Why pro-nuclear preaching undermines the case for climate action

With climate talks ongoing in Paris, we have another “plea” from various climate scientists for action. Most notably a claim by James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley (the gang of four as I will henceforth call them) for more nuclear power. Unfortunately, like many nuclear energy supporters they merely succeed in showing how naive and ill-informed they are regarding the topic. It does worry me when I hear such things from eminent climatologists, as it does suggest somewhat faulty logic on their part, something which we are fortunate no deniers have thought to point out.


Figure 1: Pro-nuclear arguments in Paris may well serve as a distraction

The gang of 4 call for 61 reactors per year for the next 35 years to replace fossil fuels for electricity generation and 115 to replace all fossil fuel consumption. They don’t define what a reactor is, but let’s assume 1 GW. By contrast, something I discussed in a prior post, the IAEA seem to be aiming for a more realistic target of 6.65 GW/yr, or perhaps 21 GW/yr if we ignore certain economic constraints. So this would imply that even the pro-nuclear IAEA believe that our gang’s numbers are off by a factor of between 9 and 6.

However there are many critics of the nuclear industry, notably the authors of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) who argue that if anything nuclear is now in a state of terminal decline and any form of growth is unlikely. They argue that the legacy issues, the fact that so many of the world’s nuclear plants are ageing and rapidly approaching retirement (and thus will need to be decommissioned), means that any new reactor construction will simply be eaten up replacing outdated equipment. And as I discussed in a recent post, the data seems to support the WNISR position rather than of the IAEA’s.


Figure 2: A sobering vision of nuclear’s future, if present trends continue [Source: WNISR, 2015]

In the UK for example, all but 1 of the country’s reactors will hit the end of their service lives within the next decade. While they may get a life extension, this will be a tricky affair and a sudden shutdown will be a constant threat, much how the Forth road bridge in Scotland was suddenly closed this week for the rest of the year, with barely a few hours notice. This is unfortunately an all to common threat when you operate anything beyond its natural service life.

So any new reactors in the UK, or indeed most western nations for that matter, will merely be replacements for plant already retired or shortly due for retirement. These legacy issues are why in recent years the rate of new reactor construction is lagging behind the rate at which reactors are retired, hence why the WNISR talks of the nuclear industry being caught in a downward death spiral.

By contrast renewables are growing at a rate of 550-590 TWh/yr, roughly equivalent to 69 GW’s at a 100% capacity factor. Note that this 550-595 TWh/yr figure accounts for the effect of low capacity factors on certain renewables. In terms of GW’s total growth for all renewables worldwide is closer to 134 GW’s electricity and 42 GW’s of heat. So renewables are already growing at the sort of rate they call for, although this is (as I will explain in a moment) not nearly fast enough.


Figure 3: The three main low-carbon technologies, note that “modern renewables” includes solar (PV & thermal), wind energy, geomthermal (direct only) and modern biomass (traditional biomass excluded) [Source: Author’s but based on IEA, REN and IAEA data, as outlined in a prior post]

Indeed promotion of nuclear energy, as recent events in the UK demonstrates, threatens to torpedo this high growth rate of renewables. Hence a focus on nuclear is probably counter productive and will likely have the opposite effect intended. Consider, that the UK government has now as a result of its pro-nuclear and anti-renewables stance just committed to a whole new fleet of gas fired power stations, while the renewables industry is talking about a complete halt to all work. This is why a number of pro-nuclear greens in the UK have had something of a road to Damascus moment recently and now oppose the building of Hinkley C.

Furthermore, the figures quoted earlier for nuclear from our gang of 4 seem to assume 100% capacity factors, and that we are only talking about baseload electricity. However only about 17% of global Total Final Energy Consumption is electricity (according to the IEA), and only a portion of that is baseload. While nuclear may have some advantage over certain types of renewables when it comes to baseload, for the remaining 90-85% of energy consumption we are faced with seasonal and daily fluctuations in demand as well as cycle efficiencies due to the need for energy conversion from one form to another.

