The experts on nuclear power and climate change

By John Mecklin | December 17, 2015

The Paris climate conference concluded this month with an agreement among nearly 200 countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and thereby attempt to limit global warming to somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Proposed emissions cuts—known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions—were voluntary and country-specific. That's to say, different countries proposed to reduce their carbon emissions by different amounts, and in different ways.

As the historic accord was being finalized, the Bulletin asked top energy and environmental experts to comment on the role they think nuclear energy should (or should not) play in efforts to implement the climate plans that countries around the world offered in Paris. That role of course already varies from country to country and will likely continue to vary in the future. The Bulletin offered no particular guidance on the focus of comments sought; positive, negative, and mixed views about the wisdom of continuing or expanding the use of nuclear power were welcomed. The geographical scope of comments was similarly left to the experts, who were given free rein to focus on US considerations, the situation in another country, or on multinational and global concerns.

Here is what they wrote.

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Lutz Mez, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin Centre for Caspian Region Studies, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The electrical power production sector accounts for about 28 percent of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and constitutes by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. That is why supposedly carbon dioxide-free nuclear power plants have frequently been praised as a panacea for addressing climate change. However, in 2013 nuclear electricity contributed just 10.6 percent of global electricity generation, and because electricity represents only 18 percent of total global final energy consumption, the nuclear share is just 1.7 percent of global final energy consumption. Even if generation in nuclear power plants could be increased significantly, nuclear power will remain a marginal energy source. Therefore, the turnaround in energy systems has to prioritize energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy technologies and cogeneration plants, which do not cause any more carbon dioxide emissions than nuclear power plants.

From a systemic perspective, nuclear power plants are by no means free of carbon dioxide emissions. Today, they produce up to one third of the greenhouse gases that large modern gas power plants produce. Carbon dioxide emissions connected to production of nuclear energy amounts to (depending on where the uranium used in a reactor is mined and enriched) between 7 and 126 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour, according to an analysis by International Institute for Sustainability Analysis and Strategy co-founder Uwe Fritsche. For a typical nuclear power plant in Germany, the specific emission estimate of 28 grams has been calculated. An initial estimate of global carbon dioxide emissions through the generation of nuclear electricity in 2014 registered at about 110,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—or roughly as much as the carbon dioxide emissions of a country like the Czech Republic. And this data does not even include the emissions caused by storage of nuclear waste.

In the coming decades, indirect carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power plants will increase considerably, because high-grade resources of uranium are exhausted and much more fossil energy will have to be used to mine uranium. In view of this trend, nuclear power plants will no longer have an emissions advantage over modern gas-fired power plants, let alone in comparison to the advantages offered by increased energy efficiency or greater use of renewable energies.

Nuclear power plants may also contribute to climate change by emitting radioactive isotopes such as tritium or carbon 14 and the radioactive noble gas krypton 85. Krypton 85 is produced in nuclear power plants and released on a massive scale in the reprocessing of spent fuel. The concentration of krypton 85 in Earth's atmosphere has soared over the last few years as a result of nuclear fission, reaching a new record. Krypton 85 increases the natural, radiation-induced ionization of the air. Thus the electrical balance of the Earth's atmosphere changes, which poses a significant threat to weather patterns and climate. Even though krypton 85 is “one of the most toxic agents for climate,” according to German physicist and political figure Klaus Buchner, these emissions have not received any attention in international climate-protection negotiations down to the present.

As for the assertion that nuclear power is needed to promote climate protection, exactly the opposite would appear to be the case: Nuclear power plants must be closed down quickly to exert pressure on operators and the power plant industry to redouble efforts at innovation in the development of sustainable and socially compatible energy technologies and especially the use of smart energy services.

Kenneth N. Luongo, Partnership for Global Security, president and founder, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The debate over the relevance of nuclear power in a carbon-constrained world must confront two realities. First, nuclear power has an important role in the battle against climate change, along with other low-carbon energy sources. Without it, there is little chance of holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius or lower in this century. Second, by mid-century, developing nations will likely be the largest community of nuclear operators. A number of these nations are not democracies, and collectively they will have amassed less operational experience than the developed world has today. This places a great responsibility on all nations to ensure that nuclear energy is effectively managed everywhere. These facts need to form the foundation of a modernized nuclear policy in the 21st century.

At present, nuclear power is one of the key ways to avoid carbon emissions, eliminating the equivalent of 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. In 2012, the world emitted roughly 45 billion tons of greenhouses gasses. By 2030, that number needs to decline to around 35 billion tons to meet the global-temperature goal by the end of the century. Nuclear power will therefore play a major role in this process for at least the next 50 years.

The role of nuclear power in the energy mix of the world’s largest carbon emitters—China, the United States, the European Union, and India—is clear, but it is not similar in all cases.

