The advantages of nuclear

We should be focusing our efforts on renewables and energy efficiency to close the energy gap and mitigate dependence on fossil fuels.

It is a pleasant suggestion and as such is great for use in the sound-bite media. It only works if one accepts an underlying straw man that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, there is no real reason to not expect that we will see increasing use of nuclear and renewable electricity together in the future. Both the World Nuclear Association and the British Wind Energy Association have said as much.

It is also important to recognise the reality that popular renewables such as wind and solar are not sufficiently developed to contribute as large a fraction as nuclear is capable of doing for short to medium term. According to the recent IEA report, Key World Energy Statistics 2006 (2MB pdf), nuclear energy accounts for 6.5% of supply worldwide. Conversely, it lists a category labelled “other” which accounts for a mere 0.4%. This other not only includes solar and wind, but also geothermal as well. To even begin to match the nuclear contribution, would require a 15 fold expansion, even ignoring the fact that geothermal likely accounts for a significant fraction of that 0.4%. Clearly, there is a long way to go before these renewables can substitute significantly for either nuclear or fossil fuels.

If the argument is followed to its logical conclusion, or at least the conclusion implied by many of its proponents, no further nuclear development will be allowed on the basis that this “other” category is the preferred choice.

However, this means that the nuclear sector will be allowed to decay and before renewables can start substituting for fossil fuels, they must first replace nuclear. Even if they did so, several decades-worth of effort will have done nothing to achieve the original objective. Moreover, the importance of nuclear power presently means that it is more likely that renewables will not succeed in filling the void a nuclear phase-out will leave, and the end result will be an increase in the use of fossil fuels, proportionally as well as in real terms.

As far as energy efficiency is concerned, it is a form of energy as much as dieting of agriculture. While it is possible to mitigate the growth in energy consumption through energy efficiency methods, it still leaves the issue of deciding the mix of sources to supply the energy we do consume. If it is argued that energy efficiency can reduce consumption in real terms leading to an elimination of the need for nuclear (and the IEA forecasts go against this), then it could be equally argued that if the nuclear sector was maintained or expanded, the energy savings could be transferred to reduced dependence on fossil fuels, which is, after all, the objective.

Considered realistically, ruling out nuclear because renewables and energy efficiency are preferred, will in reality be counterproductive to substituting for fossil fuels. The concept is driven more by wishful thinking. It is a slogan, not a coherent energy policy.

Renewable technology may be immature at the moment, but give it time and the problems of intermittency and diffuseness will be solved and nuclear will no longer be required.

The long term future is anyone’s guess but the short to medium term, this is more wishful thinking. There is ultimately a limit to how much power can be extracted from, say, a square metre of solar panel; that being the power incident upon it in the first place. The solar constant is about 1.3kW.m-2, which means that to generate 1GWe, assuming 100% efficiency, which would violate the laws of Physics anyway, 770,000m2 would be required. This also ignores the effect of night, which is also immutable. Currently, a 1GW nuclear or coal-fired power station would occupy a mere 100,000m2. This is an example of how even the greatest technological improvements would have their limits.

From a rhetorical standpoint, this argument is also a double standard because the same luxury of time to advance is not afforded to nuclear power. For example, fast reactor technology and accelerator driven systems can significantly reduce the amount of high level waste produced from the nuclear fuel cycle. Though because these technologies are not mature today, nuclear opponents, including those who insist we give renewables time to develop, say this means that nuclear is unacceptable.

Supporting nuclear would simply crowd out renewables.

The implication, most likely unintended, is that nuclear power is more favourable for an energy supplier than renewables. After all, if the two were on a level playing field, and renewables were competitive against nuclear, then they should survive on their own merit. If renewables do have no economic merit, then what worth is there is investing in them?

If, as often happens, global warming is offered as an answer, a reason to accept a seemingly uneconomic alternative, then it too must apply to nuclear, which is also does not emit greenhouse gases. Incidentally, the same people who frequently insist that renewables need to be adopted, regardless of the cost, are often overcome by fiscal conservatism when confronted with nuclear, saying that it is too expensive; a rather selective display of economic concern.

Of course, if renewables do have economic merit, then their advocates have nothing to fear from investment in nuclear power.

Nuclear power represents centralised generation of electricity, whereas we should be shifting to local generation with renewables.

This argument is more philosophical than technical and it might work if there was any sign that the Amory Lovins philosophy was actually being adopted. But rather than the utopian although somewhat naive notion of every building being powered by a windmill and a PV cell on the roof, most renewable development is happening in the form of large wind farms in remote areas and increasingly offshore. Not only does this contradict the decentralised philosophy (unless the large land areas required for a given amount of energy count as decentralisation), but it does not even enjoy the luxury of being built near population centres where the energy is required. Wind by its nature is built in sparsely populated rural areas or off the coast.

Could not advanced fossil fuel technologies such as clean coal be used alongside renewables to solve all the problems without nuclear?

It all depends on how determined you are to solve those problems. Global warming, in particular, will not be mitigated through the use of clean coal. What makes it clean is that is emits signficantly reduced pollution (sulphur, particulates, heavy metals, etc) not necessarily carbon dioxide. It all rather depends on how urgent the problem of global warming is considered to be. Many prominent voices spare no expense in raising alarm over it with calls from dramatic and drastic actions. Paradoxically, they are often also the most stridently anti-nuclear.

If global warming is considered most urgent, then it is rather contradictory for them to back away from their alarmist rhetoric and suggest that softer, more incremental approaches such as clean coal and IGCC are a solution.