The nuclear industry’s COP 21 dilemma: 100% renewables is attainable


“Nuclear power plant construction” by James Douch – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

If you think you’ve been seeing a lot more pro-nuclear propaganda in the media than usual in the past couple of weeks, well, it’s not your imagination. The nuclear industry and its champions are out in force, publishing articles and appearing in the media wherever and whenever they can in what may be a last-ditch effort to convince the world–or at least its leaders–that nuclear power is the answer, or one answer, to our climate crisis. As one writer put it yesterday, “At the Paris Climate Summit (COP21), the global nuclear lobby is in overdrive.”

If it all smacks a bit of desperation–and a lot of the pro-nuke pieces out there right now verge on the hysterical, with blatant attacks on those of us who envision a clean energy future–well, that’s not your imagination either. That’s because there is no global consensus on nuclear power. Some nations are against it entirely while a relatively few others are ardently pro-nuclear, with most–including the U.S.–somewhere in-between. And that means, by the very nature of the COP 21 talks, that nuclear isn’t getting what the industry needs; indeed, so far at least, nuclear is simply a non-factor.

Still, it’s important to examine and if possible refute the pro-nuclear assertions. It’s important to prevent them from taking hold at COP 21, or afterwards, because making large-scale investments in nuclear power as a climate solution would make real carbon reductions more difficult to attain. Nuclear would set the world on the wrong path, and that would prove disastrous. Fortunately, refuting nuclear advocates’ arguments becomes easier and easier with the passage of time. Not only are most of the industry’s positions fantastical, but the concept of a world powered 100% by clean renewable energy is no longer seen as a hippie pipedream but as a necessary and, more importantly, achievable goal at every level–from individuals to large corporations to cities large and small to entire nations.

Leading the nuclear pack of course, by virtue of respect for his work on climate, is Dr. James Hansen and a small band of cohorts in the climate science community. At his press conference in Paris late last week (background here) and a companion piece published in The Guardian Thursday, Hansen et al made their familiar argument that nuclear must be considered a climate solution and that the world must rapidly develop “…next-generation nuclear power with a closed fuel cycle (where spent fuel is reprocessed)…”

A big part of that argument is their belief, which seems to be based mostly on International Energy Agency (IEA) reports and projections, that renewable energy currently provides only a tiny part of global electricity supply and that renewables cannot scale up rapidly enough to replace fossil fuels. Nuclear, they claim on the other hand, can do so. According to Hansen, et al, “For example, a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.”

If Hansen and his friends were correct, perhaps the argument would have merit. But they’re not.

First, the world has never built 115 reactors per year, much less come close to sustaining such a level for 35 years. The chart at the top of this page shows that, in fact, worldwide we’ve never even hit 40 per year, and in only four years–all during the nuclear go-go years of the 1970s– did we even top 30 new reactors. Note that the chart shows reactor construction starts, not completions–a lot of those starts, especially in the U.S., were never even finished.

While in theory the world could build more reactors than we presently are (and since Fukushima new starts have dropped to nearly nothing), 61 new reactors per year, over 35 years, is not even remotely achievable; 115 new reactors per years is pure fantasy. The world does not have the infrastructure to build that many, nor the infrastructure to operate that many (nor does the infrastructure, in terms of trained operators and other personnel, plus regulatory systems exist to handle even a fraction of that many reactors in any kind of safety-first environment).

And note that Hansen et al don’t take into account the reality that by 2050, most of the existing reactors will have reached the end of their licensed lifetimes and will be closed, so there are another 400+ that would need to be built under their scenario.

The costs of attempting such a program would be astronomical. Not only are the reactors themselves the priciest means of electricity generation available today, but the costs of attempting to build an infrastructure capable of even a fraction of that many reactors would be prohibitive. Sure, there are costs involved with clean energy too; no one ever said addressing the climate crisis will be cheap (but we do, in fact, say a clean energy system will be economically beneficial), but at least it doesn’t need the kind of infrastructure (giant complexes capable of forging reactor pressure vessels, huge expansion of nuclear regulatory agencies, etc) that nuclear does.

To look at this another way, consider: in the 60 years since the dawn of the commercial atomic age, the world has built and operated fewer than 600 nuclear reactors (there are 437 currently operable). Hansen, et al. argue this track record proves the world can successfully build and operate 4,025 more reactors in the next 35 years. The history proves exactly the opposite.

Clearly, however, the world could build more than we are doing now. Not enough to close a lot of coal plants or make a significant dent in carbon emissions, but we could build more. Do we need to? Can renewables really not scale up in time?

If one relies on IEA reports and projections, it’s easy to see why you would think renewables can’t handle the job. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook shows that for 2013, renewables including large-scale hydro supplied only 4% of the world’s primary energy (not just electricity, analyzing this way gives nuclear only 5% of primary energy). By 2040, the World Energy Outlook doesn’t see much change: renewables are projected to supply 8% and nuclear 7%.