China is constructing 24 new plants and plans to add almost twice that number by the end of the century. India has six plants under construction and more than 30 others planned. This nuclear expansion was reflected in the national declarations from both nations, issued in preparation for the UN climate meeting in Paris. In the EU, by contrast, nuclear power clearly is in decline, with few reactors under construction, with Germany phasing out all nuclear power, and with France committed to reducing its share of nuclear-generated electricity by a third over the next decade. In the United States, the Obama administration has recognized the existing and possibly expanded role of nuclear power, yet a number of issues, including competition from cheaper energy sources like natural gas and the growth of renewable energy, pose challenges for existing and new reactors alike.

Thus while North America and Europe will remain important nuclear operators in this century, the real growth is in China and India, coupled with newcomer nuclear states in Asia, the Middle East, and possibly Africa. Given this trajectory, it may be time to revisit the political and policy thinking behind the world’s approach to nuclear energy—and how it must adapt to a carbon-constrained future.

The nature of nuclear power has made it a necessary part of debates on nuclear weapons, arms control, and nonproliferation. There are also real and perceived concerns about nuclear safety and security, the long-term storage of spent fuel, and the health impacts of radiation. These issues have dominated the nuclear-power debate for the past 60 years. But this discussion must now evolve and include the carbon-reduction benefits of nuclear power and its implications.

Indeed, if nuclear power is to be part of the climate-change solution, the nations of the world must significantly strengthen their nuclear-governance system to address gaps in nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation in a comprehensive manner. This will require cultural change, political realignment, and cooperation among governments, the private sector, and the nuclear-policy community. None of it will be easy, especially the dissolution of long-standing battle lines, yet several approaches can be particularly effective.

As a first step, the burden of nuclear responsibility must expand to include those countries building and operating the greatest number of reactors. At present, most nuclear governance and regulation is national and opaque. The situation demands stronger international rules, which will require the support of leading nuclear-energy states. Unfortunately, the nations driving nuclear-power growth, particularly China and India, and emerging nuclear suppliers, including Russia and South Korea, do not have strong records of international leadership and innovation on nuclear governance. One way to demonstrate leadership is to embrace new and strengthened international rules instead of hiding behind the shield of sovereignty. A show of support for the proposed International Convention on Nuclear Security at the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington would be one important step in the right direction.

Another area of opportunity is international cooperation on the regulation of the next generation of nuclear reactors. There is considerable governmental and private-sector investment in next-generation nuclear reactors, with the expectation that they will be smaller, less proliferation-prone, easier to site, and cheaper to build than today’s light-water reactors. Today, the interactions between national regulatory bodies are limited, with some regional meetings and one large US-hosted event after the first nuclear summit. Expanding these discussions more broadly is important and will avoid fractured and inconsistent rules for this new class of reactors.

The nuclear industry and the nuclear-policy community will also need to make new accommodations with one another in an era when climate change rivals nuclear annihilation as the globe’s top threat. Neither of these key stakeholders is monolithic, and it is unrealistic to expect that all of the parties involved will be willing to work together. But some progress is being made, and the Global Nexus Initiative is an example of how diverse constituencies are coming together to try to develop realistic recommendations that transcend past divisions. The initiative was created by two non-traditional partners—the nuclear industry’s lobbying group and a nuclear-policy think tank—with the goal of identifying the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change and how to best manage its implications for global security.

Finally, governments and the nuclear industry can take a page from the Paris climate talks, where nations came to the table with specific proposals, in the form of national declarations, designed to meet global climate objectives. This was a new, bottom-up approach to addressing rising greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the Nuclear Security Summit process has encouraged national and multilateral pledge-making on nuclear security. As the summits end in 2016, this commitment-making process should continue and be expanded to include other nuclear areas, creating a continuing and broadened nuclear-commitment process. These commitments could include offering greater transparency to a concerned public, making proposals to improve safety and security, and lending technical, educational, and financial support to nuclear newcomer nations. The mechanism for managing this process could be established within the International Atomic Energy Agency, which can also follow the Paris example of commissioning expert assessments of national commitments, reviewing progress every five years, and seeking new pledges that can be evaluated and measured in a transparent fashion.

Achieving the massive decarbonization of the global energy system that the Paris agreement envisions will require a mix of existing and new technologies. With global electricity output expected to grow by 50 percent by 2040, no single energy technology will be sufficient to meet the Paris objectives, and nuclear power will be an important component. But its center of gravity is shifting from west to east, raising new questions and challenges. These need to be addressed by cooperation among all relevant parties in support of a significant evolution of the nuclear-governance system. Anything less will fall short of providing the level of global confidence needed for nuclear power to make a meaningful contribution to a carbon-constrained world.

