Monday, January 29, 2007

Atlantic Convergence on Nuclear

One of the most interesting energy developments of the last 12 months, at least from a big-picture perspective, is the convergence of the US and EU on two big energy issues: energy security and climate change. That was certainly reflected in the discussions at last week's World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and the good in Davos, Switzerland. And as the New York Times reported, nuclear power is increasingly getting another look for its contribution on both fronts, on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, it is hard to imagine making a meaningful dent in the climate change problem if both nuclear and renewable energy lose market share to fossil fuels over the next 25 years, as status-quo projections suggest. But that is exactly what will happen, at least for nuclear power, if the developed world doesn't begin planning and building the next generation of reactors, shortly.

Nuclear power remains the largest-scale energy technology at our disposal that emits essentially no greenhouse gas emissions, even after factoring in those associated with their construction. Despite that, I'm skeptical that nuclear can offer a comprehensive solution to our energy needs in a climate-constrained world, because of the time, cost and political obstacles standing in the way of building the thousands of reactors that would require. But with global energy consumption on a path to grow by 50% in 20 years, the cost of having nuclear power go backwards seems even higher. Because of the long hiatus in nuclear plant construction outside of Japan, France and China, most of the nuclear plants in the US and Europe will reach the end of their operating lives during the same decades-long timeframe that we will be trying to decarbonize our energy sources. How many of these plants will be replaced or refurbished, particularly if Germany follows through on its plan to decommission its remaining nukes by 2022?

Although nuclear power currently contributes only about 6% of the world's total energy supply, about the same as hydroelectric dams, it accounts for 16% of electricity generation (19% in the US) and competes directly as base-load supply with coal, which fuels 40% of the world's electricity and produces a comparable share of all energy-related CO2 emissions. While critics of nuclear power point to the potential of energy efficiency to make nuclear irrelevant, we should ask whether that efficiency were better deployed to reduce emissions from our most carbon-intensive energy sources, rather than one of the least.

No one can ignore the significant challenges associated with continued use of nuclear power. Aside from high capital costs, these include waste management and the risks of terrorism and proliferation. Nuclear fuel supply presents its own challenges, and I've been tardy in following up the leads in this area provided by a reader. But wouldn't it be ironic if the countries best equipped to deal with all of these issues ceded the strategic use of this technology to other countries for which they are most problematic? That's the path we're on, unless the growing trans-Atlantic alignment on energy security and climate shifts our priorities.

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