There are two problems here. First, we need to report and project electricity, not primary energy: nuclear reactors provide only electricity and so do most renewables. The second problem, as we’ve pointed out before, is that the IEA has proven invariably wrong when it comes to projecting the growth of renewables.

Renewables now provide 22.8% of the world’s electricity–which even the IEA has been forced to admit places renewables as the second largest “fuel” source, behind only coal.  So it’s not renewables that are the small fish in the pond, it’s nuclear. In other words, nuclear power would have to scale up more rapidly than renewables to make a difference, not the other way around.

And, again, the opposite is happening. Investment is going into renewables, not nuclear. Half of all new generation this year will be renewables (for the U.S. in October, all new generation was renewables) , and that number is likely to increase next year and every year from now on.

We’ve reported numerous times on investment bank studies showing that renewables are where they want to put their money. Here are two more from Goldman Sachs: one projects wind and solar power will provide more energy over the next five years than the shale gas (read: fracking) revolution has over the past five years.  The other says the most effective investments to reduce carbon emissions are four existing technologies: solar, onshore wind, LED lighting and electric cars.

That these are existing technologies is important. Hansen et. al.’s nuclear-first approach requires use of “Generation IV” technologies that don’t exist. The reality is that we have the tools to effectively address the climate crisis, we just need to use them. Bill Gates made a lot of headlines last week with his “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” fund to come up with new energy solutions, including “advanced” nuclear. It’s not that innovation isn’t welcome (and there remains plenty of innovation in clean energy technologies), but what’s needed most right now is large-scale deployment of the innovations of the past few years. These, such as the technologies identified by Goldman Sachs, are already cost-effective and climate-effective. So why not use them?

But if we were to embark on a major new nuclear development and construction program, the economic resources to deploy the clean energy technologies would be dangerously depleted. “All of the above” always sounds reasonable to the public–why not do everything we can?–but it’s not only unrealistic, it’s irrational: since resources are not unlimited, choices are required and we need to focus resources on what works the best and the most cost-effectively. And that is renewables and efficiency, backed up with electricity storage (which we would argue Goldman Sachs should have included as a fifth effective investment).

Fortunately, the message is beginning to get through.

A growing number of large corporations–Google, Apple, Ikea and the like–are committed to 100% renewable energy for their operations, and are making the investments necessary to attain that goal.  So are a growing number of cities: 1,000 mayors have descended on Paris this week with a call for a 100% renewable energy system.  Entire nations are relatively quietly moving to 100% renewables; Uruguay, for example, is now at 95%. Even in the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the last bastions of outright climate denial, a resolution for a 100% renewable energy system has been introduced (H. Res. 540) with more than 20 co-sponsors.


Graphic from CleanEdge

All of this is being driven by the five factors in the graphic to the right (click to enlarge). Electricity storage was the missing link. While large-scale (30-40%) use of variable renewables is possible even without storage, 100% renewables was not. But the rapid growth of storage technology coupled with its equally-rapid decline in cost makes that goal both achievable and affordable.

There are more signs. Coal use is already dropping faster than anticipated.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), not quite as bad at projecting renewables as the IEA, but almost, suddenly added 30% more solar capacity in the U.S. because they’ve finally started counting rooftop solar.  Contributing to the nuclear industry’s hysteria in Paris this week is their knowledge that the announced early shutdowns of the Pilgrim and FitzPatrick reactors (on top of five closed reactors in 2013-14) and reactors in Sweden won’t be the last such announcements.

A 100% renewable energy system is no longer far-fetched. It’s being held back not by inadequate technology, not by an inability to scale up rapidly, but by the still-powerful–but decreasingly so–fossil fuel and nuclear interests. As their fortunes begin to fade, the political and economic power of those interests is weakening, but it must be weakened further.

The danger for the nuclear industry and its apologists is not that a massive clean energy campaign won’t work, that renewables can’t scale up quickly enough, that they can’t reduce carbon and methane emissions fast enough, but that such a campaign will work. Because that will mean that nuclear, and its myriad of other environmental and economic deficiencies, simply aren’t needed. And all the evidence shows that is, in fact, the case. Nuclear power is not needed to reduce emissions. And so why would anyone want to generate more lethal radioactive waste and subject the world to more permanently uninhabitable zones from the occasional and inevitable nuclear meltdowns? Obviously, the nuclear industry wants to protect its own economic interests. But for the rest of us–and that’s nearly everyone–a nuclear-free, carbon-free system makes perfect sense.

