First published in the Utility Week, 1 April 2011.
Just because the nuclear backlash was inevitable doesn’t make it right. Long-standing opponents have naturally seized on the Japanese emergency in a bid to reverse the industry’s budding renaissance, and in Europe at least there is a chance they could succeed. Industry share prices have slumped as governments including Switzerland, Germany and Britain have applied the brakes. Since northern Europe is far less prone to earthquakes and new reactor designs are based on passive safety, the implications should be more political than technical. But the consequences of ditching nuclear now could be severe for both the climate and energy security.
The antis are right there are huge issues around nuclear: costs, subsidy, toxic waste disposal, secrecy, and the potential for catastrophic accidents – though the industry generally kills far fewer people than coal or oil, and nobody calls for hydro to be banned when a dam bursts with a death toll of thousands. But what they never acknowledge is its one undeniable strength: it is currently the only source of zero carbon baseload generation, the kind we need day in and day out regardless of fluctuating demand and renewable supply.
Many greens blithely assume renewables and nuclear are mutually exclusive yet interchangeable, but they are neither. The consequences of scrapping nuclear are clearly illustrated by the government’s new energy planning toy, the 2050 Pathways Calculator, launched last week. The goal is to cut British climate emissions 80 percent by mid-century while keeping the lights on, through choices about levels of demand, modes of transport, generating technologies and so on. What the model shows is that abandoning nuclear has major consequences for the amount of fossil fuel back-up capacity we would need, and our chances of achieving real and sustainable cuts in emissions.
At first I was encouraged by how easy it is to decarbonise the electricity supply by around 2030. I chose the lowest option for new nuclear (level 2 out of 4), and renewables targets that are very ambitious but within the bounds of political possibility (mostly 3s, some 2s). When you cut out nuclear altogether, the good news is that it makes little difference to the emissions reductions achieved, but the bad news is you need almost 50 gigawatts (GW) of back-up gas generating plant to keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow.
To put this in context, UK peak demand is about 60GW on a cold winter’s evening, so that level of backup means building almost an entire ‘spare’ generating industry, at vast expense, which would sit idle for much of the time. It would also require a huge gas storage network to supply those plants at short notice, capable of holding and releasing an entire week’s gas supply in real time – the stress test is for five consecutive windless days in a cold winter. Britain has notoriously low levels of gas storage, and can only release about 10% of current demand on any given day.
There is an alternative to nuclear baseload, but it also comes with huge drawbacks. Back-up capacity can be reduced to a more manageable 17GW if we introduce some coal fired power stations with carbon capture and storage (CCS). However, CCS plants – if they are ever commercialized – will be 90% efficient at best, meaning 10% of the emissions will still escape. So the more CCS plants we build, the harder it becomes to hit the emissions target.
The only way to solve this is to burn a lot of wood along with the coal, which has the effect of making the CCS plants carbon neutral, since we would be burying CO2 captured from the atmosphere by the trees. But in the DECC model this requires an area twice the size of Wales for energy crops and forestry. This is unsustainable for two reasons.
The first is food security. Britain already produces only 60% of its food, and devoting 10% of our land to biofuels could only make our import dependency worse. With the pressure on global food supplies and prices rising remorselessly, we would simply swap one problem for another. The selfish solution would be to import an equivalent amount of biomass from abroad, but either way, the claimed emissions reductions are likely to be illusory.
That’s because of something called ILUC, which officially stands for Indirect Land Use Change, but it could equally well mean Inescapable Law of Unintended Consequences. Either way, ILUC happens when biofuel production displaces food crops, pushing farmers elsewhere to clear more forest or grassland to grow food. That land use change releases huge amounts of carbon in a single burst, outweighing any subsequent emissions reductions that might have been achieved by the biofuels.
A recent report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy found that the ILUC impact of achieving the EU’s target of 10% renewable transport fuels by 2020 would require replacement food production on a land area somewhere between the size of Belgium and Ireland, equivalent to putting up to 26 million additional cars on Europe’s roads. So the emissions reductions achieved by CCS biomass co-firing are likely to be illusory – or worse.
Renewables will be able to generate baseload power one day, when a European wide supergrid linking myriad sources of renewable power helps solve the problem of intermittency. But building that will probably be a decades-long task: it takes 10 years on average to get permission to build a new overhead power line; the supergrid would require tens of thousands of kilometers.
Meanwhile, if we stick with nuclear and renewables, we miss the legally binding 2050 emissions target by 2%, but the cuts achieved are real and not the result of wishful thinking about biofuels, and they would require only 11GW of gas back-up. Those who rejoice at reports of the political death of nuclear – which may be exaggerated – need to show how else we can bridge the gap.