Jeff Terry, Illinois Institute of Technology, professor, Department of Physics, EXPERT COMMENTARY

China, India, Russia, and South Korea are all building nuclear plants both at home and in other countries. Therefore, nuclear energy will continue to play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change for the next 80 years. Why are these countries turning to nuclear energy? Mainly due to the versatility and stability of nuclear generation. Nuclear power has the highest capacity factor of any low carbon dioxide-emitting power source. French reactors have demonstrated ability to load follow at high penetration. The use of nuclear energy to decarbonize a country’s economy has been demonstrated in both France and Sweden. But is this a good role for nuclear energy to play?

Accidents involving nuclear reactors do have the potential to cause harm. The World Health Organization reports that 4,000 people will die due to the effects of radiation from exposure from Chernobyl. This includes approximately 50 immediate deaths in first responders who received the largest exposures at Chernobyl. Fukushima may result in 700 deaths, with most of these having occurred from the evacuation rather than from radiation. The two largest nuclear accidents in the last 30 years have a combined death toll of approximately 5,000.

These deaths are unacceptable to the nuclear industry. Nuclear operators and manufacturers have incredible safety practices and share information through both the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). Safety margins are increasing with time, and the newest reactor designs require no intervention from humans to ensure safety (passive safety). To get a clear picture of the risk of using nuclear energy, we must compare these accidents to energy deaths that we face annually.

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicts that 65 percent of the world’s electricity generation will be provided by fossil fuel generators in 2015. Approximately 280,000 deaths due to combustion of fossil fuels will be recorded in 2015 (calculated using mortality factors in a paper by climate scientists Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen). The World Health Organization estimates that another 150,000 die annually from the current effects of climate change. In combination, 430,000 people die annually due to the effects of fossil fuels. It is amazing to me that the developed world is willing to allow fossil fuel-related deaths on this magnitude, to avoid the risk of rare nuclear accidents with low severity and risk that continues to decrease with time.

Combatting climate change is going to require taking immediate action based upon what current technology will support. I would urge immediate construction of electricity generation with the goal of reaching 40 percent nuclear, 40 percent renewables, and 20 percent fossil fuel generation by 2050. This energy mix would greatly reduce the horrific magnitude of deaths from fossil fuels and would go a long way toward mitigating climate change. It is technically achievable as this energy generation mix is well within the capacity factor limit described by Jesse Jenkins, a doctoral student and researcher at MIT. No miracle scientific breakthroughs are necessary to reach these levels, but new information must be incorporated as it becomes available.

We must apply what we learn as we build out toward this generation mix. If nuclear plants start melting down; if wind turbines start to decimate bat populations; if solar installations start blinding pilots—we must adjust the energy mix based upon our new scientific understanding. Combating climate change requires scientific evaluation of data. We may not like what the science tells us, but basing energy policy on what we hope for is as unwise as inaction. If we wait to act on climate change for perfect sources of energy, it may end up being too late. Nuclear energy is a reliable, low carbon dioxide source of electricity that can and should be used to combat climate change.

Seth Grae, Lightbridge Corporation, president and CEO, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Given the state of energy-producing technology today, I think generation by light water reactors must increase globally in order to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. New technologies that could have a major impact on decarbonizing global electricity generation include advances such as grid-level electricity storage, more efficient wind turbines, and new types of nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, these technologies are not economically competitive enough for utilities to deploy at a large enough scale to prevent catastrophic climate change. Sufficient improvement in economic competitiveness might not be achieved in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

US states can comply with the requirements of the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by completing reactors that are under construction and also by increasing the power output of currently operating plants. The US nuclear power industry has been effective in coming up with ways to generate more power from existing reactors. But those methods are now pretty much tapped out. At Lightbridge we’ve designed a new nuclear fuel for the existing and new reactors that will allow them to generate more electricity, which will be compliant with the Clean Power Plan. The new fuel is now in the testing stage, and the results are promising.

I’m all for new technology development. There are remarkable advances in existing types of renewables and promising new ideas for generating electricity, including new reactor designs. But from everything I’ve seen, the goals of the Paris agreement and the Clean Power Plan can only be met by taking actions that can be begin to be economically implemented at large scale in the next few years, including increased nuclear power. For countries that already have reactors, I expect the use of new nuclear fuel to generate a meaningful increase in electricity from each plant. For countries that do not yet have reactors, this incremental advancement in fuel technology can result in reactors that are more economical to deploy, to help decarbonize electricity generation.