Overcoming these factors means either building large energy storage systems, which given that renewables are much cheaper to install would kind of defeat the purpose of such a reactor building program. Alternatively, if you believe large scale energy storage is impossible, then massive overcapacity would be needed (as you need enough GW’s available to meet peak demand). Many of these reactors would have relatively short capacity factors (given that the load they are feeding isn’t on all of the time). Keep in mind that the average capacity factors for a peaking load power station is between to 25-40%, for a domestic boiler 10-20% or for cars under 10% (although electric vehicle chargers are likely to be a bit higher).


Figure 4: An infographic detailing the UK’s total final energy consumption (TFC) broken down into the three critical pathways of heat, electricity and transportation fuels [Source: Sheffield University, 2015]

Factoring in all of the above and suddenly the number of reactors for our nuclear only scenario balloons massively in size, well into the hundreds of GW’s per year. Far in excess of any fantasy nuclear energy project we could ever envisage building. This is why I’m sceptical of nuclear energy. Because once you do the maths you realise the numbers simply don’t add up. So it is very worrying that such eminent scientists seem not to have done this.

The fast reactor delusion….again!

Indeed, our gang of 4 double down by then going on to advocate fast reactors. If building this vast fleet is likely impossible with existing LWR and Gas Cooled reactors, how likely do you think a program centred on reactors with even more challenging operating conditions (higher operating temperatures, increased radiation bombardment, corrosive coolants) and less of a proven track record (e.g. capacity factors less than 10%) is likely to be?

Oh, plus you’ll be needing an attached reprocessing plant, traditionally the whitest of nuclear white elephants. This is why the bulk of the nuclear industry, save a few on the fringes, is focused on sticking with what we know for the time being.

Both the Harvard study by Bunn etal (2003) and the MIT study by Kazimi etal (2011) concluded that fast reactors would only be viable if energy costs became substantially more expensive, probably well beyond the point of economic viability. And as this article by Jim Green (2014) discusses, more recent analysis by both the UK and US governments have highlighted “significant technical risk” with Fast reactors (read, they may not work and we’ve no idea how much it would cost to try and find out).

Furthermore, there is a misconception that fast reactors are some sort of magically disintegration machine. That waste placed inside will somehow “burn up”. I’m sorry but Dr Hansen needs to go back and revise physics 101. While a tiny quantity of matter within a reactor is converted into energy, the vast bulk of the matter remains, and will still be intensely radioactive when it comes out (generally the advantage is that its half life will be much shorter).

The reality is that fast reactors would, in the best case scenario, mean swapping a modest reduction in HLW for a significant increase in the volumes of ILW and LLW. And all of this assumes that this largely unproven technology actually works….and that the public would be willing to pay the enormous costs and take all the risks associated, which I’m doubtful.


Figure 5: Inventory of nuclear waste resulting from the use of Fast Breeders [Source: UCSUSA.org 2011, based on DOE data]

In short, such nuclear fantasy delusions are very worrying as they threaten to undermine the case for climate action, as well as forcing us to question the credibility of some climate scientists. And such talk is likely to be simply used by those in power as a ploy to curb the growth in renewables. As events in the UK prove, it gives them the excuse to build more fossil fuel plants, throw a bone the way of the nuclear industry and then when they fail to deliver (as expected), they just keep the fossil fuel plants going and global warming be damned.

While nuclear may have some role in future, its likely to be minor and there’s not a lot that we can do about that. The bulk of any future cuts in carbon emissions will have to come from a combination of more renewables and greater energy conservation.


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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22 Responses to Why pro-nuclear preaching undermines the case for climate action

  1. Paul Baars says:

    Seems you are biased against nuclear. If you read your UCSUSA source well then you can read that they count the reprocessed fuel as waste because mined uranium is more expensive.
    Maybe true, but if the industry is to be made responsible for the costs of waste storage then reusing the reprocessed fuel will be cheaper.
    The waste repository will be much smaller and very little HLW will need to be stored.

