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.


  • Nick Terdre

    The nuclear equation also has to take account of emissions caused in the process of building new plants and mining uranium and other inputs. I wonder how this affects the outcome.
    Secondly, given the mendacity of the nuclear industry over the decades, not to mention the tendency of governments to be economical with the truth, putting in place a set-up in which the public could have confidence would be no easy task.

  • Stephen

    “The antis are right there are huge issues around nuclear: costs, subsidy, toxic waste disposal, secrecy, and the potential for catastrophic accidents … But what they never acknowledge is its one undeniable strength: it is currently the only source of zero carbon baseload generation ..”

    To the “huge issues” you listed you could add: leukaemia clusters, military complicity (which is of course why we have nuclear it in the first place), the consequent diversion of finance from demand reduction initiatives and renewable research, the government has to insure it, the encouragement of the usual easy focus on maintaining supply instead of questioning our insane levels of energy consumption, the reliance on uranium sourced from other countries which will become harder to find and consequently more expensive both in terms of the fossil fuels required to mine and process it and the money it will cost us, very large inefficiency as it can only be part of a centralised system wasting power “up the chimney” because CHP and nuclear don’t co-exist and then of course the large transmission inefficiencies as a consequence of a national grid and finally, the cooling ponds and long term storage are dependent on a fossil fuelled society to maintain them. There are probably other “issues” I could add to the list if I thought a little longer.

    Here is an extract from the Ecologist magazine’s Nuclear Dossier dated 1st June 2006:

    “Supposing all these issues are overcome to the satisfaction of the government of the day, wagons will start to roll. Fleets of them. A study for the Canadian nuclear industry gives an indication of what’s involved. Millions of tonnes of steel (1.6 million) and concrete (14 million) need to be manufactured and delivered to the chosen sites. This means hundreds of lorries, consuming millions of gallons of diesel, will thunder towards the site every day during the construction period. The immediate environmental impact will be immense. Tyre dust is more damaging to public health than exhaust fumes, but of course the latter exacerbates climate change. According to the Sustainable Development Committee, for every tonne of Portland cement manufactured, a tonne of C02 is released into the atmosphere. The same goes for steel. Core reactor parts will most likely be manufactured in Japan and shipped over.

    All of this only hints at the enormity of the project. A nuclear power station is not a singular building as the name implies. It is a facility comprising of around 10 auxiliary buildings, which act as the central nervous system for the reactor. The eventual footprint of any facility will be between 500-1,000 acres, including the exclusion zone.

  • mike italiano

    On a life cycle assessment (LCA) basis, nuclear is highly likely a substantial climate polluter, and not “zero carbon baseload generation.” In other words, there is substantial climate pollution generated by nuclear from:

    * extraction and transportation of uranium and other fuels
    * extraction, transportation, manufacture, and disposal of all of the substantial materials and products constituting a reactor and waste storage
    * processing, storage, and treatment of nuclear waste over its radioactive life which is very, very long
    * decommissioning

    What do you think?

  • Laura m.

    Does anyone know if the mini reactors are a lot safer than the older nuke plants? Article was in Dec. 9th 2010 the Economist, which explained their use in power plants.

  • Mike, this point is often claimed but seems to be completely wrong. See a paper entitled ‘Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review’, by Manfred Lenzen, a physicist at the University of Sydney, published by Energy Conversion & Management, 2007.

    From the abstract:

    ‘The most popular reactor types, LWR and HWR, need between 0.1 and 0.3 kWhth, and on average about 0.2 kWhth for every kWh of electricity generated. These energy intensities translate into greenhouse gas intensities for LWR and HWR of between 10 and 130 g CO2-e/kWhel, with an average of 65 g CO2-e/kWhel.
    ‘While these greenhouse gases are expectedly lower than those of fossil technologies (typically 600–1200 g CO2-e/kWhel), they are higher than reported figures for wind turbines and hydroelectricity (around 15–25 g CO2-e/kWhel) and in the order of, or slightly lower than, solar photovoltaic or solar thermal power (around 90 g CO2-e/kWhel).’

    So, you’re right nnclear is not strictly zero carbon, but by the same token neither are wind, hydro or solar. If you consider solar to be low carbon, according to this paper – a review of the literature – nuclear is lower.

  • Stephen, you raise some wide-ranging points. Briefly:
    You’re right we consume far too much energy, but the political difficulties of cutting swathes out of current consumption are huge. Efficiency gains are usually lost to growth, in the absence of some kind of rationing cap such as TEQs. If you mean to suggest efficiency gains are an alternative to nuclear power, I think you’re quite wrong. Given the difficulties, we will need effort on all fronts.

    The cost of uranium is – and I think will remain – trivial, since nuclear is so hugely capital intensive. Much of the imported uranium comes from stable countries. The fuel prices we should really be worrying about are oil and possibly gas.

    CHP is problematic, to say the least. Yes, it uses gas more efficiently than if burnt at large, remote power stations, but it also presents major problems. You may achieve a substantial cut in emissions right away, but then you’re locked into those (too high) gas emissions for thirty years. Because you’ve built gas-fired plant that produces heat electricity, CHP crowds out renewables, is very unlikely ever to be carbon-captured, and its inflexibility is problem for grid balancing, as Denmark is finding out.

    Concrete and steel. I haven’t checked, but I assume this is all accounted for in the lifecycle study I mentioned above (it ought to be).

    There’s plenty of steel and concrete in wind turbines as well, and the energy production ratio between a nuclear plant and wind turbines is about 1000:1. (1GW reactor = 333 x 3MW turbines nominally, but with a capacity factor of, say, 30%, you’re back up to around 1,000 turbines to produce the same amount of energy). And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the emissions from offshore wind were higher than the figures in the 2007 paper cited above. But then it’s wrong kind of power: intermittent, and not dispatchable. Interesting how nobody has answered the dilemma I raised in the article.

  • Simon W

    David, you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the intermittency of wind and solar power, we need economically viable storage systems for electricity, maybe they will come but nothing really practical seems likely to be available on the required scale in the near future.
    Regarding nuclear, it has many of the qualities required for a future low carbon electricity supply, however, one of the problems is the perceived risk of a major malfunction which then renders large land areas surrounding the plant uninhabitable, not to mention the medical effects on the local population; just imagine a 100 year or more exclusion zone of 20 miles (30+ kms) around any of the UK’s (or France’s or Germany’s etc) nuclear plants.

  • Nick

    In a word: peak uranium.
    You need to apply Hubbert style analysis to this, assuming continued economic growth across the globe AND substitution into nuclear. If you do, you will find that energy “requirements” of countries like Iran are 50+ nuclear reactors. Do you really want to see this all over the globe? For a few decades more of environmentally and socially destructive growth, max?

  • Nick, the world is far less explored for uranium than for oil, and there are other nuclear fuels, so I am not convinced of the early uranium peak. But nobody – at least not me – is saying nuclear can provide all electricity – clearly not. But you haven’t addressed the consequences of early shut-down raised in my piece.

    Having said that, global wind generation capacity has grown at a rate of 2GW, or two nuclear power stations, per month since 2005, and on a steeply rising trend. Nuclear capacity has shrunk over the same period. So we can clearly roll out renewables faster than nuclear, but that still leaves us with the major problem of balancing the grid. If you think we can create the supergrid in a decade, perhaps we can do without nuclear. If not, and if we shut nuclear early, the inevitable consequence will be more coal and gas fired power stations – and rising emissions.

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