Amory B. Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute, cofounder and chief scientist, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Advocates insist that sustaining and expanding nuclear power is essential for climate protection. Yet intractably, inexorably, the global nuclear enterprise continues its slow-motion decline for lack of a business case. Nuclear power produced 9 percent less electricity in 2014 than at its 2006 peak. Its share of global electricity generation peaked at 17.6 percent in 1996, fell to 10.8 percent in 2014, and will keep falling (says the IAEA) as retirements soon outpace additions: Power reactors average 29 years old.

Big early programs in the United States, France, South Korea, Germany, and Japan are in decline. Ambi­tions are slowly fading in orders’ last bastion—China’s, Russia’s, and India’s centrally planned power sys­tems. Most units being built are late. Newcomers face huge challenges; Russia’s sales are outrunning its financial capacity.  Financial distress stalks the industry. Probably no firm has ever made money selling reactors.

Over three billion people now make more renewable energy, excluding hydro-power, than nuclear elec­tric­­ity, in three of the world’s four biggest economies (China, Germany, Japan), and in Brazil, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain (plus Britain if its modest hydropower were included). Over half the world’s new generating capacity is re­new­­able, with the majority in developing countries. Wind capacity additions in 2000 to 2014 were 18 times nuclear additions, photovoltaic solar nine times. In each of the past four years, modern renewables added over 80 gigawatts of global capacity, versus nuclear’s several gigawatts, representing a quarter-trillion dollars of voluntary private investment versus nuclear’s approximately zero. The electricity system now disruptively emerging is efficient, market-driven, distributed, and renewable. Nuclear is the opposite. Game over.

New nuclear plants’ “unlearning curve”—ever-higher real construction costs and slower construction—persists from Britain, France, and America to India, Bangladesh, and Turkey. Promised fixes aren’t working. New US or UK nuclear electricity will cost approximately 9 cents to 15+ cents per kilowatt-hour (wholesale price, levelized and in 2014 dollars). As aging plants need more repairs, US reactors’ average operating costs have risen to around four cents per kilowatt-hour. In contrast, new windpower’s market price averages 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, and utility-scale photovoltaic power averages 4.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, net of expired or expiring renewable subsidies smaller than nuclear power’s mainly permanent ones.

Thus in today’s competitive landscape, with or without carbon pricing, new nuclear electricity costs several-fold more than wind or photovoltaic electricity, and many times more than waste-heat cogeneration or end-use efficiency. New nuclear power would therefore save far less carbon per dollar than these equally carbon-free competi­tors, so it would actually reduce and retard climate protection.

Startlingly, closing an existing uncompetitive US reactor and reinvesting its saved operating costs (averaging over six cents per kilowatt-hour for the 25 highest-cost units) in energy efficiency (at utilities’ average two- to three-cent per kilowatt-hour cost) would save two to three kilowatt-hours for each nuclear kilowatt-hour not generated. This swap, which state regulators could require, would cut carbon dioxide emissions one to two times as much as closing a coal plant. Both kinds of closure would thus speed climate protection.

As this climate perversity becomes evident, nuclear advocates fall back on two mystical claims: that “baseload” (by which they mean big thermal) power stations are needed to keep the lights on despite the variability of photovoltaic and wind power, and that renewables can’t grow much without cheap bulk storage of electricity. These linked claims lack foundation. More than 15 sophisticated stud­ies—in the United States for centralized renewables or half-distributed renewables, and in Europe and China—show that largely or wholly renewable electricity can sustain reliability and improve resilience at reasonable cost with little or no bulk storage. Eighty-percent-renewable US electricity by 2050 costs the same  as business-as-usual, even at renewable costs far above today’s.

Or if you don’t believe the models, consider the data. Four EU countries not rich in hydropower got half their 2014 electricity use from renewables (Spain 46 percent, Scotland 50 percent, Denmark 59 percent, and Portugal 64 percent) without increasing bulk storage or reducing reliability. Italy achieved 33 percent, as Germany is expected to do in 2015 (when the former East German utility 50Hertz is already about 46 percent variable-renewable). These countries’ grids work as a conductor leads a symphony orchestra: No instrument plays all the time, but the ensemble continuously produces beautiful music.

Empirical evidence also disproves claims that nuclear power deploys faster than renewables. From 1997, the year of the Kyōto Protocol, through 2014, world nuclear output rose 147 terawatt-hours per year, photovoltaics 185, and wind power 694. In 2013 alone, China added more photovoltaic capacity than the US had added since developing photovoltaics 59 years earlier. For the past three years, China has produced more wind power than nuclear power, as has India for the past two. In 2014, China was building nearly two-fifths of the world’s new reactors, yet invested nine times more in renewables.

Every energy technology has issues. Ground-mounted photovoltaics and nuclear power both use about the same amount of land—far more than wind power, which if run or sited poorly can kill modest numbers of birds and bats. Some people consider turbines or solar panels ugly; some dislike nuclear power’s wastes, risks, and proliferation. Renewables are popular; nuclear power isn’t. Renewables thrive on democracy and free markets, which both shrivel nuclear power. But what­ever your preferences, nuclear power fell hard at the first hurdle—cost—and can’t get up again.

