Nuclear Power is No Solution for The World’s Energy Problems
Nuclear power is no solution to the world’s energy problems. Not even close.
It’s important for electric power but electric power is not even 40% of the world’s energy supply—nor is it expected to increase much over the next 30 years.
IEA projects that nuclear power will account for only 5.5% of world energy supply in 2050 (Figure 1). That’s an increase of only 0.5% from 2020.
Nuclear power has limited application beyond electric power generation and some heating capability. Yet the outlook is not much better for nuclear to increase as a major source of electric power either. IEA’s most-likely scenario is for nuclear to account for only 12.5% of electric power supply in 2050 (Figure 2).
Electric power currently accounts for about 39% of world energy supply (Figure 3). IEA estimates that it will only increase to about 41% by 2050.
EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2021 is largely in agreement with IEA’s assessment of both electric and nuclear power. Unlike IEA, however, EIA provides data to account for the considerable energy losses during power generation, transmission and distribution. The losses amounted to 64% in 2020 (Table 1).
When losses are included, net electric power to the grid is expected to increase from 19% in 2020 to 28% in 2050 (Figure 4) instead of 41% in IEA’s evaluation shown above in Figure 3.
Nuclear power is expected to decrease from 11% of net electric power delivered to the grid in 2020 to only 7% in 2050 (Figure 5) instead of the 12.5 5 shown by IEA in Figure 2 above.
Many will say that IEA and EIA have this all wrong—that it is impossible that nuclear won’t be a bigger part of the energy mix in 30 years. Forecasts are always wrong but double or even triple these projections and it is still unlikely that nuclear will play a large role in world energy or electric power supply in the future.
Despite its detractors, IEA and EIA are sophisticated organizations with excellent data and modeling capability. Most who imagine a brighter future for nuclear power do not present credible alternative scenarios based on data.
Nuclear is hardly a new technology. It has been almost 70 years since Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss proclaimed that nuclear power would soon be too cheap to meter. Some may argue that the advanced small modular reactors will change things. Regardless of their potential, it is unlikely that any new technology is likely to take nuclear power from 5% to a meaningful proportion of world energy supply in less than decades.
Perhaps the nuclear breakthrough and miracle are just around the corner. The faith that some place in future technology seems like just another way to avoid taking a realistic inventory of the present. Our present energy and ecological crises are too serious to delay by placing hope before experience.
We should keep working on nuclear power because it’s part of our energy future. At the same time, let’s be realistic about what is feasible in the limited time available before energy supply becomes an even bigger crisis.
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