A Dose of Reality for Those Greens Going Nuclear

‘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
‘ (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’).

Go there >>

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2004, commissioned by the
Greens-EFA in the European Parliament, Brussels, December

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.