Reasons to be cheerful (part 2)
The need for nukes
Wouldn't it be great if the likes of China and India were also saying no to coal? As James Hansen, the father of climate change science points out, radically reducing coal consumption remains the defining challenge of climate change mitigation.
How this will be achieved remains open to question. Globally coal consumption is still on the rise, more than matching the growth in renewable energy capacity in the big emerging economies of China and India. In the latest iteration of the International Energy Agency's (IEA) New Policies Scenario the best medium term answer is still nuclear power which it projects to grow 70 percent through to 2035, a little less than it was predicting last year.
When the IEA modeled a new Low Nuclear Case – with a shortened lifespan for existing reactors, no new reactors in the OECD and only half the projected nuclear development in non-OECD countries – the result was a boost in demand for fossil fuels: “the increase in global coal demand is equal to twice the level of Australia’s current steam coal exports and the rise in gas demand is equivalent to two-thirds of Russia’s current natural gas exports.” Not good.
So, here's something else to ponder: extraordinary as it may seem to some, there have been zero fatalities thus far as a result of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. Nor does it look likely there will be any since the Japanese Government and TEPCO are optimistic about achieving “cold shutdown” of the stricken reactors by the end of the year. Of course that's not the end of the story; more than 80,000 people have lost their homes in the mandatory evacuation zone around Fukushima and anything TEPCO says should be taken with a large grain of salt, but it is the current state of play.
It is clear from an excellent article on the IEEE's Spectrum website that if 3rd Generation reactors were in situ the Fukushima Diichi crisis would have been avoided. As it was, workers on site came heart-achingly close to “catching the falling knife” during the first 24 hours after the massive earthquake and tsunami despite the critical problem with the location of the backup generators and other issues.
The Japanese (and others) need to take a long hard look at their nuclear governance and the on-site safety at nuclear plants, but those who say that, based on what happened at Fukushima, nuclear power is inherently unsafe have got it wrong. It reminds me of the tourists who stayed away from Phuket in the years following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami because of safety concerns.
China is yet to announce the results of its nuclear safety review and lift the moratorium on the approval of plans for new nuclear plants but it is clearly going to move ahead with the large-scale expansion of its nuclear power sector as an integral part of its determined drive toward a low-carbon economy. A recent report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US projects that China could install as much as 550 GW of nuclear capacity and 970 GW of wind, hydro, and solar power by 2050. Combined with energy efficiency upgrades, that surge of low-carbon electricity would slash China's annual C02 emissions from power generation to nearly one-fifth their current levels.
This week Australia lifted its long-standing ban on the export of uranium to India, which will increase the momentum of it nuclear power sector. For the time being the world's largest democracy will be challenged to match China's nuclear power building program but we'd better hope that it picks up the pace. India is projecting the need for 800 GW of electricity generating capacity in 2032, compared to an installed base of 180 GW today.
Of course nuclear power remains a highly emotive subject which some people will never agree upon but what's the alternative – apart from fossil fuels – for reliable base-load electricity generation? After all, solar, wind and hydropower generation are all dependent on variable conditions.