    • daryan12 says:

      You obviously missed the line “While in principle this material could be re-enriched for use as reactor fuel, it is contaminated with undesirable uranium and plutonium isotopes, making it far more expensive and inconvenient than using mined uranium”

      This study is based on a number of DoE studies which, have generally concluded that re-processsing with Fast reactors is not only the most technically risky, but most expensive option for disposal of waste, 5 times more expensive than blending and deep geological storage.
      UK studies by the DECC & NNL have reached similar conclusions.

      Either way, my point is that if achieving such high targets with conventional nuclear is likely impossible, trying to do so with even more expensive again and technically unproven Fast reactors is simply resorting to fantasy of the sort you’d find in a Harry Potter novel.

      • Paul Baars says:

        The Canadians are reprocessing waste and use the recycled material in their CANDU reactors. The resulting waste is (after 500 years) less radioactive then the rocks where the uranium was mined from.
        Russia has the BN-600 and BN-800 fast reactors running on plutonium and in the future fission-fusion hybrids can burn waste too.
        I think WISE is a bad source for information, even on the front of their website there is an image “nuclear power – no thanks”. This is hardly a reliable and objective source of information.

      • daryan12 says:

        You accuse me of bias, yet you rely on pro-nuclear propaganda. The Russians in particular have a nasty habit of only reporting successes and not any failures. They tend not to mention the number of times their Fast reactors have leaked, nor have they given reliable information on performance (capacity factor to them seems to me it was turned on but not generating any power), nor their costs.

        Furthermore your dodging the question, if current nuclear energy tech cannot hope to stand still let alone expand, what makes you think new, untried, untested and altogether more expensive technology is going to be any better.

        The source in WISE quoted from various other sources, notably the DoE. I quoted from MIT, Harvard, the IAEA and the NNL, I suppose all of these are biased against nuclear too because they are saying stuff you don’t like the sound of?

      • Paul Baars says:

        I try not to be biassed and like my information from different sources. When I read something from WISE or Greenpeace then I try to find the same info from MIT or other scientific sources.
        While I am not a nuclear engineer I have a master in science and can make my own assessment.
        Greenpeace is often using scare tactics and information that is old or simply untrue. MIT and other universities may be too optimistic at times.

        I think we should use CANDU and fast reactors to burn the plutonium and nuclear waste, The only other option is storing HLW for more then 100.000 years. Sound like a real bad idea.

        Personally I hope that fusion-fission hybrids can be build soon, perhaps these will solve the energy crisis and the waste problem. I won’t hold my breath though.

      • daryan12 says:

        Unfortunately you seem to be prone to the opposite bias of Greenpeace. Indeed one of my gripes with them is their opposition to deep geological burial of the waste we already have. Every study I have seen, including the aforementioned ones from MIT, Harvard, the BGS have concluded that the safest, most technical feasible and cheapest way of getting rid of nuclear waste is burial. Indeed the WISE piece you ignored for “being biased” referenced several studies which reach a similar. Scientific opinion I’m afraid doesn’t back you up (nor Greenpeace!) on this point.

        Also, your dodging the question, how can nuclear even hope to dent the levels of growth it would need to achieve to make any contribution to the fight against climate change? Existing tech isn’t up to the job, the legacy issues are killing the industry and switching to more expensive and less technically proven technology sounds like a recipe for disaster. While I’m not saying we shouldn’t build reactor, clearly the priority has to lie with renewables, given the high levels of growth they are showing. Much higher in fact than nuclear achieved during the peak of its boom in the 70’s.

      • Paul Baars says:

        About deep geological burial: I think we should use this for low level waste only. The rest of the waste should (in my opinion) be recycled, even if it is more expensive or inconvenient. Saving HLW is simply to dangerous.