The latest elixir proposed to revive it—small modular reactors—can’t, even if reactor designs rejected decades ago had the magical properties claimed for them. Today’s reactors are big precisely because reactors don’t scale down well. That’s why initial small modular reactors are expected to cost about twice as much per kilowatt. But their proposed mass production, hoped to offset that handicap, must also overcome big reactors’ at least threefold higher electricity price today than small modular renewables, which meanwhile will about double that gap. Do the math. Mass production would need to make small modular reactors roughly twelvefold cheaper. That’s too big for even a thousandfold production scaleup to overcome, even if small modular reactors achieved the learning curve that big reactors have never demonstrated.

Other challenges aside, nuclear power of any kind is so many decades behind in cost and scaling that it can never catch up. Climate imperatives only reinforce the need to invest judi­ciously, not indiscriminately. It’s time to stop diverting more taxpayer billions to the well-intentioned but commercially failed nuclear dream (the decoded meaning of “keeping nuclear power on the table”), and to do what works, makes sense, and makes money. Just follow the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.

Victor Gilinsky, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, independent consultant,

I would not increase our reliance on nuclear energy.

On its face, nuclear energy appears a natural answer to global warming. Nuclear generation could replace hydrocarbon fuels in electric plants, and in vehicles, too. That was the US Atomic Energy Commission’s goal 50 years ago. It was supposed to have been reached by now, but of course it wasn’t, because in going from principle to practice things got messy. Real life nuclear power comes with lots of headaches. Migraines.

For one thing, the technology is very expensive, which is why the vaunted US nuclear renaissance fell flat. The cost reflects the minimal demands of safety. Light water reactors, the standard nuclear workhorses, use oxide fuel that melts quickly if cooling is interrupted. To prevent this, the plants are designed with multiple safety systems that have to meet exceptional quality standards. The latest light water reactors (LWRs) reduce complexity somewhat, but there is no getting away from the intrinsic high cost.

Fukushima reminded us that LWR safety remains an open issue. The Japanese regulators got criticized for failing to require a higher seawall. It’s hard to believe the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would have acted differently in similar circumstances. The agency has yet to respond to some of the obvious lessons of the Fukushima accident. It is telling that in nearly two decades, there has hardly been a word of criticism of the NRC from the nuclear industry.

Top government officials still blithely assure citizens that nuclear accident risks are negligible. It’s doubtful they understand the assumptions and limitations of the probabilistic estimates they rely on. The people who certainly do, at Westinghouse and General Electric, made clear they aren’t about to bet their companies on such estimates. They insist on total freedom from accident liability. A mayor or governor should be able to do the same—to insist on assurances that his city or state will not suffer radioactive contamination, no matter what.

My main reservation, however, concerns the international security consequences of a worldwide expansion of nuclear generation. If we turn to nuclear plants to limit climate change, we will need lots of them, thousands, inevitably in dozens of countries. It’s been understood from the beginning that civilian nuclear programs give countries a leg up on conversion to military uses. It is foolish to encourage worldwide nuclear expansion when we can’t get international agreement on even a minimal margin of safety between civilian and military applications. For example, in 1976 President Gerald Ford proposed a ban on recycling plutonium "until there is sound reason to conclude the world community can effectively overcome the associated problems of proliferation." The world nuclear community resisted, and continues to resist.

Nuclear electric generation was an amazing scientific and engineering accomplishment. But LWR technology has too many problems to make it a sensible model for large-scale worldwide replication. I would broaden President Ford’s statement: We ought to hold off increasing our reliance on nuclear energy until we have the technology and national and international institutions to assure it will do more good than harm.

Mycle Schneider, founding board member, International Energy Advisory Council, and member, International Panel on Fissile Materials, independent energy and nuclear policy consultant,

The stock market did not hear the call. The claim of four climate mousquetaires at a side event of the Paris climate talks that “nuclear has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change” was lost in space. One day after that enthusiastic statement by former NASA scientist James Hansen, a member of the illustrious quartet, the share value of the largest nuclear operator in the world, the French state-controlled Électricité de France (EDF), dropped to its historic low, a 42-percent plunge since the beginning of the year and an 84-percent meltdown in eight years. On Monday, December 7, Euronext ejected EDF, “pillar of the Paris Stock Exchange", from France’s key stock market index, known as CAC40. On Tuesday, December 8, EDF shares lost another four percent of their value. Two days later, the trade union representatives at the Central Enterprise Committee of EDF—unanimously and for the first time—launched an official “economic alert procedure” considering the “seriousness of the situation.”

