Nuclear energy currently supplies 14% of the world’s electricity. At present 450 nuclear power reactors are in operation world-wide, with 52 new reactors under construction.
In 2019 four reactors went on line: two in China, one in Russia and one in South Korea. A total of 15 reactors are scheduled to begin operation this year, in China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Belarus, Slovakia and the United Arab Republic.
This looks impressive, but the new capacity is hardly enough to make a dent in global CO2 emissions.
It does attest to the fact that nuclear energy – despite the accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima – continues to be regarded internationally as a reliable and economical source of electricity, having a large potential for future expansion.
With available uranium and thorium breeding technology the amount of economically exploitable fuel resources would be enough for nuclear energy to provide the equivalent of entire present consumption of electrical energy for centuries.
One should bear in mind that, from 1 kilogram of enriched uranium, present-day light water reactors (LWR’s) can produce the energy equivalent of roughly 150,000 kilograms of coal.
A uranium-breeder reactor can derive from 1 kg of natural uranium the equivalent of over 1 million kilograms of coal. A similar ratio applies to thorium in a thorium breeder reactor.
Could nuclear power be expanded rapidly enough to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation in the foreseeable future?
Today approximately 75% of France’s electricity is produced by nuclear plants. The emission of CO2 per unit of electricity generated is one of the lowest in the world. (The very lowest rates are achieved by countries with large amounts of hydroelectric resources.)
France’s achievement came about primarily because of the 1973 oil crisis, which laid bare the vulnerability of the French economy to disturbances in its external supply of energy. The slogan went around: ”We have no oil, but we have alternative ideas.”
What can we learn from France’s mobilization for nuclear power following the 1973 “oil shock”? We see no reason why something similar could not be done on a global scale, if governments were to adopt suitable policies.
The notion that nuclear energy could usher in an era of CO2-free energy production is by no means a utopian dream. That applies at least to electricity production, which is presently responsible for about 40% of global CO2 emissions globally.
The irony of the situation is that the environmentalist movement is to a significant extent responsible for the continued dependence on coal and gas power plants.
It is quite conceivable that we would have had practically CO2-free electricity today if it had not been for the intense campaigns against nuclear energy, mounted continuously for over half a century in the USA and Western Europe.
Although there are good reasons to be concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants – reasons we will discuss – the political opposition to nuclear energy has on the whole been characterized by ideology and hysteria rather than rationality.
As far as renewables are concerned, the human costs are hard to evaluate, but they certainly much higher than those of present-day nuclear energy.
At present there are about 350,000 wind turbines operating world-wide, a substantial portion of which are mounted on towers rising 100 meters or more above the ground.
Common sense tells us that accidents will constantly occur during the construction and maintenance of such structures.
Worldwide media reports monitored by the National Wind Watch reveal a steady stream of injuries and fatalities, no doubt under-reported by a large factor. The wind power industry is not required to report accidents.
The installation and servicing of millions of rooftop solar panels is another significant source of injuries and fatalities connected with so-called renewable energy sources.
The lesson here should be that there are no perfect, “soft” solutions; there is no way to produce energy on the scale the world requires without incurring risks and losses.
These must be weighed seriously, in a rational manner. Efforts to reduce energy consumption also entail risks and losses.
Nuclear power is an extraordinarily complex, capital-intensive technology. So great are the scientific and technical challenges of mastering nuclear fission reactions as a power source.
Today it has become a habit to design and simulate reactors on computer screens, but never build them. In 1950’s and 1960’s, by contrast, progress went hand-in-hand with building real systems and studying their performance.
Unfortunately, in the transition to commercial electricity production by nuclear reactors, most of the innovative reactor designs developed in the early period, were dropped in favor of a single basic type: the light water reactor (LWR).
In retrospect the fixation on LWR’s as the mainstay of civilian nuclear energy, to the virtual exclusion of other types, was a mistake. Through lack of developed alternatives, nuclear energy became stuck with the limitations of LWR’s. We need to correct this.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point Nuclear Power News 2020.