Nuclear is not the answer to global warming

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Learn more from the Center for Media and Democracy's research on climate change.

This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

Introduction

Jurgen Trittin – Former German Federal Minister for the Environment – describes calls for more nuclear power to tackle the problem of climate change as “fighting one risk with an even bigger one”. [1] And Environment Ministers from Ireland, Norway, Iceland and Austria, have launched a joint campaign against the use of nuclear energy as a solution to climate change, saying the current debate is downplaying the environmental, waste, proliferation, nuclear liability and safety issues. [2]

Nuclear power can, at best, only make a minimal contribution to reducing carbon emissions anyway, and it cannot reduce them soon enough, so is unlikely to be worth the extra risk. At worst carbon emissions from the nuclear life cycle could begin to climb, as lower and lower grades of uranium are mined to feed its insatiable appetite.

But there is one risk associated with new reactors which is perhaps most worrying of all – the risk of diverting attention and resources from the urgent programmes which must be implemented in order to effectively tackle climate change – renewable energy and energy efficiency. If attention, political effort and resources are diverted to a new nuclear programme, past experience suggests that problems and delays will mean that by 2025 carbon emissions are still rising and too much time has been wasted to start implementing alternative strategies. [3]

Professor Andrew Blowers of the Open University, and a member of the Government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) warns:

“[Nuclear power] would provide the illusion of a solution to the problems of global warming and energy security which required no fundamental changes in production or consumption. It is this business-as-usual aspect of nuclear that is its most insidious characteristic. … The danger is that by focusing on nuclear we refrain from recognizing the scale of the challenge we face and shirk our responsibility for dealing with it”. [4]

Nuclear Power - A Minimal Contribution

Carbon dioxide is emitted from the whole energy system, not just the electricity sector, so we also need to look at transport and how we supply our heat. Nuclear power can only supply electricity, so can only ever have a small role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. [5] Globally nuclear power supplies about 15.8% of current electricity generation, which is only 2.5% of final energy consumption. [6]

In the United Kingdom nuclear power provides around 20% of electricity, but only about 8% of total energy. If you allow for losses at the power station, nuclear power’s current contribution to the UK’s final energy consumption is only 3.6 % (80 TWh/y out of a final consumption of about 2,250 TWh/y). [7]

It would be unwise, therefore, to focus exclusively on electricity, as the energy debate seems to have been doing, ignoring carbon emissions from heat and transport – we need to look at the problem of carbon emissions more holistically. For example, the UK Government’s aviation policy has given the industry permission to produce up to three times the volume of carbon emissions by 2030 than might be avoided by replacing the UK’s nuclear power stations. A rethink of aviation policy would be a far more effective way to tackle climate change. [8]

Nuclear Power’s Contribution – Too Late

If the UK were to start the process of building new reactors soon, it would probably take until around 2020 before the first new reactor comes on stream. [9] Clare Spottiswoode, deputy chairman of British Energy says that, except for France and Finland, it is "highly unlikely" that any plants will be built in Britain or the rest of Europe before 2020. Europe is looking to the UK and will not undertake a new nuclear station until Britain does, she said. [10]

To tackle climate change the speed with which carbon abatement measures can be introduced is important. During the period when reactors are being constructed, capital is tied up and therefore unavailable for investing in alternative carbon abatement techniques. Because nuclear investments are also inherently slower to deploy, then such investments also retard carbon displacement. Spending on energy efficiency measures can be put into effect much more quickly. [11]

The UK Association for the Conservation of Energy, for example, says if one new nuclear reactor is operating by 2020, it could be delivering perhaps just over one million tonnes of carbon saving. In contrast energy efficiency "could save around 25 million tonnes of carbon through cost-effective energy efficiency measures" by that date. [12]

Similarly, decentralised energy can be installed quickly without needing complex regulatory processes. Despite moves around the globe to speed up regulatory approval of new reactors it is hard to imagine how the balance could ever shift in favour of nuclear power. New reactors take a long time to build, are delay-prone, complex, and contentious technology, and one single major accident or terrorist attack could scuttle nuclear stations virtually everywhere.

