Nuclear power will not solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. There are a number of reasons why that is true.
But before we start looking at uranium supplies and the scope for nuclear power generation, we need to understand precisely what we are dealing with. The scale of energy use by human beings is staggering. Total world energy consumption is about 500 million trillion kilojoules per year. That is a tremendous amount of energy, and the only way it can be produced in a cost-effective way at the moment is through the exploitation of “once only” fossil fuels.
In the well-publicised report of the Stern review on the economics of climate change, it is concluded that we need to make significant cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions. To stabilise atmospheric greenhouse concentrations at levels consistent with “manageable” climate change, we need to be producing somewhere between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of the current levels by 2050. And if economic growth is not to be sacrificed, we need to do that in a world economy three to four times larger than today.
If we are to succeed, we need to reduce the output of greenhouse gases per unit of GDP dramatically. We could do that by finding efficient new ways of generating energy - but that is very unlikely barring a dramatic (and unexpected) breakthrough in something like fusion technology, for example.
Nuclear fission power plants cannot do that job for us. First, they are capital intensive to set up and require long lead times. Stern suggests that action in the next decade will be the most effective, with even more dramatic steps being required if we wait longer. That suggests that an energy source that is a decade in the making is not likely to help much.
Second, the current cost of nuclear energy is relatively high. The Switkowski task force found that the median cost for coal-powered electricity generation in Australia is about $35 per megawatt hour, while the corresponding figure for nuclear power is about $52, about 50 per cent higher.
Of course, that gap could be closed by the imposition of a carbon tax. Making the emission of carbon more expensive is one way to capture the true cost of fossil fuels, which hitherto has been based only on the cost of mining, refining and transporting them. But even if that was to happen - and given the reluctance of major greenhouse gas emitters to even agree a timetable to discuss the issue, we shouldn’t hold our breath - there is limited scope for uranium supplies to be ramped up to meet the demand.
The most optimistic projections from the World Nuclear Association show the world uranium supply doubling by 2030. Even in that scenario, the contribution to world power generation (taking into account increased demand) is about 18 per cent, compared to today’s 16 per cent. When the Stern figures are considered, we clearly have a considerable shortfall here. If the demand of energy for transport is included, the potential contribution of uranium falls even lower.
There are no easy ways to bridge the gap between the projected demands for energy in our economy and the levels we need to achieve. Greater exploitation of uranium is, at best, going to buy us a very small extra amount of time. It seems likely that we will have to accept that economic loss is an inevitable consequence of the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gases. That would most likely look like a dramatic reduction in energy use in the developed world, accompanied by a modest increase in the developing world.
Recently I was taking part in a forum to discuss the future of nuclear power in Australia. One of my fellow panellists drew a round of applause by suggesting that we could avoid any need for nuclear power by the simple expedient of switching off the light when we leave the room. If only it were that easy. I wonder how big a round of applause would be drawn by telling the audience that they would have to stop driving their cars, flying overseas or heating and cooling their houses?
Alas, a much more likely scenario is that we will simply default to a position where we continue to burn fossil fuels with our fingers metaphorically crossed that nothing too bad will result. That is not a sensible approach, but it is the default one.
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