Myth VII – We can’t build Renewables fast enough only nuclear power plants can be built quickly enough to prevent climate change

This is another statement that is simply divorced from any semblance of reality. Currently new reactor construction globally is outpaced by the rate at which old reactors are turned off (average reactor age worldwide is 25 years with many in the West even older still).

The maximum nuclear reactor building peaked in the late 1970/ early 1980’s at a rate of about 30 GW per year. Assuming we deduct 5% of that to account for the legacy issue (strictly speaking we should deduct closer to 30%) and we assume a capacity factor of 90% this gives us a figure of 230 Billion kWh/yr of new generating capacity added each year of that decade.

Would that help offset dangerous climate change? no! Fossil fuel consumption represents 5,600 mtoe of TFC (from IEA data) and converting this into kWh/yr (roughly 71 trillion kWh/yr) and assuming we want to cut this by the 3% Doug Hansen is always calling for would imply a need for 2,130 Billion kWh/yr, of which nuclear energy (again assuming its maximum historical build rate) can provide a merely 11% of what’s required. A drop in the ocean. I discuss in a similar vein why nuclear cannot be a substitute for peak oil either here.

But for the record, could we sustain this 30 GW/yr of new nuclear reactor (that was then, and this is now) construction today?

Probably not! back in the 70’s nuclear reactors were lavishly funded affairs that were considered top national priority, an integral part of the cold war strategy of many nations. Important issues such as the costs or economics of nuclear power were largely ignored, as were other issues such as the final dismantling of reactors and the disposal of waste. The safety issue was also either ignored or not entirely understood. Any public opposition was also disregarded.

This is not 1979 or 1986. Modern reactors, while safer, are alot larger and more complex, inevitably slowing down the build rate. The flagship of the world nuclear fleet in Finland Olkiluoto 3 is way behind schedule, as is the Flamanville reactor in France.

Also the large scale contraction of the industry since the 80’s means that only a handful of engineering firms worldwide have the capability to build nuclear pressure vessels and other critical parts, creating a bottleneck in potential nuclear output. Indeed, by way of example, about 60-80% of the reactor cores worldwide come from one JSW (Japanese Steel Works) forge on Hokkaido. They can currently build 4 reactors per year, though they plan to raise this to 8 cores per year. that would imply a maximum build rate of reactors of 10-12 per year worldwide. That would give us a window of about 12-16 GW/yr to play with (of course we’re assuming with this calculation that this is the only bottle neck in the system, yet the experience from Olkiluoto suggests otherwise!).

All those old reactors will soon need decommissioning (again average age of 25). So even to stand still, most of any construction capacity will have to be diverted in that direction and used to build replacement plants, as well as service the decommissioning needs. Then there are other practical factors. Training for example of nuclear engineers to run these new plants, many of their colleagues are close to retirement age and probably would need retraining anyway to use the new reactors, so we need to train up an entire army of new nuclear engineers just to stand still. I’m not convinced that this can be done quickly enough.

Consequently I would argue, particular once we consider economic factors (see myth IV) we’d now struggle to match even half of that 30 GW/yr construction rate (so say around 15 GW/yr a little less that the top of the 12-16 GW/yr range I gave earlier), and most of that would have to be diverted towards replacing older power plants rather than adding new capacity.

And the danger of some “crash” nuclear building program is that corners will again be cut. A major contributory factor to the Chernobyl accident was the Soviet Union’s ambitious schedule, as mandated by Moscow in the various five-year plans (which were usually divorced from any sense of reality). As the Soviet reactor building program had outrun their ability to train graduates only a handful of people on site were properly qualified nuclear engineers. Indeed only one such person was on duty on the faithful night in the Reactor number 3 control room, and he was a recent graduate (more info on that here). Also the plant was brought into commercial operation early, before being properly tested and certified. This was done in order to keep “within plan” (i.e the five-year plan). Consequently the engineers were still ticking off boxes and effectively commissioning the operational plant a year later. This led to the decision to try to use a planned annual maintenance shutdown to run a safety test, something which also played a key role in the accident.

By contrast in 2009 some 80 GW of new renewable energy capacity and 9 billion litres of new biofuels production capacity were added to the global energy grid. This works out at roughly 420 Billion kWh/yr of new energy production (this figure accounts for the intermittency prevalent in certain renewable systems), a little less than double the maximum ever global build rate of nuclear reactors and in all probability triple or quadruple a more realistic nuclear reactor build rate once we consider real world factors.

The 2012 report by REN indicates that the construction rate has risen to 97 GW’s per year with a total of 5,360 GW’s of installed capacity worldwide. And of course we can probably build renewables a lot faster than this 80 GW figure with the right economic incentives. I discuss the pro’s and con’s of that here.

Of course if we stop building reactors, or begin a massive nuclear phase out program (as proposed by some environmentalists), this will put a much larger burden on renewables to keep pace with, and it is questionable whether we can add renewable energy fast enough to cope with the consequences peak oil or the needs to prevent dangerous climate change. However, this is a discussion for another day. The fact is that if speed is the issue then diverting resources from renewables roll out to nuclear energy would be ill advised.


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in clean energy, economics, energy, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Myth VII – We can’t build Renewables fast enough only nuclear power plants can be built quickly enough to prevent climate change

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  6. I see the 80 GW broken down by type (31 GW Hydro, 38 GW Wind, 7 GW Solar, 4 GW other), but it would be interesting to see it broken down by country. China is putting in windmills, but they’re also putting in a new coal plant every week.
    The NY Times was reporting that China still is mostly focused on cheap energy, not green energy.
    ( )

    Hydro is the best, but a country eventually runs out of viable water ways.

    The 38 GW of wind is very interesting. Wind will have a similar problem as countries tap out the most suitable wind regions.

    Renewable is defintely important, but nuclear is still very interesting because fission doesn’t emit CO2, and a single nuclear plant produces a tremendous amount of electricity. In 2009, the average U.S. nuclear plant generated 12 billion kWh. And Nuclear is a reliable base load, whereas wind may only get 25% generation from capacity.

    I wouldn’t give up on Nuclear yet. When I look at the numbers, it seems that we could produce more CO2-free energy from nuclear than from wind, do it faster, cheaper, and to larger scale.

    • daryan12 says:

      I’m not necessarily given up on nuclear yet either. I’m merely making the point that if speed is your priority, then Nuclear is not the answer, it just takes sooooo long to build these plants. By contrast Renewables, with the right mass production facilities, we can run wind and PV off “like sausages”.

      Yes, before you point it out, renewables have their limitations, for example I hear Germany as I write this has decided to phase out of Nuclear. Can they close the energy gap without nuclear? I ask the question because I honestly don’t know the answer.

      One thing I will say is that if nuclear is to have any future it has to be for the right reasons, not silly made up reasons, such as “they can be built faster than renewables”. Such arguments will inevitably fail in the long term, when the nuclear industry gets “found out” by the public.

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