By the time we reach 2025 it will become increasingly difficult to achieve the required 60% plus cut in carbon emissions, and it will require huge additional investment. Unless we have made significant progress by then, the chances of meeting the required targets must be very slender indeed. [13]

Uranium Resources

Most authorities agree that currently known conventional uranium resources are sufficient to last around 75-100 years at current levels of nuclear capacity. New uranium deposits will almost certainly be found, and higher prices will stimulate more exploration. But we don’t know what the quality of those uranium deposits will be. It is surely likely that the highest quality deposits would be the ones easiest to find, so the chances of finding more high-grade ores must be slim. As the richest ores of uranium are extracted, and the industry turns to poorer and poorer grades, emissions of carbon dioxide from the nuclear life cycle will climb. Today the average ore grade used by the industry is 0.15% - 1.5 grams of uranium oxide to 1kg of rock. At ore grades of between 0.01 and 0.02%, carbon emissions from nuclear power approach those of a gas-fired station. [14] The claim that nuclear power is a low carbon energy source may, therefore, turn out not to be incorrect. Given the implications of this for the effectiveness of a nuclear expansion in tackling climate change there should certainly be an independent review of carbon emissions from the nuclear life cycle.

Scarce Resources

Many advocates of nuclear power say that, because climate change is serious we need to promote renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear power. This suggests we have infinite sources of finance to spend on energy projects, which is obviously nonsense. Because we have scarce resources, and because of the seriousness of climate change, we need to maximize carbon reductions for every dollar spent. Investing in expensive nuclear power is just about the worst thing we can do – energy efficiency can be up to seven times more cost effective than nuclear power. So investment in new reactors will, in effect, worsen climate change because each dollar we spend is buying less solution than it would do if we were to spend it on energy efficiency measures. [15]

Nuclear Power and Sustainable Development

As well as spending our scarce resources as effectively as possible, we also need to ensure that our spending decisions do not impact negatively on other carbon abatement solutions. In other words, we need to make sure that building new nuclear stations does not impact negatively on carbon emissions from the energy system, which provides the other 97.5% of final energy consumption, and on moves towards making that more sustainable with lower carbon emissions. [16]

The UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) points out that, even with a doubling of UK nuclear capacity, cuts in carbon emissions of at least 50% would still be needed from other measures if the UK is to meet its climate targets for 2050. [17] So it is important that our capacity to implement other carbon abatement measures is not damaged by a decision to go ahead with the construction of new reactors. Warwick Business School (UK) (WBS) argues that, far from complementing the necessary shift to a low carbon economy, the scale of the financial and institutional arrangements needed for a new reactor programme would fatally undermine it.

The SDC says a new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers and businesses, implying that a major technological fix is all that’s required, weakening the urgent action needed on energy efficiency. The Commission says a decision to proceed with a new reactor programme will require “a substantial slice of political leadership … political attention would shift, and in all likelihood undermine efforts to pursue a strategy based on energy efficiency, renewables and more CHP.” [18] Sir Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Commission, says nuclear power is seriously diverting attention from the hard decisions required to solve the UK's energy challenges. [19]

Even the Environment Agency warns that a decision to proceed with new reactors could seriously undermine the development of a low carbon energy system because resources are drained away. [20] If reactor construction fails to result in the replacement of existing capacity because of construction delays or public opposition, we could end up in a worse position than we are today.

The Finnish Experience

The undermining of alternative low carbon energy strategies by a decision to go nuclear appears to be exactly what is happening in Finland. After falling in 2001 and 2002, Finland’s carbon emissions are now rising. Measures, promised in a 2001 climate report, have not been implemented, for example, energy taxation. [21] According to Finland's former environment minister, Satu Hassi MEP, once the decision was made to build the fifth reactor, the country lost interest in alternative energy sources. [22]

The International Energy Agency highlights the risk to Finland of relying on carbon dioxide reductions coming from the operation of the new reactor. It says this may inhibit Finland’s ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets under Kyoto, if the operation of the plant is in any way delayed. [23] In fact construction of Olkiluoto 3 has now fallen eighteen months behind schedule. [24] Its original target date for completion was 2009, so there is a danger that it will not be available in time to contribute to meeting Finland’s Kyoto target.

Conclusion

Nuclear power will at best make only a minimal contribution to tackling climate change. In fact, because the money spent on new reactors could be much more effectively spent on other carbon abatement projects it will damage efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

It would not be possible to start bringing new reactors on stream before about 2020, so there is a very real danger that any reductions in carbon emissions will be much too late, we need to start making reductions now if we are to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050.