These latest developments come as no surprise to analysts familiar with the international nuclear industry. Credit-rating agencies have warned for years that the launch of nuclear new-build projects are considered “credit-negative.” In October 2015, investment bank Investec advised clients to sell EDF shares amid fears that its connection with the nuclear plant project at Hinkley Point in the UK could put payouts to shareholders under threat. One month later, the French and British governments announced the signature of a framework agreement on a financing package including Chinese partners for the construction two French-built European Pressurized water Reactors (EPR) at Hinkley Point. The federation of EDF employee-shareholders EAS said in a statement  that the interests of their company would be “gravely threatened” by the Hinkley Point project, calling it "a financial catastrophe foretold.” EAS asked the management of EDF “to stop this risky project, whose financial risks are too big for our company and which could put EDF's very survival at risk.” Is EDF facing its Waterloo 200 years after Napoleon’s defeat?

Launched as a response to the Chernobyl disaster almost 30 years ago, not a single so-called Generation-III+ EPR reactor is generating power anywhere in the world.

In the meantime, the self-proclaimed “global leader in nuclear energy,” the French state-controlled AREVA, went bankrupt. After a cumulate loss of €8 billion ($8.7 billion) over the past four years, equivalent to its annual turnover, and a debt load of €6 billion ($6.5 billion), the company will not survive the year in its current form. AREVA is already deep in “junk” territory when it comes to its credit-rating, and its share value has eroded by 92 percent since 2008, hitting a new low on December 17. The government’s rescue strategy—forcing EDF to absorb AREVA’s reactor business—is in-turn increasing the risk for EDF. A significant barrier for the conclusion of the rescue deal remains the multibillion-euro liability of the Hinkley Point predecessor projects in Olkiluoto, Finland, and Flamanville, France. The EPR construction in Finland started 10 years ago. The plant was to begin generating carbon-free electricity by 2009 and was part of the country’s greenhouse gas abatement strategy. Now, the plant is scheduled to produce power in “late 2018.” The sister plant in France is not doing any better—on the contrary. Construction started in 2007 with completion planned for 2012. Officially, the current target date is the same as for the Finnish project. The investment-cost estimate exploded by more than a factor of three to €10.5 billion ($11.4 billion), and this is likely not the last word. In addition, EDF struggles with a €37.5 billion ($40.7 billion) debt burden, rapidly increasing production costs in its aging nuclear fleet, significant post-Fukushima and other investment needs, and a shrinking client base, with declining consumption levels over the past four years in a row.

The international outlook is not any rosier. There have been 40 reactors connected to the world’s power grids in 10 years—representing a negligible share of the overall added electricity generating capacity—after an average construction time of close to 10 years. Some 60 units now under construction have been in the building stage for an average of 7.5 years; at least three-quarters are delayed, four have been listed as “under construction” for over 30 years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Energy Agency projects in its “New Policy Scenario” a net addition of 222 GW over the coming 25 years. This compares with the net nuclear addition of 22 GW over the past 25 years—which illustrates the level of wishful thinking in current international projections.

You can spend a euro or a dollar only once. The investment in new nuclear reactors leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions as other options—notably intelligent energy services (like daylighting) that don’t depend on active systems, end-use and production efficiency, and now renewables—are not only considerably cheaper, they are much faster to implement.

Nuclear utilities and the nuclear industry in general badly need a reality check. The traditional utilities, nuclear or not, need to learn to sell something other than kilowatt-hours or they will not survive the ongoing energy revolution. And the reactor-building industry might want to turn to a safe haven: reactor decommissioning. Building these machines has turned out to be too expensive and too slow. The deconstructing business will only expand. Guaranteed.

M.V. Ramana, Princeton University, the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security,

In Paris and elsewhere, advocates for nuclear power have been vociferous in demanding an expansion of that source of energy if we are to limit climate change to a modest level. For the latter proposition to come true, it is not sufficient for nuclear power to just expand, but to actually increase its share of global electricity generation. This was quantitatively expressed by two organizations that promote nuclear power—the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—who argued that “to limit the rise in global mean temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius,” nuclear energy has to increase its share of global electricity production from “11 percent in 2014 to 17 percent in 2050.” To put this in perspective, note that the nuclear share was 17.6 percent in 1996. The trend has been steadily downward and there are good reasons why that will continue.

The main reason is that nuclear power has been unable to compete economically with alternative sources of electricity generation. Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build and susceptible to significant cost and time overruns. As documented in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, at least three-quarters of all units that were under construction in July 2015 were delayed. Financially, therefore, constructing a nuclear plant is a much higher risk compared to alternatives. Further, nuclear construction costs have typically gone up, not down, as more reactors are built, and this trend has been extensively documented in the US, in France, and in India.