Michael Mariotte

December 7, 2015


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8 thoughts on “The nuclear industry’s COP 21 dilemma: 100% renewables is attainable

  1. damchodronma

    We do not need nuclear at all:

    FAQ ( two Q and A sample):
    “Q: What is the purpose of these plans? 
    A: The purpose of these plans is to provide policy makers and the public with a technically- and economically-feasible pathway toward a sustainable, secure, and reliable energy infrastructure that eliminates health and environmental problems due to air, water, and soil pollution and global warming. The plans, if implemented, will result in long-term energy stability, energy price stability, human and environmental health, job growth, and energy security. ”
    Q: Why don’t the plans include power generation from nuclear energy plants?
    A: Nuclear energy is not included in the solution because it results in 9-25 times more carbon and air pollution than does wind energy per unit energy produced, partly due to the fossil energy used to mine and refine uranium continuously during the plant’s life, partly due to the construction of the plant, and partly due to the fact that the time between planning and operation of a new nuclear facility is 10-19 years, whereas that of the proposed technologies (wind, water, and sunlight) is much less, generally 2-5 years for wind and solar, resulting in opportunity-cost emissions from the background fossil-fuel energy sector during the period that nuclear is waiting to come online. In addition, nuclear poses catastrophic risks due to the historic worldwide relationship between nuclear energy facilities and nuclear weapons proliferation and due to nuclear reactor accidents. Further, in the U.S., radioactive waste currently accumulates at nuclear energy facilities, and no plan exists to store that waste permanently.”
    Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQs) About 100% Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Plans for the 50 United States By Mark Z. Jacobson
    Atmosphere/Energy Program
    Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    Stanford University

    Royal Society of Chemistry,
    Energy and Environmental Science
    Summary Paper published June 2015

    50 US States, graphics

  2. damchodronma

    “… presents a proposed solution to global warming and air pollution, namely, the conversion of the world’s energy infrastructure to a large-scale, clean, renewable one. Because air pollution and global warming, in particular, are so severe, a rapid and large-scale conversion is needed. The main barriers are not technical, resource based, or even economic. Instead, they are social and political. “

    ~~ Mark Z. Jacobson, “Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions,” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012. [2nd Ed]

    we have the technology, resources – we have the ability and knowledge – >

    Powering the World With Wind, Water, and Sunlight: Mark Jacobson at TEDxPaloAltoHighSchool
    less than 17 minutes

  3. Don Richardson

    The Nuclear Industry is dead, but they’re desperately trying to lie their way into resuscitating their cash cow. Responsible leadership would have killed their subsidies decades ago.

  4. maryonirs

    Thank you Michael–the story of time and money is essential. Time = Money. On the other hand, nuclear has a different story too. The story of ongoing, long-term harm to the genetic treasury of LIFE. In that story there is a relatively new surprise: males are less harmed by radiation (as a group) than are females (in this case harm = cancer). I am pleased to make a presentation via video at GENDER DAY in Paris (COP 21 side event) 12/08/2015. Here is the video that will be presented…all about how GENDER MATTERS in the ATOMIC AGE:

    Solar, wind, LEDs and electric cars (powered by the first two, please)! None of these will kill little girls at a faster rate than little boys (watch that video). What do you call a SOLAR SPILL?
    A Beautiful Day…I never get tired of that one. Let’s not be shy. Solar, wind and efficiency are better.

  5. patricia borchmann

    Thank you to Michael Mariotte (NIRS) for preparing all the necessary arguments in this article, to totally disarm pro-nuclear advocates, and their phony ‘scare tactics’ about grid reliability using renewables. Those promoters who keep using obsolete and inaccurate metrics on performance capabilities and costs on renewables – they have no technical credibility. Your article identifies all the logic-gaps, inaccuracies, and ‘false narratives’ that the nuclear industry, and nuclear regulatory agency repeats, but provides zero evidence to support.
    Thank you for ‘heavy lifting’ from NIRS.

  6. Dan

    i have nothing against wind power and solar energy. However, they are both intermittent and distributed. Both indicate that more transmission and distribution infrastructure is required to scale up. This is fine because it is the business that I am currently in. Nuke plants represent an example of the economy of scale. One nuke plant will give you a lot of “bang for the buck.” (No – they don’t blow up.) A small area can serve a lot of people. There have been no deaths due to nuclear power in the USA. There are new nuclear technologies that open minds should be exploring. The old anti nuke ideas of the sixties should fade into oblivion. A bright new nuclear future should be embraced. Now – either censor me or beat me up 🙂

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      We don’t censor (or, to put it another way, ignore comments) because of the view of the writer. But we do ignore comments–like this one–that show that not only have you not read GreenWorld generally, you have not even read the article you’re commenting on. Wind and solar are variable, everyone knows that. With storage–as the article points out, the fifth factor in making a 100% renewable system feasible–that variability no longer matters. Of course, here in the U.S., we are far from the point where renewable penetration is high enough that storage is needed–that doesn’t occur until somewhere after 30-40% renewables or more. As for no deaths from nuclear power in the U.S., there are high-quality studies showing you are wrong. We’ve posted information on some of them, but you haven’t read them. Meanwhile, you might not want to say that very loudly on Navaho land, where uranium mining has caused many, many deaths….. There is no bright nuclear future; the much-heralded nuclear renaissance of the 2000s failed and now the pendulum has swung the other way: more reactors are closing than being built, and that’s a trend that is only going to accelerate.


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