Nuclear power currently only provides around 2.5% of final energy consumption, so we also have to plan low carbon ways of providing the other 97.5%. The problem with nuclear power is that it could fatally undermine efforts to do this.

Past experience, and current experience in Finland, suggests that new reactor programmes may even struggle to meet the carbon reductions expected of them. And in future carbon emissions from the nuclear life-cycle may climb to unacceptable levels. Clearly nuclear power is one of the worst, if not the worst way of tackling climate change.

References

  1. ^  Frank Barnaby and James Kemp (Eds), Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming, Oxford Research Group, March 2007.
  2. ^  Liam Reid, "Ireland Joins Campaign Against Use of Nuclear Energy", Irish Times, March 27, 2007. See also: IOL March 26, 2007
  3. ^  Gordon MacKerron, Chair of CoRWM, puts forward a worst-case scenario that following a commitment to nuclear new-build there is a sterilisation of non-nuclear investment but the nuclear programme itself stalls. Such a scenario is far from a remote chance - the last time a UK government committed to 10 nuclear stations (Margaret Thatcher's in 1979) only one station was built, Sizewell, and then only after 15 years. If that were to happen again, security of supply would substantially worsen in the 2010s. Gordon MacKerron, Who Puts Up The Cash?", Observer, December 4, 2005.
  4. ^  David Elliott (Ed), Nuclear or Not? Does Nuclear Power Have A Place in a Sustainable Energy Future? Palgrave, 2007.
  5. ^  Amory Lovins, Nuclear power: Economics and Climate Protection Potential, Rocky Mountain Institute, Updated January 6, 2006.
  6. ^  Key World Energy Statistics, IEA 2005
  7. ^  David Adam, "Nuclear Power Cannot Tackle Climate Change", Guardian, January 17, 2006
  8. ^  Stephen Hale, Obsession with Nuclear Power is Wrong for Britain, Mr Blair, Observer, July 9, 2006
  9. ^  Gordon Mackerron, "Nuclear Power and the Characteristics of ‘ordinariness’ – the Case of UK Energy Policy", Energy Policy 32, pp 1957-1965, 2004. http://www.nera.co.uk/Publication.asp?p_ID=2213&login=6923124
  10. ^  Platts Nuclear News Flashes, 30th November 2006
  11. ^  Amory Lovins, More Profit With Less Carbon, Scientific American, September 2005
  12. ^  Andrew Warren, Director of Association for the Conservation of Energy, Letter to the Guardian July, 13, 2006. See also Memorandum by the Association for the Conservation of Energy to the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, September 2005.
  13. ^  Fells et al., Cutting greenhouse gas emissions – a pragmatic view, The Chemical Engineer, July 2005 pp28-32 quoted in David Elliott (Ed), Nuclear or Not? Does nuclear power have a place in a sustainable energy future? Palgrave, 2007. (page xviii)
  14. ^  Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, Energy Security and Uranium Reserves Oxford Research Group, Secure Energy Factsheet 4, July 2006
  15. ^  Amory Lovins, More Profit with Less Carbon, Scientific American, September 2005
  16. ^  Catherine Mitchell and Bridget Woodman, New Nuclear Power: Implications For A Sustainable Energy System, Warwick Business School for Green Alliance, April 2005.
  17. ^  The role of nuclear power in a low carbon economy, UK Sustainable Development Commission, March 2006.
  18. ^  Is Nuclear the Answer?, Sustainable Development Commission, March 2006
  19. ^  Jonathon Porritt, "Nuclear is the Soft Solution to Tackling Climate Change", Guardian, July 5, 2006
  20. ^  Marie Woolf, "Don’t Rush to Nuclear Power Warns Blair’s Environment Advisor", Independent on Sunday, May 21, 2006.
  21. ^  Satu Hassi MEP, Finnish Environment Minister 1999 – 2002, Deciding on Nuclear, UK Parliamentary and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) Briefing, November 2005. See also Satu Hassi MEP How Kyoto was used as an argument and what happened afterwards, October 18, 2005.
  22. ^  Luke Harding, "Caught Between Global Warming and an Energy Crisis, Blair Looks North for Answers", Guardian, April 14 2006
  23. ^  International Energy Agency, Energy Policies of IEA Countries; Finland 2003 Review, IEA, 2004.
  24. ^  "Finland Nuclear Reactor Delayed Again", Associated Press, December 4, 2006