Nuclear power and climate protection

Page - July 14, 2010
Nuclear energy is a relatively minor industry with major problems. It covers just one sixteenth of the world's primary energy consumption, a share set to decline over the coming decades. The average age of operating commercial nuclear reactors is 23 years, so more power stations are being shut down than started.

Greenpeace Energy Revolution graphic

In 2008, world nuclear production fell by 2% compared to 2006, and the number of operating reactors as of January 2010 was 436, eight less than at the historical peak of 2002.

In terms of new power stations, the amount of nuclear capacity added annually between 2000 and 2009 was on average 2,500 MWe. This was six times less than wind power (14,500 MWe per annum between 2000 and 2009). In 2009, 37,466 MW of new wind power capacity was added globally to the grid, compared to only 1,068 MW of nuclear. This new wind capacity will generate as much electricity as 12 nuclear reactors; the last time the nuclear industry managed to add this amount of new capacity in a single year was in 1988.

Despite the rhetoric of a 'nuclear renaissance', the industry is struggling with a massive increase in costs and construction delays as well as safety and security problems linked to reactor operation, radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation.

A solution to climate protection?

The promise of nuclear energy to contribute to both climate protection and energy supply needs to be checked against reality. In the most recent Energy Technology Perspectives report published by the International Energy Agency , for example, its Blue Map scenario outlines a future energy mix which would halve global carbon emissions by the middle of this century. To reach this goal the IEA assumes a massive expansion of nuclear power between now and 2050, with installed capacity increasing four-fold and electricity generation reaching 9,857 TWh/year, compared to 2,608 TWh in 2007. In order to achieve this, the report says that 32 large reactors (1,000 MWe each) would have to be built every year from now until 2050. This would be unrealistic, expensive, hazardous and too late to make a difference. Even so, according to the IEA scenario, such a massive nuclear expansion would cut carbon emissions by less than 5%.

  • Unrealistic: Such a rapid growth is practically impossible given the technical limitations. This scale of development was achieved in the history of nuclear power for only two years at the peak of the state- driven boom of the mid-1980s. It is unlikely to be achieved again, not to mention maintained for 40 consecutive years. While 1984 and 1985 saw 31 GW of newly added nuclear capacity, the decade average was 17 GW each year. In the past ten years, less than three large reactors have been brought on line annually, and the current production capacity of the global nuclear industry cannot deliver more than an annual six units.
  • Hazardous: Massive expansion of nuclear energy would necessarily lead to a large increase in related hazards. These include the risk of serious reactor accidents, the growing stockpiles of deadly high level nuclear waste which will need to be safeguarded for thousands of years, and potential proliferation of both nuclear technologies and materials through diversion to military or terrorist use. The 1,400 large operating reactors in 2050 would generate an annual 35,000 tonnes of spent fuel (assuming they are light water reactors, the most common design for most new projects). This also means the production of 350,000 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough to build 35,000 crude nuclear weapons. Most of the expected electricity demand growth by 2050 will occur in non-OECD countries. This means that a large proportion of the new reactors would need to be built in those countries in order to have a global impact on emissions. At the moment, the list of countries with announced nuclear ambitions is long and worrying in terms of their political situation and stability, especially with the need to guarantee against the hazards of accidents and proliferation for many decades. The World Nuclear Association listed the Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries in February 2010. In Europe this included Italy, Albania, Serbia, Portugal, Norway, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Ireland and Turkey. In the Middle East and North Africa: Iran, Gulf states including UAE, Yemen, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. In central and southern Africa: Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Namibia. In South America: Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. In central and southern Asia: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Bangladesh. In South East Asia: Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Slow: Climate science says that we need to reach a peak of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 and reduce them by 20% by 2020. Even in developed countries with an established nuclear infrastructure it takes at least a decade from the decision to build a reactor to the delivery of its first electricity, and often much longer . This means that even if the world's governments decided to implement strong nuclear expansion now, only a few reactors would start generating electricity before 2020. The contribution from nuclear power towards reducing emissions would come too late to help.

Nuclear power block solutions

Even if the ambitious nuclear scenario is implemented, regardless of costs and hazards, the IEA concludes that the contribution of nuclear power to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector would be only 4.6% - less than 3% of the global overall reduction required.

There are other technologies that can deliver much larger emission reductions, and much faster . Their investment costs are lower and they do not create global security risks. Even the IEA finds that the combined potential of efficiency savings and renewable energy to cut emissions by 2050 is more than ten times larger than that of nuclear . The world has limited time, finance and industrial capacity to change our energy sector and achieve a large reduction in greenhouse emissions. Choosing the pathway of spending $10 trillion on nuclear development would be a fatally wrong decision. It would not save the climate but it would necessarily take resources away from solutions described in this report and at the same time create serious global security hazards. Therefore new nuclear reactors are a clearly dangerous obstacle to the protection of the climate.

Nuclear power in the Energy [R]evolution scenario

For the reasons explained above, the Energy [R]evolution scenario envisages a nuclear phase-out. Existing reactors would be closed at the end of their average operational lifetime of 35 years. We assume that no new construction is started and only two thirds of the reactors currently under construction will be finally put into operation.

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