generation technology in existence.

      "Every nuclear and radiation physicist in Australia has skin in the game…

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