Last week, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), a subdivision of sorts of the International Energy Agency, composed of the remaining true believers in nuclear power, released a report calling on the world to more than double the use of nuclear power by 2050. Titled Technology Roadmap 2015: Nuclear Power, the report argues that this vast expansion of nuclear power is part of a necessary “energy revolution:”
Without decisive action, energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide will nearly double by 2050 and increased fossil energy demand will heighten concerns over the security of supplies.We can change our current path, but this will take an energy revolution in which low-carbon energy technologies will have a crucial role to play. Energy efficiency, many types of renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power and new transport technologies will all require widespread deployment if we are to sharply reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Stealing a phrase from Greenpeace (“energy revolution”), which has issued a number of well-documented reports showing clearly the steps to take for a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system by 2050–if not before–doesn’t necessarily provide the credibility NEA might have desired. And the report itself is full of so much optimism and highly-dubious speculation that it’s hard to take too seriously.
At least the NEA (perhaps because the intro is co-signed by the head of the IEA) acknowledges from the start that “This scenario is not a prediction of what will happen.” Indeed, it’s merely wishful thinking by the dwindling body of international nuclear enthusiasts.
But really, you’d expect a report five years in the making (the report is an update of one released in 2010) would at least get its numbers straight internally. The report claims in the introduction and elsewhere that 72 reactors were under construction at the end of 2014. In another place, that number is 70. But when you add up the number when the report breaks it down by global region, you get 63 under construction. Where are those missing nine reactors? Under the ocean? In deep space?
10 of those reactors under construction are in Russia–the likelihood that they’ll all be completed is miniscule, as is the notion that China will complete all 29 it is said to have underway although that’s at least more conceivable than Russia.
The effect of Fukushima on the future of nuclear power is reflected in the report, both directly and indirectly. Most importantly, it’s admitted by a major decrease in the NEA’s hope/projection in 2010 of a nuclear sector 1200 GW strong by 2050, pumping out 25% of global electricity. This report advocates 930 GW by 2050, which would be a 17% share of global electricity–still a big, and oh-so-unlikely jump from its current 11% share. Current capacity is only 396 GW, so NEA is still looking at a huge nuclear leap. It’s a leap of faith that won’t be rewarded.
To get to that point would require a global investment of $4.4 Trillion, according to NEA. And that’s with a projection that costs of nuclear power construction in the U.S. and Europe would actually decrease between now and then–a projection that has no basis in history or reality, which has conclusively documented ever-increasing costs for nuclear reactors.
It probably goes without saying that the report doesn’t even attempt to evaluate how much new, clean, and safe capacity could be implemented if that $4.4 Trillion were spent on renewables, energy efficiency and building up the 21st century electric grid.
To reach 930 GW would mean long license extensions for just about every reactor in the world–about 3/4 of which are now at least 25 years old. Those may not be coming, and even if many are extended, the extensions may not be long enough. Even with license extensions, for example, nearly all U.S. reactors still will be retired by 2050 unless the rules are changed to allow even longer extensions. Moreover, holding a license to operate doesn’t necessarily mean a reactor will reach its licensed lifetime, as five U.S. reactor shutdowns over the past two years–with more likely soon–indicates.
Most of the new reactors, under the NEA’s scenario, will be “Generation III” reactors like the Westinghouse AP 1000, now facing long construction delays and cost overruns in Georgia and South Carolina–which certainly doesn’t bode well for their future. As one investment analyst put it last week when the news broke that Georgia’s Vogtle reactors are delayed yet another 18 months with at least $700 million more in cost overruns, “who in their right mind would want to build a nuclear power plant?”
Indeed, with virtually every major investment house having issued a report in the past year touting the benefits and growth of renewables and predicting essentially no future for nuclear power, without complete government support nuclear power is not going to grow between now and 2050, it’s going to decline, and decline substantially.
Finally, even the NEA emphasizes that reactors must run safely for its dream to come true. But that too is only a dream. With a history of a major accident occurring every 11 years or so, the idea that the next 35 years will see trouble-free operation is merely a mirage. It’s not a matter of “if” for the next Fukushima or Three Mile Island, it’s only a matter of when and where. And the next accident will, as Fukushima and Chernobyl did before it, lead to an even-faster abandonment of nuclear power.
But so will the declining costs and obvious other advantages of renewables: they’re not serious targets during wartime or for terrorists; they don’t generate lethal radioactive waste–an issue only skimmed over in the NEA report; they don’t contribute to proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons; they don’t release toxic radiation as part of their routine operations. They do, however, provide safe, clean, affordable electricity, and that’s what the world wants and needs. Moreover, they will reduce carbon emissions faster, cheaper, and more completely than nuclear power ever could.
The true believers of the NEA won’t understand all that, of course. That’s ok. The rest of us don’t have to take them seriously. Their dreams may be the world’s nightmares, but neither is going to come true.
Michael Mariotte (with thanks to Greenpeace International’s Jan Haverkamp)
February 2, 2015
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