The onset of the oil crisis in the 1970s gave rise to a spurt in nuclear power installations the world over. These, and the rise of wind and solar power, have held out the promise of winning the race to replace fossil fuels with less carbon intensive sources of electricity.
An article by Washington-based writer, Jeff Johnson in the American Chemical Society journal, Chemical and Engineering News, however, draws attention to the slowing growth of these non-fossil based resources and the need for special steps if we wish to drastically reduce our dependence on coal and oil for energy. Johnson cites a study by the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organisation, which says the global contribution of nuclear energy, which had touched 18 per cent in the 1990s, may drop to five per cent by the year 2040 if governments do not intervene.
Data reveals that for all the attention paid to renewables and reports of their rising presence, the share of fossil fuels in our energy mix has remained nearly unchanged over half a century. The picture shows a creeping increase in renewables, offset by a reducing share of nuclear power, unchanged use of coal and replacement of oil by natural gas.
The position becomes more alarming when we note that it is not of a stationary power demand that the non-fossil component has stayed unchanged. The rate of consumption has been rising fast, and would rise in the coming decades.
It is evident that reduction in the use of coal, oil and natural gas must come from growth in renewables and nuclear power. Renewables consist of hydroelectric power, wind power and solar power. Hydro plants depend on the siting of rivers and newer plants would involve disturbing populations and ecosystems. Wind power has great scope, but its value is now seen as limited by its own proliferation. And it needs investment and time to set up. Solar panels are now more efficient than before, but large-scale use would consume land area, on which there is growing pressure.
The alternative is hence to promote nuclear power. Not that this does not have its down-side, in terms of radioactive waste generated, the risk of a mishap and again, the considerable cost. However, given the physical limitations of renewables and the obvious need to reduce fossil fuels, nuclear power, with the best measures for disposal of waste and standards of safety, appears to be the only way to go.
It is in this context that we see the nuclear component in the world energy mix down to 10 per cent in 2018, and different factors that stand in its way. An important factor that the IEA points out is that while capacity has been built up, a good portion has now aged and is in need of replacement. Nuclear power makes up 18 per cent of total electricity generation in developed countries. While the US generates 105 GW, out of about 500 GW, from 98 nuclear reactors, France generates 66 GW, 70 per cent of its production, through 58 nuclear reactors. In comparison, India has a total capacity of 385 GW, with 6.8 GW, from 22 nuclear reactors at seven locations.
The IEA reports that in the US, the EU and Russia, most plants are over 35 years old, nearing their design life of 40 years. In the developed world, replacement of aged plants with new ones is almost not an option. Apart from the time it would take, the cost of power from new plants would be much higher than from the existing ones. New plants would hence be unable to compete, and the consequence will be rising use of fossil fuelbased power. While nuclear plants must bear the costs of special measures for waste disposal and safety, the fossil fuel-based industry is spared the cost of the environment harm that it causes. There are hence only 11 new plants being set up in developed countries — four in South Korea and one each in seven others. There is potential, however, in the developing world, with 11 plants coming up in China (in addition to 46 that it has, with capacity of 46 GW ), seven in India, six in Russia, four in the UAE and some others, all state-owned, the IEA says.
As there is yet no model for new plants to be built economically, developed countries have gone for renovating and extending the life of existing plants. The IEA estimates the cost of giving an existing plant another 20 years of life at half to one billion USD, a fraction of the cost of a new plant and about the cost of a comparable wind or solar power farm, and without the delays. In the US, the licenses of all 98 plants in operation have been extended from 40 years to 60 years.
Johnson’s article also refers to a paper called “The Nuclear Power Dilemma” by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 50 year-old group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The paper echoes IEA concerns of adverse economics of nuclear energy and its implications for the drive to contain greenhouse gas emissions.
While the MIT think-tank recommends vigorous state action to implement a system of carbon credits that incentivises reduction of carbon emissions, and to implement standards that impose levels of low carbon emission, it also recommends positive state subsidies to help low carbon technologies compete.
Do we need the power? While engineers and economists debate ways to generate green power to meet growing demands, another approach is to find ways to limit the energy that we use. This of course, is a tall order, as energy is at the base of our systems of trade and changes that have a material effect may be politically impossible. Belief in the position that there is no alternative to nuclear energy and then, that even this answer has obstacles to surmount, however, could impel the powerful lobbies, like IEA and MIT, which share the belief, to change tack, from finding solutions to the generation problem, to spreading a message of reducing consumption.