What has also become clear in recent years is that operating costs for older reactors are also going up significantly enough that utilities are doing the previously unthinkable—shutting down power plants whose capital costs have been recovered and are licensed to operate for many more years. France’s audit agency, Cour des Comptes, estimated that production costs for EDF’s 58 reactors had risen by 20 percent between 2010 and 2013. In the past three years, US and Swedish utilities have decided to prematurely shut down at least eight and four reactors respectively. 

The dynamic is somewhat different in developing countries like China and India. Although they have also demonstrated the propensity for cost and time overruns, there aren’t very many old reactors to shut down, and organizations operating reactors are less subject to market pressures. But more important to evaluating the trends in the share of nuclear power is one fact: These countries are constructing just about every form of electricity generation—coal plants, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, and solar photovoltaics. As a result, the share of nuclear power—2.39 percent and 3.53 percent for China and India respectively—will remain low for the foreseeable future. Construction of reactors in developing countries is not going to raise the global nuclear share to the levels demanded by nuclear advocates.

There are still some who hope that nuclear power will magically undergo a massive expansion within a relatively short period of time. The evidence so far suggests that this is a false hope, one that is best abandoned if we are to deal with climate change with the seriousness the problem demands.

Peter A. Bradford, and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, adjunct professor, Vermont Law School,

In the 15th year of the era formerly known as “the nuclear renaissance,” not a single molecule of carbon dioxide emission has been avoided by a renaissance reactor built in the United States or in Europe. Unless the 40-year-old Watts Bar 2 reactor scheduled to operate in Tennessee early in 2016 is called “renaissance,” this situation will not change for several more years. 

Climate change, so urgent and so seemingly intractable, has become the last refuge of nuclear charlatans throughout the Western world. From well-meaning ideologues and editorial writers claiming that the unknowable is theirs to state with certainty, to paid advocates more skilled in pleasing and persuading government officials than furthering consumer and environmental well-being, prophetic arguments have swollen from a stream to a river and now merge with the Seine in Paris, threatening to submerge the world under a layer of nonsense rising as inexorably as the seas themselves.

We are told that:

  • Energy efficiency and renewables cannot save us because they are too costly, too small and too variable, despite their falling costs, rapidly rising deployment, and particular success in the world’s fourth largest economy in Germany.
  • The power markets that that have functioned reliably and efficiently for 20 years and that repeatedly reject nuclear as too expensive are “flawed” because they don’t reward nuclear for its benefits as to fuel diversity and reliability, and—in a valid criticism not fixable by uniquely nuclear subsidies—do not reflect the lack of carbon pricing in most of the United States.
  • Nuclear power’s problems of cost, delay, and inflexibility will soon be solved by new designs, if only misguided regulators and environmentalists will get out of the way, never mind that regulators and environmentalists have had no hand in the cancellation of some 25 renaissance reactors.

James Hansen, perhaps the most visible of the climate scientists who advocate heavy reliance on breeder or other innovative reactor designs without paying any attention to their track record of long and costly failure, has become ever more reminiscent of Groucho Marx leaping from a paramour’s bed to confront a disbelieving husband with: “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”

Our eyes tell us that the breeder reactor technology has been abandoned in the United States, in France, in Germany, and in Britain. In Japan, the Monju breeder has operated one year out of the last 20. (See von Hippel et al, “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status"). Of course success in technology often builds from many failures, but there are no signs of success on this horizon, and delay—as Hansen among others often tells us—allows ever more CO2 to concentrate in the skies to accelerate warming for decades regardless of the technologies deployed 20 years from now.

The op-ed that Hansen and three other scientists signed from Paris says that by building 115 reactors per year from now until 2050, we could eliminate fossil fuels from the electric sector. What these four nuclear horsemen don’t mention is that, using the cost of Britain’s proposed Hinkley station as a proxy (even though breeders and their attendant reprocessing facilities would surely cost more), this commitment would cost some $2 trillion per year, or $70 trillion altogether. 

Making assumptions about renewables and efficiency plus electrical storage capacity that are more plausible than Hansen’s assumptions about an immediate reversal in the fortunes of breeder reactors, equivalent carbon reductions can be achieved at much lower cost and in less time, leaving money over for continuing research and development, even nuclear R&D.   

Another group of scientists (including one of Hansen’s cosigners), also writing from Paris, said, “Our nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) has grown since 2007 without increases in energy consumption due in large part to major advances in fuel economy in vehicles and energy efficiency in buildings. Solar power comprised 32 percent of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. last year—a twelvefold increase in the amount of solar photovoltaic installations since just five years ago. Wind power now generates about five percent of our nation’s electricity, and in some regions already costs less than natural gas and coal-fired generation. Texas alone nearly doubled its wind energy generation between 2009 and 2014. Propelled by remarkable gains such as these, states and cities across our nation are setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions.” 

