Electricity from Nuclear Reactor types developed over the last 75 years could combine to supply 80% of the world’s energy for over 10,000 years from apparently tiny supplies of Uranium. Fusion Power is another type which could extend the supply to millions of years, clearly a great triumph for humanity. The emergence of rapid climate change as a world catastrophe has set us a stupendous challenge to change all our energy usage to cut carbon emissions by 80% in the 35 years to 2050. Every carbon free energy source should be assessed for the maximum contribution it could make and the environmental penalties which arise. This has not been done for Nuclear power which could replace the big polluter, Coal, a goal quite within reach by the world energy industry.
The World Energy Council has evaluated the current nuclear growth plans around the world and perceives only a modest increase. The International Energy Agency has written nuclear power out of its scenarios [OECD, 2013]. It is not the role of these bodies to comment on or guide individual government policies so they merely represent selected political consensus views. This leaves only one plan, to cut carbon emissions at any cost by the use of Wind and Solar power, backed up by fossil fuels. The plan has been fully assessed for the USA by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL, 2010] but with little consideration of public acceptance.
The Nuclear industry has not done a system modelling exercise on this scale. What it has done is develop safety and performance standards for the newest Generation III+ reactors which satisfy scrupulous regulators as an acceptable basis for rapid nuclear growth. However, this makes very poor use of Uranium resources. Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) like the Areva EPR, the Westinghouse-Toshiba AP1000, and the Rosatom VVER 1200, dominate the new commercial market. They burn fuel till fission waste fragments slow the reactor when the “Spent” fuel is removed and set aside for burial. It is easy to show that in any attempt to replace Coal this “Open” fuel in, fuel out cycle will run out of Uranium this century, leaving a legacy of 2 million tonnes of Spent fuel to be buried for millions of years. This is a path to failure and an ugly result.
The alternative “Closed” cycle would recover 99% of all the fuels in Spent fuel and return them to reactors. New generation Breeder reactors would create 10-20% more fuel than they burn and consume all their own high level wastes, plus those from PWRs. Existing Spent fuel stocks, which are a major problem for governments, will all be consumed, obviating any need for Geological Disposal Facilities (GDFs). A global system would have a tiny footprint, run for over 10,000 years, and return spectacular benefits.
So why has the nuclear industry not pursued their best options vigorously? They do feel that they must sell what they have, PWRs, and not get side-tracked by schemes still in need of some development. The nuclear industry may not relish a fight with coal as it is eliminated, whereas Renewables will only put coal and gas on standby, subsidised to still exist. They have actually missed the limit on Uranium supplies, with cover from the World Nuclear Association (WNA) claim that there will never be a problem. They are unsuccessful at keeping the issue of Spent fuel on hold with the promise of GDFs. Western politicians remain baffled by the lack of clarity from the industry and have become their primary obstacle.
OECD 2013: http://worldenergyoutlook.org/publications/weo-2013
NREL, 2010: Analysis and full reports: http://EfN-UK.org/renewables
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VVER 1200 REACTOR