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Ditch climate arguments: they won’t help nuclear revive

By Dave Elliott

Steve Kidd, one time leading nuclear lobbyist with the World Nuclear Association, has had a rethink and left the WNA. In an article in Nuclear Engineering International he says ‘we have seen no nuclear renaissance’ and he outlines his new view- which is that the nuclear industry is in trouble and should stop using climate change arguments in its lobbying.

He says The mooted nuclear renaissance in the early years of this century was founded on a perceived need for nuclear to replace fossil fuels…The World Nuclear Association was created out of the old Uranium Institute to give substantive industry backing to this notion, backing the concept of “Nuclear Green”…. The problem is that the hoped-for process is not working. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland that claim environmental credentials are moving strongly away from nuclear. Even with rapid nuclear growth in China, nuclear’s share in world electricity is declining. The industry is doing little more than hoping that politicians and financiers eventually see sense and back huge nuclear building programmes. On current trends, this is looking more and more unlikely. The high and rising nuclear share in climate-friendly scenarios is false hope, with little in the real outlook giving them any substance. Far more likely is the situation posited in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report Although this report is produced by anti-nuclear activists, its picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth’.                                                                                                 

Does this mean he’s given up the nuclear dream? No, but he says the nuclear lobby has toabandon climate change as a prime argument for supporting a much higher use of nuclear power to satisfy rapidly- rising world power needs.’That’s a big change, and he does say that ‘avoiding using the climate change argument for nuclear does not mean absolute denial of the science’. But ‘there is a significant risk in nuclear hitching itself to this type of view, as it may eventually be found to be unproven and in that case the nuclear industry, along with the renewables sector, will be discredited.’ It has in any case already been a problem: ‘The nuclear industry giving credence to climate change from fossil fuels has simply led to a stronger renewables industry,’ whereas nuclear seems to be “too difficult” and gets sidelined’.

Instead he argues that the other alleged benefits of nuclear, such as reliability and security of supply, deserve more emphasis. Some people in the renewables lobby, albeit a small minority, also sometimes say that, with climate issues being longer-term and possibly contentious, the renewables lobby should put more stress on the short-term economic, fuel saving and air pollution avoidance benefits of renewables. Certainly, with poor air quality becoming a major and urgent issue in China and elsewhere in Asia, reduced health impacts are increasingly being cited as a benefit of renewables.   Kidd says the same for nuclear, stressing its clean air credentials and, less convincingly, claiming that that it is ‘inherently cheap’. But he also goes further and claims that nuclear has resource utilization benefits: ‘per megawatt of installed capacity wind turbines use about twice the steel and three times the concrete of nuclear. When you consider that nuclear has a capacity factor of roughly four times that of wind, the steel and concrete requirements rise to about eight and twelve times that of nuclear, respectively, per kilowatt hour’.

Actually you have to set that against the energy (and carbon) debts associated with producing nuclear fuel, something that does not apply to wind, so that the final ‘energy return of energy invested’ ratio for nuclear is much worse than that for wind- 15:1 and falling (as uranium ore quality decreases), compared to up to 80:1 and rising for modern wind turbines on good sites. But Kidd is obviously keen to open up new arguments.

Interestingly though he has no time for the handful of ‘anti nukes’ who have changed sides.‘While it is true that some previously anti-nuclear activists and advocates have moved over to the nuclear side on account of their new conviction that nuclear is essential to curb climate change, these are very uncomfortable bedfellows. They are likely to do as much damage to the nuclear case as good. The industry has hailed the recent “Pandora’s Promise” movie, but the five new nuclear disciples look rather like enemy turncoats in a war-time propaganda movie, trying to urge their former colleagues also to “see the light”. Why, after so many years of being “wrong”, should anyone have faith in the new (and apparently deeply-held) convictions of these people? Will they not change their minds again once the wind changes?’

He is particularly unhappy about their lobbying for advanced breeder technology and a switch to thorium. Kidd see the current generation of reactors as fine for now- and the development of radical new technology promoted by the new nuclear converts as being longer term and uncertain. He says ‘As soon as anything goes wrong, the support of these people will melt away’.

Lest he be included in a similar category, having shifted his ground somewhat, he insists ‘nuclear needs a strong positive endorsement from supporters who recognise that the arguments marshalled against it were always phony,’ and clearly sees himself in that light. Less clear is whether the bulk of the nuclear lobby will welcome his new position, but it is certainly interesting that someone in the centre of the debate felt the need to speak out, evidently at least in part since, as Kidd says, renewables have begun to threaten nuclear in power markets. At present, renewables are supplying over 22% of global electricity and expanding fast, nuclear around 11% and falling. In that context, and with the costs of new nuclear plant construction rising and the reliability and economic viability of many old plants becoming increasingly uncertain, whether his proposed revised strategy of selling nuclear ‘on grounds of cheapness, reliability and security of supply’ will win out remains to be seen.

Even more uncertain is the realism of his view that ‘Nuclear has suffered far too much throughout its history from government intervention and controls’. Without government subsidies there would probably be no nuclear industry anywhere in the world! Although, as we are seeing at present in the context of the proposed UK Hinkley plant, not all governments are quite so keen, with Austria planning to challenge the EU’s agreement to the UK subsidy for this EDF led project! And along with Germany and many other EU countries, heading in the opposite direction.

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One comment to Ditch climate arguments: they won’t help nuclear revive

  1. BK

    With regards to the capacity factors. In the UK in 2012 nuclear was just over double that of wind (from DUKES energy statistics UK DECC):

    5.44 Plant load factors measure how intensively each type of plant has been used. The load factor
    of nuclear stations in 2012 at 74 per cent was 3.1 percentage points higher than in 2012, due to
    increased availability of stations. However, it was 6.3 percentage points below the peak load factor of
    80.1 per cent in 1998. With generation from gas at its lowest level since 1996, the CCGT load factor
    fell to a record low of 28 per cent. This was following reductions in each year since 2009, from 2008’s
    eight-year high of 71.0 per cent. Between 2012 and 2013, the load factor for coal fired power stations
    increased by 1.5 percentage points, to 58 per cent.”

    In 2010 it was around 40%!!

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