Our real challenge is to develop market rules and regulatory processes that allow low-carbon technologies to reap the rewards of their relative cleanliness while competing vigorously with each other to meet the needs of developing and developed nations. The economists who succeed in this urgent task are a much better bet than scientists who claim the gift of prophesy.

The Hansen letter contains these remarkably unself-aware sentences:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice.”

“The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking.”

“The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”

Amen, brother.

Hui Zhang, Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, physicist and senior research associate,

Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed at the global climate change conference in Paris that China pledged to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030, and to get around 20 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. In 2014, China’s non-fossil energy consumption accounted for 11.2 percent of total energy use—hydro power was 8 percent, nuclear power was about 1 percent, and non-hydro renewable energy was around 2 percent—which is very close to the target of 11.4 percent set for 2015. Still, coal supplied the majority (66 percent) of China's total energy consumption in 2014, and oil accounted for about 18 percent of the energy mix. Natural gas, at 5 percent, still accounted for a relatively small share. To double the share of non-fossil sources by 2030, what role can nuclear power play?

China’s heavy reliance on coal in its energy consumption mix in past decadeshas resulted in heavy air pollution and increasing carbon emissions. To address those concerns, China has attempted to diversify its energy supplies with a strategy that would replace some coal power with expanded nuclear energy, renewable sources, and natural gas.

Many Chinese officials and nuclear experts advocate that developing significant nuclear power is an imperative if the country is to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy in its energy mix. And recently, Chinese leaders have shown a strong desire to promote nuclear power development both domestically and for export. As of November 2015, China had 31 power reactors (that can produce 29.3 gigawatts of electric power) in operation with 21 units under construction (23.4 GWe). China will issue its 13thfive-year plan next year. Chinese reports suggest that the country will maintain the target of 58 GWe in operation and 30 GWe under construction by 2020, as planned in 2012, and include a new target for a total of 110 power reactors by 2030.

Reducing carbon emissions has been one major motivation for China’s ambitious nuclear power program. As a result of high coal consumption,China overtook the United States in 2006 to become the world's leading energy-related carbon dioxideemitter. In 2009, China announced internationally that, by 2020, it would lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent from the 2005 level and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the country's primary energy consumption to about 15 percent.

In November 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood together in Beijing to make a joint announcement, in which China pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to about 20 percent by 2030. This June, China submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the United Nations, detailing its pledges to climate change mitigation and adaptation for 2020 to 2030, including peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier; lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 percent to 65 percent from the 2005 level;and increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix to about 20 percent. During his visit to Washington, DC in September 2015, President Xi announced that China will start a national cap and trade program in 2017 as a tool to limit its carbon emissions. To reach these goals, Chinese leaders see a massive increase in nuclear power as a necessity.

Air pollution is also a major driver for China’s nuclear expansion. China’s heavy reliance on coal has had a serious impact on the environment. In 2012, two thirds of China’s cities could not meet the country’s own air-quality standards. The air pollution problem has produced serious health impacts. One major study estimated that outdoor air pollution in China contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2012. The economic costs of environmental pollution are also very high.

Moreover, China hopes nuclear expansion will increase national energy security through diversifying the energy supply and reducing concerns about energy resource limitations. In addition, the central and local governments hope to stimulate economic growth through reactor construction programs. 

Government documents and some officials and advocates of nuclear power often address the three major drivers for China’s nuclear energy development—combatting air pollution, reducing carbon emissions, and promoting energy security—without distinguishing priority. But the most important driver is the air pollution concern. Addressing air pollution, particularly by reducing heavy reliance on coal use, will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions and show that China supports a global effort to deal with climate change, promoting China internationally as a responsible power.

Can China increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030? If China arrives at a cap on total energy consumption of 4.8 billion tons of coal equivalent by 2020 (an increase from 4.26 billion in 2014) as the government plans, then the projected hydro power, non-hydro renewable resources (wind, solar and other renewable energy), and nuclear power would account for about 7 percent, 5 percent, and 3 percent of total energy use, respectively, which would make achieving the target feasible.

While a fleet of nuclear reactors with 130 GWe by 2030 would represent a substantial expansion (over four times the current China’s capacity of 30 GWe and more than the current US capacity of about 100 GWe), it would account for only 5 percent of total energy use in the country and would constitute just one quarter of the non-fossil energy needed. In practice, the total energy use will likely be higher than the planned cap, so the share of nuclear power in the overall energy mix would be even less. Eventually, nuclear power is important if China is to address concerns about air pollution and climate change, but it is only one piece of a huge puzzle.

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