Nuclear power can play a modest, but important, role in avoiding catastrophic global warming — if it can solve its various problems including high construction cost without sacrificing safety.
That is the conclusion of a comprehensive 2015 “Technology Roadmap” from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). It is also what I’ve been arguing on Climate Progress for a long, long time.
The IEA is the global body responsible for energy analysis, and one of the few independent agencies in the world with a sophisticated enough energy and economic model to credibly examine in detail the role of various low carbon technologies in a 2°C scenario (2DS) aimed at averting catastrophic global warming. The NEA was set up by the industrialized OECD countries “To assist its member countries in maintaining and further developing, through international co-operation, the scientific, technological and legal bases required for a safe, environmentally friendly and economical use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
Here is what the IEA and NEA project is a plausible though “challenging” pathway for the nuclear energy industry in a carbon constrained 2DS world — if it can get its act together:
Because it is a low-carbon source of around-the-clock (baseload) power, a number of scientists and others have called for a reexamination of nuclear policy. The Chinese in particular have been building nuclear power plants at a steady pace. Yet very few new plants have been ordered and built in the past two decades in countries with market economies, such as the United States, which derives a fifth of its power from nuclear. That is primarily because new nuclear plants are so costly, but also because dealing with the radioactive nuclear waste remains problematic and the costs of an accident are so enormous.
In particular, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan slowed the rate of new plant construction starts. In 2014 there were only three new plants put under construction.
At the same time, Fukushima caused a number of countries, including Japan and Germany, to reconsider their dependence on nuclear power. Germany is phasing out all its nuclear power plants on an accelerated schedule. In 2014, Japanese college professors calculated that the accident “will cost 11.08 trillion yen ($105 billion), twice as much as Japanese authorities predicted at the end of 2011.” That includes both radiation clean up and compensation paid to the victims.
The IEA and NEA note, “France, which today generates 75% of all its electricity from nuclear, still plans to reduce this share to 50% by 2025 while proposing to maintain nuclear capacity at its present level.”
The costs of new nuclear reactors have been rising for decades, and they are now extremely expensive, costing up to $10 billion dollars apiece. While solar power and wind power continue to march down the experience curve to ever lower costs — solar panels have seen a staggering 99 percent drop in cost since 1977 — nuclear power has been heading in the opposite direction.
Nuclear power appears to have a negative learning curve:
In the past several years, utilities have told state regulators that the cost of new nuclear plants is in the $5,500 to $8,100 per kilowatt range (see Nuclear power: The price is not right and Exclusive analysis: The staggering cost of new nuclear power).
A key reason new reactors are inherently so expensive is that they must be designed to survive almost any imaginable risk, including major disasters and human error. Even the most unlikely threats must be planned for and eliminated when the possible result of a disaster is the poisoning of thousands of people, the long-term contamination of large areas of land, and $100 billion in damages.
In 2014, just 5 gigawatts of capacity were added. In their “Nuclear Roadmap,” the IEA and NEA explain what level of capacity additions would be required in its 2 degrees Celsius scenario: “In order for nuclear to reach its deployment targets under the 2D scenario, annual connection rates should increase from 5 GW in 2014 to well over 20 GW during the coming decade.” That means returning to a nuclear build rate previously achieved for only one decade — 20 gigawatts per year during the 1980s. That target has many challenges in a post-Fukushima world.
The IEA and NEA themselves note that “such rapid growth will only be possible” if several actions take place including: “vendors must demonstrate the ability to build on time and to budget, and to reduce the costs of new designs.” Also, both governments and the industry need to maintain and improve safety. If such advances do occur, then new nuclear plants could provide a moderate amount of the needed new carbon-free power for the 2°C scenario.
For the medium term, the Department of Energy and others have been working to develop small modular reactors that could start to ramp up production in 2030 and beyond. Constructed in factories, these reactors would cost $3-5 billion each. Ideally, they would be much safer than the large reactors. But because they are smaller and generate much less electricity, it’s not clear that their cost per kilowatt hour of delivering electricity would be much lower than current nuclear plants.
The final wild-card is the possibility of one or more major nuclear disasters in the coming years, which might once again impact existing and planned nuclear reactors. An April 2015 study “compiled the most comprehensive list of nuclear accidents ever created and used it to calculate the likelihood of other accidents in future.” Researchers concluded “In dollar losses we compute a 50% chance that (i) a Fukushima event (or larger) occurs in the next 50 years, (ii) a Chernobyl event (or larger) occurs in the next 27 years and (iii) a TMI event (or larger) occurs in the next 10 years.”
Bottom Line: If the world is able to put itself on the 2°C path in the coming years, and if the nuclear industry can resolve a variety of issues and avoid a major disaster, then nuclear power can make a modest but important contribution. At the same time, the IEA and many others have concluded that new renewable energy will play a far bigger role in the transition.