Energy

Want to solve climate problem? Nuclear isn't the answer

Alternatives to nuclear energy, in particular renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar energy, have become drastically cheaper.

 
By M V Ramana
Last Updated: Monday 10 December 2018
India and China are often considered the poster children for nuclear energy growth—and even there the picture is quite dismal. Credit: Getty Images
India and China are often considered the poster children for nuclear energy growth—and even there the picture is quite dismal. Credit: Getty Images India and China are often considered the poster children for nuclear energy growth—and even there the picture is quite dismal. Credit: Getty Images

“It is nuclear power that will be the main tool to reduce emissions” said Poland’s Minister of Energy, Krzysztof Tchórzewski, in keynote remarks at a meeting during the 24th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24) being held in Katowice, Poland. There is more than a little irony in that statement.

To start with, Poland, which is invested heavily in coal, has no nuclear power plants; its current plans call for starting nuclear power generation in 2030. That projection has to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. In 2002, even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose official objective is “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”, concluded that nuclear power in Poland was not viable because of “insufficient economic competitiveness of nuclear plants, availability of cheaper alternatives and the absence of environmental motivation”.

The second irony was that Tchórzewski was speaking at an event organised by an initiative called Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future, that was set up in May 2018 by the country that is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the United States of America. The United States, under the Trump administration, has been engaged in the perverse pursuit of various efforts that will result in increased emissions. Such an administration touting nuclear power suggests a basis for scepticism about nuclear energy being a tool to reduce emissions. 

The final, and the most important, irony is that nuclear energy is fading in importance globally. The peak in nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation was 17.5 percent in 1996. Since then this fraction has steadily declined, reaching 10.3 percent in 2017. For a variety of reasons, the downward trend is expected to continue.

Although nuclear energy’s share of electricity generation has been continuously declining, expectations for how nuclear energy will fare in the future went up in the first decade of this millennium, thanks to propaganda from nuclear advocates about an impending nuclear renaissance. That supposed resurgence came to a crashing halt after multiple devastating accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan that started in 2011, which reminded the world about the hazardous technology involved in the generation of nuclear power. Even the IAEA’s average projections for nuclear power for the year 2050 have decreased from 1,002 gigawatts (GW) as laid out in 2010 to 552 GW in its 2018 publication.

This decline reflects the corresponding declines in future projections of nuclear power in many individual countries as exemplified by India and China. In 2010, the secretary of India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) announced a target of 35 GW by 2020. The DAE is nowhere near that target and, as of December 2018, the current capacity is only 6.8 GW. If all the currently under-construction plants are ready in time, the total installed capacity will reach 13.5 GW by 2024-25, a far cry from earlier projections.

In China, the country constructing the largest number of nuclear plants, the official target as of 2010 was 70 GW by 2020, and the expectation was that “reaching 70GW before 2020 will not be a big problem”. That proved not to be the case and China’s current target for 2020 is only 58 GW and it is unlikely to meet that target.

India and China are often considered the poster children for nuclear energy growth—and even there the picture is quite dismal. The outlook in other countries is worse. Operating nuclear capacity in the two countries with the largest deployments of nuclear power plants, the United States and France, is expected to decline.

What is behind this trend? Fukushima is only a minor part of the story. The primary reason is that nuclear power is no longer financially viable. Because they are hugely expensive, it has been known for a while that building new nuclear power plants makes little economic sense. What has changed in the last decade is that it is not just constructing new reactors, but just operating one, even one that is old and has its capital costs paid off, that has ceased to make economic sense.

This is because alternatives to nuclear energy, in particular renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar energy, have become drastically cheaper. In contrast, just about every nuclear plant that was constructed in the last decade has proven more expensive than initially projected.

This economic reality adds to the other well-known problems associated with nuclear energy—the absence of any demonstrated solutions to managing radioactive waste in the long run, the linkage with nuclear weapons, and the potential for catastrophic accidents. The bottom line is that nuclear power cannot be a tool to decrease emissions. If we want to solve the climate problem, we will have to look elsewhere.

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