Nuclear: meeting the dilemma?
While opposition on the deployment of nuclear energy in the developing world is a hot topic, in the current international context and the growing threat of climate change, nuclear energy is increasingly topping the list as the short term solution to the climate crisis because it is the only energy source that meets the dilemma of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets and the surge in energy demand. Avoiding a boom in nuclear energy would require a significant step up of renewables on the marketplace.
What is the dilemma?
First: GHG reduction targets
Rising levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is becoming alarming. Levels of GHG have already passed threshold safety levels and we are now at the start of a red zone of consequences including more frequent extreme whether events. These can only get worse as GHG atmospheric levels keep on rising. In order to keep the situation under control GHG levels in the atmosphere should be kept under a certain limit. This is the first element of the dilemma that the world must address.
Second: the reality of the energy demand
The reality is that global energy demand is rising exponentially (especially in the developing world) and that many countries are still opting for currently cheaper fossil fuel based options to keep up with the demand. Because economic development remains on the top of the agenda of most countries, an energy production boost is required to keep up with these development targets. Keeping up with the energy demand is the other side of the dilemma faced.
The fact is, we have to cut the world’s CO2 emissions in half by 2050. However, energy demand, a major source of CO2 emissions, will double by that date. Thus, one of the greatest dilemma of our time is defined as meeting the rise in energy demand while at the same time addressing the climate change threat.
The current situation and the possibility of a nuclear shift
Renewables failing to catch up with the energy demand
In order to achieve the GHG reduction targets many governments have opted for renewable energies. While the idea is promising, the reality is that to date the deployment of renewables is not coping with the rise in energy demand.
While the deployment of renewables has significantly picked up (especially with regards to solar and wind), the global energy mix is still very strongly dominated by fossil fuels with coal and natural gas likely to remain the main sources of energy in the next few decades (with nuclear potentially catching up fast).
Renewables to take over is possible and a matter of political will, however the trend is currently moving too slow to make the needed change in avoiding a catastrophic build-up of GHG in the atmosphere.
An unwanted but likely solution driven by the dilemma
Nuclear energy seems to be currently the only viable option that would allow to meet the dilemma fast enough. However, because nuclear energy is not without major security and environmental concerns, a large scale deployment of renewable energy (http://www.eco-business.com/opinion/renewing-renewables-part-1-of-2-the-case-for-change/ ) would be a better alternative.
Looking at the global pictures, a few countries are already considering deploying nuclear reactors rather than renewables as their primary strategy. France is the exception considering the fact that its energy has been largely dominated by nuclear since many decades but the reason has been very different then meeting the dilemma.
The choices to go nuclear are also facing increasing opposition by the international community in the wake of recent incidents. This opposition could create an open door for renewables but the move should not wait.
Nuclear poses serious risks to global safety and security. Despite accidents very unlikely and infrequent they have happened in the past and statistically are likely to happen again.
The fact is that nuclear power plants should not be deployed in areas which poses either natural risks (e.g. earthquakes) or political risks (i.e. unstable governments). However, despite the significant risks posed by the latest factors, controlling the deployment of nuclear reactors is becoming increasingly a political nightmare especially with the rising threat posed by climate change and the pressures of the dilemma.
Management of nuclear waste is a concern; while the volume of waste is very small their hazard level is high and in the very long term. Disposal of nuclear products has improved a lot since the early days; while some countries used to dump nuclear waste in concrete sealed containers to the bottom of the ocean, nuclear waste are nowadays sent to rest in old salt mines in geologically stable locations. It is a low risk solution.
The major risk with nuclear does not come from disposal neither operations but rather from radioactive leaks from unforeseen events (which depends a lot on the location) as well as the possibility to derive weapons of mass destruction by enriching the residual plutonium generated.
Noteworthy is the fact that a great economic advantage of nuclear is that only 2-3% of the value is the combustible (uranium) as opposed to fossil fuels where it is 50-70% of the value of the KWH produced. This means a much lower dependency on combustible resources which prevents a number of geopolitical problems as seen with petroleum.
Nuclear projects are large in nature and would certainly boost up the economy where they are implemented. They require technical specialised skills which would mean employment and training opportunities.
Also a significant economical factor is the fact that nuclear reactors require upgrades in electrical grids to cope with the high voltage coming out of these plants. Thus, the investments of implementing nuclear reactors are not simply on the reactors themselves but also require significant upgrades to the existing grids.
Unless a significant step up of renewables, perhaps currently the closest option contending with nuclear in terms of meeting the dilemma is carbon capture. Carbon capture would allow to keep up with the energy demand through the deployment of coal or natural gas fired power plants and to reduce GHG by capturing the CO2 at source and re-injecting it underground.
While the technology is promising there are still to date only a few functioning power plants applying the concept and the reality is that the technology still needs to be improved to deploy it on a large scale at efficient costs. However, the situation is evolving fast and carbon capture could well make a re-bounce in the coming years.
A last word
While it seems that nuclear is arguably currently the best short term option that would allow to meet the dilemma, there are hopes that the situation may change in the near future and that other solutions would become serious contenders. A large scale deployment of renewables is a possibility and would require stronger government support.
By Sylvain Richer de Forges
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