The world really could go nuclear, but it won’t be cheap

November 2017

Nuclear plants have become very expensive. Two new advanced nuclear plants currently being built in the United States today are planned to cost $7,000 per kilowatt hour, far more expensive than a new gas plant, for example. We wouldn’t even think of spending so much but for the fact that we have an earth-threatening crisis looming.

In just two decades Sweden went from burning oil for generating electricity to fissioning uranium. And if the world as a whole were to follow that example, all fossil fuel–fired power plants could be replaced with nuclear facilities in a little over 30 years.

That’s the conclusion of a new nuclear grand plan published May 13, 2017, in PLoS One. Such a switch would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nearly achieving much-ballyhooed global goals to combat climate change. Even swelling electricity demands, concentrated in developing nations, could be met. All that’s missing is the wealth, will and wherewithal to build hundreds of fission-based reactors, largely due to concerns about safety and cost.

“If we are serious about tackling emissions and climate change, no climate-neutral source should be ignored,” argues Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University, who led the effort to develop this nuclear plan. “The mantra ‘nuclear can’t be done quickly enough to tackle climate change’ is one of the most pervasive in the debate today and mostly just taken as true, while the data prove the exact opposite.”

The data Qvist and his co-author Barry Brook, an ecologist and computer modeler at the University of Tasmania, relied on data from two countries in Europe: Sweden and France. The Swedes began research to build nuclear reactors in 1962 in a bid to wean the country off burning oil for power as well as to protect rivers from hydroelectric dams. By 1972, the first boiling water reactor at Oskarshamn began to host fission and churn out electricity. The cost was roughly $1,400 per kilowatt of electric capacity (in 2005 dollars), which is cheap compared to the $7,000 per kilowatt of electric capacity of the two advanced nuclear reactors being built in the U.S. right now. By 1986, with the addition of 11 more reactors, half of Sweden’s electricity came from nuclear power and carbon dioxide emissions per Swede had dropped by 75 percent compared to the peak in 1970.

France, a larger nation, has a similar nuclear tale to tell, weaning itself from imported fossil fuels by building 59 nuclear reactors in the 1970s and 1980s that produce roughly 80 percent of the nation’s electricity needs today.

All that would be required for the Chinas, Indias and U.S.s of the world to emulate these two nuclear pioneers is “political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance,” Qvist and Brook write. For example, nations would need to commit to a single design for reactors, as occurred in France and Sweden, as well as mandates requiring utilities to build said reactors and financial support for the construction from the national government. “The state reacted to a crisis, at that time the oil prices, and implemented a plan, which quickly in 15 years had solved the problem,” Qvist says. “Analogies could be drawn to the crisis we have today: climate change.”

Based on numbers pulled by the research team from the experience of Sweden and France and scaled up to the globe, a best-case scenario for conversion to 100 percent nuclear power could enable the world to stop burning fossil fuels and start fissioning uranium for electricity within 34 years.

Requirements for this shift of course would include expanded uranium mining and processing, a build-out of the electric grid as well as a commitment to develop and build fast reactors—nuclear technology that operates with faster neutrons and therefore can handle radioactive waste, such as plutonium, for fuel as well as create its own future fuel. “No other carbon-neutral electricity source has been expanded anywhere near as fast as nuclear,” Qvist says.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does expect nuclear power to expand worldwide by 2030 as more reactors are built in Asia and the Middle East—and use of nuclear could grow as much as 68 percent by then if all proposed reactors were built. But the nuclear outlook is not as bright as it could be. The world’s largest nuclear fleet—the U.S.’s 99 reactors—does produce more than 60 percent of the nation’s CO2-lite electricity, even with the rapid growth of renewables.

In fact, the Obama administration’s new Clean Power Plan relied on existing reactors to help states meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. But the U.S. fleet is shrinking, not growing, despite four new reactors currently under construction, as nuclear power cannot compete in some states with the cost of electricity generated from cheap natural gas and cheap wind power.

Japan continues to struggle to turn its nuclear reactors back on in the wake of the meltdowns at Fukushima. Germany is moving in the opposite direction of a grand nuclear plan—preparing to phase out its fleet. On top of that, Finland and France have stumbled in bids to complete new, fail-safe nuclear reactors, projects with construction schedules and costs that have ballooned.

In China, the nation currently erecting the most new and technologically diverse nuclear power plants, the fission-based expansion is dwarfed more than 10 to one by the country’s count of coal-fired power plants. And Russia runs the world’s only operating fast reactors—the BN-600 and BN-800—but, like General Electric before it, has found a limited market for the technology globally, in part due to concerns about the potential to create the ingredients for yet more nuclear weapons.

Even role model Sweden is mulling over retiring its reactors, having already shut down the two at Barseback early. As a result, an additional hundreds of millions of metric tons of CO2 are being dumped into Earth’s atmosphere, as more fossil fuels are burned to replace that lost nuclear power. France has similarly passed legislation to shift away from its reliance on nuclear power in favor of renewables. Even the IAEA projects that nuclear reliance will shrink in Europe overall over the next few decades.

These factors suggest that while a worldwide effort to follow Sweden’s nuclear example is possible—it’s not probable. “As long as people, nations, put fear of nuclear accidents above fear of climate change, those trends are unlikely to change,” Brook adds. But “no renewable energy technology or energy efficiency approach has ever been implemented on a scale or pace required.”

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