Can We Just Get Over Nuclear?
Why do so many otherwise intelligent people believe that nuclear power is the solution to the world’s energy and climate crises?
“There is no way, absolutely none, that the world’s energy transition away from fossil fuels can be achieved without a massive increase globally of nuclear power.”—Suriya Jayanti, Time Magazine (December 2023)
It’s just not going to happen.
In his recent post “Why Nuclear Is the Best Energy,” Tomas Pueyo thoroughly addressed most of the myths and fears that people have about nuclear energy including price, safety, environment, dependability, and reliability.
“Nuclear is the best source of electricity across all the factors that matter.”—Tomas Pueyo
And that’s the problem—nuclear’s only practical use today is to generate electric power.
Electricity is only 20% of global energy consumption so nuclear has very little effect on total energy use or its emissions. Its greatest potential benefit is to reduce coal use.
IEA’s recently published World Energy Outlook 2023 indicates that electric power will increase over the next few decades but only to about 30% of total world energy consumption (Figure 1). Nuclear’s contribution is expected to remain flat at about 2% of total energy use through 2050.
Looking only at electric power, nuclear is expected to decrease from 9% in 2022 to 8% of world electric power generation by 2050 (Figure 2).
Percentages, however, can be misleading. The percent nuclear is basically flat because renewables, solar and wind are projected to increase so much. Total nuclear generation will increase 62% from 2,682 TWh (Terrawatt hours) in 2022 to 4,353 TWh in 2050 in IEA’s Stated Policies scenario shown in Figure 2. Still, that’s a drop in bucket for the 54,000 TWh of projected electric power generation in 2050.
What does the ultra-green IEA know that nuclear enthusiasts do not? That nuclear plants cannot be scaled fast enough to move the needle.
Eight new nuclear plants were completed worldwide in 2022. An average of nine new plants must be built every year to reach IEA’s estimate of 4,353 terawatt hours of nuclear generation in 2050 shown in Figure 2.
In order to double that, an additional 24 plants must be added each year for a total annual addition of 33 new plants per year. Building four times the number of plants completed in 2022 every year for the next 27 years would move nuclear to only 4% of total energy supply. That’s not going to happen. And even if it did, 4% is not going to make much difference.
Some may argue that Gen III+ reactors and small modular reactors (SMR) may make the doubling of nuclear output more feasible. Perhaps but those are frontier technologies that are unlikely to make an appreciable difference in the energy landscape over the next few decades. Nor do they change the hard truth that an awful lot of capacity has to be built just to double nuclear generation to 4%.
Tomas Pueyo may be right that all the arguments against nuclear power are wrong but it won’t change the fact that nuclear just can’t scale fast enough to make much of a difference. Can we just get over nuclear and move on?
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