        About dodging the question: the best answer I can come up with for the climate crisis is a mix of all options. We should use less energy and increase efficiency. Use the car less, use waste heat for heating houses. Close all coal plants asap. Place increasing tax on oil and other CO2 producing power plants. Extend the lives of nuclear plants as long as they are save, build new ones as fast as possible. Use solar and wind if possible but don’t let it lead to more CO2 like in Germany.
        Use the tax revenues to subsidise research for energy storage and new CO2 free reactor developments (nuclear, nuclear fusion).

      • daryan12 says:

        Again, the scientific literature is against you. While you may say want not waste not, the bean counters see excessive expenditure, the H&S lot see excessive risk, as an engineer I see excessive complication and the geologists say what part of buried under a mile of rock aren’t you understanding? Once-thro nuclear is far safer, cheaper and technically simple. It will only become an issue (in terms of nuclear fuel supplies) if nuclear energy were to expand significantly and remain in operation for an extended period (which seems unlikely given current trends).

        Your views on climate aren’t far from mine. However the problem is that the helicopter parenting governments often show to nuclear, means they will often suppress such measures as energy efficiency or small scale renewables or CHP in order to protect the wedge of power demand nuclear is meant to supply. The recent cuts by the tories, while lavishing massive subsidies on nuclear illustrates this very clearly. Similarly governments are deluded that they don’t need energy storage with nuclear (okay you and I or anyone who understands how energy grids work know’s otherwise, but they have convinced themselves of this).

        Taxing oil and CO2? Recently in the UK even a climate change denier attacked the government here for not raising petrol duty while oil prices are so low. Again, the issue is politics as governments often aren’t brave enough to make such decisions.

        Oh, and the evidence is that Germany’s CO2 emissions, are falling. As for fusion, that’s a long way off and I’m doubtful they’ll be any cheaper than existing nuclear reactors. Still worthwhile developing the technology, but we need to get away from this myth of fusion as being this holy grail that will magically solve everything.

    • Paul Baars says:

      The reason I do not like waste burial is that sooner or later it will inevitable come back to haunt us. It may be safe according to science now, but that only reflect our current view on these matters. Let me give an example.
      Russia dumped their nuclear subs in the Kara sea about 50 years ago, it was considered safe by then (by the Russians at least). Only to find out that these are a danger to the environment now and are in the way of oil drilling.
      What about storing HLW for 100,000 years? Who will now what was buried where? It is simply irresponsible to do.

      • daryan12 says:

        The word’s “Russia” and “nuclear safety” shouldn’t share the same sentence. The Russians also believed that sailors should take regular doses of vodka to sweat out the radiation. There’s a world of a difference between dumping stuff off the back of a ship and burying it deep underground. And I have to point out the irony, that you objected to “bias” information from anti-nuclear sources a few comments ago, yet you will now swallow verbatim anything coming out of Bellona or Greenpeace when it happens to support your argument.

        And of course there’s a further irony, in that the only government who is anyway taking fast reactors seriously are the Russians. Of course the critics argue that Russia has a nasty habit of only reporting successes and not reporting bad news…or indeed just making stuff up! So you’ll believe stories anti-Russian stories from Greenpeace when it suits you…then swallow whole the latest press release from the Russians regarding their progress with fast reactors!?!

        Finally, you seem to be ignoring a fatal flaw in your argument. No Fast reactor and reprocessing system will render all HLW inert, some significant quantity will still be produced and will need to be buried. Now if burial is not an option, as you argue, then surely we need to halt all nuclear activity at once to stop the waste mountain growing any larger?

      • Paul Baars says:

        >The reason I do not like waste burial is that sooner or later it will inevitable come back to haunt us.

        This news article is a good example of what I said before:

        In my opinion we should collect all high level nuclear waste that we buried/dumped over time. Then reprocess it so it has the same level of radiation as the waste of a Candu reactor. Now it can be stored for 100 years in a temporary disposal facilities above ground so it can be monitored. After this time the radiation is so low it can be buried safely.

