Combating global warming with nuclear energy is wishful thinking
'There's only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power,' write Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss in ' Nuclear Now! How clean, green atomic energy can stop global warming' (Wired, February 2005). For the record: In 2003, the wind power industry alone generated over 8,000 megawatts (MW) worldwide for a turnover of 8 billion euros ($10.5 billion), 12 times the capacity added by the nuclear industry to the power grids in the world that year. But that's anecdotal. The point is, beyond issues of belief and wishful thinking, independently of your opinion on nuclear power as such, nuclear reactors will not be able to make a major difference on climate change in the future because nobody orders them. And even if they were ordered, they would come in too late. We need solutions now! And as long as available energy-efficiency measures remain 4 to 7 times cheaper than nuclear power -- in fact cheaper than most of the low carbon energy generating technologies -- we should not remain stuck in a theological debate about nuclear power.
In reality, the nuclear industry is not even in a position to maintain the number of operating plants in the world. As we have shown in a recent report, the average age of the operating power plants is 21 years. We have assumed an average lifetime of 40 years for all operating reactors. Considering the fact that the average age of all 108 units that already have been closed is equally about 21 years, the doubling of the operational lifetime seems rather optimistic. The exercise enables an evaluation of the number of plants that would have to come on-line over the next decades in order to maintain the same number of operating plants. Roughly 80 reactors would have to be planned, built, and started up over the next ten years -- one every month and a half -- and an additional 200 units over the following 10-year period -- one every 18 days. Even if Finland and France build a European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) and China went for an additional 20 plants and Japan, Korea, or Eastern Europe added one plant, the overall trend will be downwards. With extremely long lead times of 10 years and more -- the last unit to come online in the US took 23 years to build -- it is practically impossible to maintain or even increase the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, unless operating lifetimes could be substantially increased beyond 40 years on average, simultaneously raising significant safety issues. There is currently no basis for such an assumption. In fact, the Lithuanian reactor Ignalina-1, that was shut down on 31 December 2004, remains exactly on world average at age 21.
The relevance of nuclear power for the supply of commercial primary energy to the world is marginal with about 6% -- tendency already downward. If you look at the share of final energy, that is the portion available for end-use after the losses in transformation and transport, nuclear power provides between 2% and 3% of the total.
Nuclear power is most likely on its way out. And it does not make a difference whether you like it or not.
Mycle Schneider is an international consultant on energy and nuclear policy and has worked for a broad range of clients ranging from the International Atomic Energy Agency to Greenpeace International, including three governments, numerous MPs, and the European Commission. He is a 1997 laureate of the Right Livelihood Award ('Alternative Nobel Prize').
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