Warning: This is an old post from 2009, before the catastrophe of Fukushima, Japan and before the sharp decrease of prices for both solar and wind. I have since then changed my position on nuclear, cf Five reasons to oppose nuclear. Some points below however, remain valid.
One of my friends asked me on Twitter why I am supporting nuclear energy, and this even if it is a fossil fuel. Since this answer was quite elaborated I decided to propose you an English version of this reflection.
Please note before I continue that I don’t consider that nuclear is perfect but instead believe that : “Nuclear is not the solution, but that there is no solution without nuclear.“
This opinion is reinforced by the International Energy Agency which considers that nuclear could account to six percent of the greenhouse gases emissions cuts needed by 2050.
This article uses for references many previous post written over the past months.
1. No energy solution is perfect, not even renewable energies, and this even if some people want you to believe so. We have seen this extensively in two previous posts : There is no perfect energy generating solution and Why renewable energies aren’t that sustainable.
2. Our civilization is facing a dual problem which both require massive and quick solutions : climate change with increasing greenhouse gases emissions and energy scarcity as oil and natural gas production will peak soon (some believe that oil already peaked). These fossil fuel account – with coal – for 80 percent of our energy sources.
Low carbon energy sources account for 20 percent of the mix with nuclear, hydro and other renewables accounting for around six percent each.
3. Even if renewables are in a meteoritic growth, they won’t be able to answer all our energy needs as early as we need them to do so. Nuclear is needed to fill the gap as to the IEA the energy demand is due to at least double in the next decades.
This is explained by the booming needs in developing countries like India and China. As a result Jordan, Chile and many others are going nuclear and nuclear capacity is due to grow by 80 percent by 2030.
4. Energy sprawl is a problem many renewables are facing. Since there is already an intense competition for land all around the world, we need energy sources that can provide gigawatts to our grids without taking too much space. We can’t allocate all our land to wind turbines, solar panels or biofuels fields.
For example : the French Gravelines nuclear power plant seems tiny (cf. map below), but has a capacity of 5,700 MW thanks to its six reactors.[geo_mashup_map]
5. Energy intermittency remains another problem for solar and wind energies. Solar works only in broad daylight and wind turbines bring electricity to the grid only 25 to 40 percent of the time, thus needing thermal power plants to back up.
This is why Denmark still has important per capita greenhouse gases emissions, and this despite its important wind energy plans. (Cf. Wikipedia article for more.)
6. The problem posed by nuclear waste might soon be solved. At least two technologies may soon use our current waste to generate more electricity.
One is due to hybridize fission and fusion and other reactors may run on depleted uranium. Such technologies will decrease the risks of nuclear proliferation. Additionally, the amount of uranium on Earth could last much longer than with current technologies.
7. Safety. One of the main concerns some people have with nuclear is security and keep on quoting Chernobyl in the process. Yet, the Chernobyl reactors were Soviet technology built in the 1970s. Would you drive a Soviet era Lada ?I personally wouldn’t.
To make a long story short: what happened for cars happened for nuclear plants : their technology and safety improved dramatically.
8. New reactors like the EPR reactor from Areva gained in efficiency and security. The EPR technology provides several improvements to the current nuclear plants, including increased yield and security, decreased waste and radiations. This reactor will produce 1.650 MW (compared to around 1,000 MW for current reactors).
9. There is enough Uranium in the seas to last millenia. In his brilliant book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, David JC MacKay explains that seawater contains 3.3 mg of uranium per cubic meter, which adds up to 4.5 billion tons worldwide. Japanese researchers believe it could be extracted at $ 100 – 300 per kilogram.
Indeed Hyperion modules could bring affordable and greenhouse gases-free electricity to up to 10,000 households for seven to ten years without being refueled.
The future: promising technologies may completely eliminate both the energy scarcity and climate change problems.
- Fast breeder reactors are sixty times more efficient than conventional once through reactors as they burn up all the uranium in the reaction. This is yet another technology that can get us rid of nuclear waste.
- Another possibility is to use thorium, which is already done in India. Coupled with the energy amplifier proposed by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia this would provide again enough energy for six billion people for centuries…
- Fusion is for the time being both speculative and experimental. Yet with many labs working it – like with the ITER project – it could be working by mid-century. Both Deuterium-Tritium (DT) and Deuterium-Deuterium (DD) solutions seem highly promising.
This article is the first of a series. You may consider reading :