        Money is not the issue here, reprocessing is relatively cheap. We should simply take our responsibility for future generations.
        I simply cannot understand why the nuclear industry does not recognise the fact that a good solution for the waste issue is a prerequisite for the acceptance of nuclear power.

    • Paul Baars says:

      My conclusions are simply different from yours.

      >anything coming out of Bellona or Greenpeace when it happens to support your argument.
      The dumping of Russian subs and their cleanup can be found on lots of good sources.

      >only government who is anyway taking fast reactors seriously are the Russians.
      This is absolutely untrue. Use google.

      >No Fast reactor and reprocessing system will render all HLW inert, some significant quantity will still be produced and will need to be buried.
      MIT does not agree with you, see: https://mitei.mit.edu/system/files/The_Nuclear_Fuel_Cycle-6.pdf

      I think we should agree to disagree on the nuclear waste issue.

      • daryan12 says:

        The MIT report you quote presents various “what if” scenario’s it does not attempt to argue whether or not any are technically possible (or economically sensible). Indeed it even discussed the implications for long term storage (i.e. that some level of storage will still be necessary, even in the best case scenario).

        Currently the only country in the world building (and operating) one or more large scale Fast reactors are the Russians in Beloyarsk. All other projects are significantly smaller in scale, are paper projects (that only exist on powerpoint slides) or both.
        …of course the critics would argue this is because the Russians don’t have a free press, nor a bunch of bean counters in Parliament asking awkward questions….

  2. neilrieck says:

    With all due respect to the gang of four whom I respect as climate scientists, having them make a case for nuclear is as naive as me encroaching onto their turf. While I must admit that I have always been pro-nuke, I must also admit that this technology has never been as cheap as originally promised by anyone anywhere. Reactors are expensive to build, commission, operate, and decommission. On top of that, requiring 4-7 years to build and commission means a lot of up-front money must be put into place with no ROI (return on investment). Contrast this to the complementary renewable technologies of wind and solar which can be returning profits to their investors in as little as three months. IMHO the people now hanging their hopes on COP21 seem to forget that the free world is based upon capitalism so it makes no sense whatsoever to make carbon more expensive. There is an idiom in engineering which states “If you can’t raise the bridge then you must lower the river”. Applying this to fossil fuels: the G20 governments must agree to immediately eliminate all subsidies to all fossil fuel businesses. Governments must then agree to openly subsidize “the development of” renewable energy technologies. Once renewable energy technologies are able to produce energy at a lower cost than fossil fuels, the CO2 problem will take care of itself.

    • daryan12 says:

      Yes of course we need to acknowledge he’s not an engineer. He’s probably been sold the usual alt-nuclear myths about magical reactors that cost nothing and eat waste….but which oddly enough the mainstream nuclear industry has avoided building because they are afraid of Greenpeace or something. Smart people still get taken in by used car salesmen. Even so such talk does worry me, sooner or later its going to come back to bite them.

      As for nuclear, I don’t completely take it off the table, but I do recognise what it can and can’t do, particularly given present circumstances and economics. Plus the fact that pro-nuclear governments have a tendency to act as helicopter parents, sweeping any and all obstacles out of the way of their darling (such as renewables and energy efficiency measures), even if this proves to be counter productive in the longer term.

      • pendantry says:

        Though I do acknowledge I may be as prone to confirmation bias as the next human (not being a nuclear physicist ‘n’ all) the only circumstance in which I’d be happy ‘leaving nuclear on the table’ would be if it were possible to guarantee that the taxpayer doesn’t foot the bill when it all goes tits-up. Which it clearly isn’t.

        PS @neilreick well said!

  3. stan says:

    CHP would be a better idea for the winter months .Gas powered heat pumps might be a good idea

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