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Global warming and nuclear power

May 24th, 2004

While we’re on the subject of climate change, I ran across a statement made by James Lovelock, described as a “celebrated Green guru[1]“, that “only nuclear power can now halt global warming”. The core point is

He now believes recent climatic events have shown the warming of the atmosphere is proceeding even more rapidly than the scientists of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thought it would, in their last report in 2001.

On that basis, he says, there is simply not enough time for renewable energy, such as wind, wave and solar power – the favoured solution of the Green movement – to take the place of the coal, gas and oil-fired power stations whose waste gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), is causing the atmosphere to warm.

I agree with Lovelock’s analysis up to a point, but there is a big problem that he has overlooked.

Nuclear (fission) power is probably the cheapest large-scale alternative electricity source (there are some sites where wind is cost-competitive, and similarly for geothermal) but it is still a good deal more expensive than coal or gas. How much more expensive is hard to tell because the industry is riddled with subsidies, but I’d guess that the full economic cost is about twice as high for nuclear electricity as for coal or gas. Moreover, most recent construction has been in places like China and Korea where safety standards may not be as high as they would have to be to get nuclear energy restarted in the developed world as a whole.

What this means is that nuclear power won’t enter into calculations until we have a carbon tax (or equivalent) steep enough to double the price of electricity. It’s clear though, that much smaller increases in costs would make a wide range of energy conservation measures economically viable, as well as reducing final demand for energy services. Implementing Kyoto, for example, would not require anything like a doubling of prices. Whether or not a more radical response is justified, it’s clearly not going to happen for at least a decade and probably longer.

Nevertheless, if mainstream projections of climate change turn out to be correct, and especially if, as Lovelock suggests, they turn out to be conservative, we’ll eventually face the need for new sources of electricity to replace fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaics are improving fast but still a long way from being cost-competitive. So it may well be that, at least for an interim period, expansion of nuclear fission is the best way to go.

fn1. I’ve never been a fan of gurus in general, and I think Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is an illustration of the anthropic fallacy, but I’ll let that pass.

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  1. Tom DC/VA
    May 24th, 2004 at 14:37 | #1

    Unfortunately, building and fueling nuclear power plants requires huge amounts of energy, mostly in the form of oil. So, to make the problem better in the medium term (the temporary fission era), we have to make the problem worse in the short term (burning more carbon) and create a huge long-term problem (high-level waste). Doesn’t seem like a great trade off to me.

    Someone recently discovered a 50% efficient photovoltaic material, so there may be hope yet. I wish we (the US) would spend some of the $10B/y being foolishly wasted on the Star Wars nonsense on the basic materials science research that could drive solar forward to the point where it is truely competitive.

  2. May 24th, 2004 at 15:31 | #2

    Carbon doesn’t have to come from fossil fuels. If you use wood chips to make charcoal, there is actually a proportion of carbon that gets sequestered from the atmospheric cycle until geology releases it a long while later.

    The more serious biofuel approach involves biodiesel made from sources that don’t cut into food production. One candidate is the Honge nut, grown along roads or in groves on land not suited for other cultivation, e.g. hilly and poorly watered land. This can’t provide for everything needed, except, oddly enough, in countries like Australia, and even then not in the short term. However every little helps, and these sources don’t need an investment of released carbon first.

  3. MikeM
    May 24th, 2004 at 15:39 | #3

    Recent advances in understanding photosynthesis provide a possible alternative route to direct generation of electricity or hydrogen from sunlight. This may be far more efficient than photovoltaic technology.

    The new process is based on water-splitting molecules similar to those used by green plants. A team at Imperial College led by Jim Barber, http://www.bio.ic.ac.uk/research/barber/ and So Iwata has recently made a breakthrough in understanding how the process works, http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/ArticleView.asp?link=yes&P_Article=12583

  4. Harry Clarke
    May 24th, 2004 at 20:05 | #4

    Pricing away the externalities associated with using any fuel helps create incentives to develop or commercialise new fuels. If not nuclear then whatever else.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean we should set the charge to encourage new energy source (unless you believe OPEC will adjust its prices short-term to keep new energy sources uneconomic for as long as possible).

    And setting the right price is more efficient than uniform quota cutbacks to meet prescribed targets unless the quotas are tradeable as Kyoto allows for.

    I am surprised at your cost estiimates re nuclear. Years ago when I looked at this the discrepancy was not big — and this was when interest rates were much higher than at present.
    Upfront capital costs are the main nuclear costs so I thought the competitiveness of nuclear (if not its popularity) would have improved over the last decade.

  5. Dave Ricardo
    May 24th, 2004 at 21:29 | #5

    “The core point is”

    I hope the core doesn’t melt down, like it did at Chernobyl.

  6. May 24th, 2004 at 22:39 | #6

    what is the anthropic fallacy?

  7. John Quiggin
    May 24th, 2004 at 22:56 | #7

    The anthropic principle is the claim that the Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.It’s a fallacy because it depends on the assumption that we are there to observe it.

    In relation to Gaia, if the earth had ever entered a runaway cycle like greenhouse on Venus or atmosphere loss on Mars, there would be no James Lovelock to write about it.

  8. gordon
    May 25th, 2004 at 10:46 | #8

    One of the main difficulties retarding the adoption of renewable energy sources, IMHO, is structural/institutional. The existing infrastructure of a few large-scale generation plants and an enormous reticulation network is difficult to adapt to the natural structure of a renewables-based energy regime, which will almost certainly be hybrid and include many small (by current standards), decentralised generation installations. By hybrid I mean including many different power sources – solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, biofuel, fuel cell, etc., plus some remaining fossil fuel generators in some places. In both engineering and ownership/financial senses, the existing infrastructure looks to be unsuitable for this structure, and may need a lot of work to become renewables-friendly.

    Perhaps, from this perspective, nuclear has the major advantage of being suitable to the existing engineering and ownership structure of the network. The extent to which this should sway our choices will need to be assessed against the costs of network adaptation to renewables, as well as capital costs, pricing of externalities and safety issues.

    If it turns out that the existing network is in an engineering sense more adaptable than would appear at first sight, we should be careful not to drawn into effectively giving compensation to existing owners and investors. The difficulty will be in getting an unbiased estimate of the network adaptation costs.

  9. gordon
    May 26th, 2004 at 11:45 | #9

    In defence of Gaia (see footnote to Prof. Quiggin’s post), it seems to me that Lovelock is in a position rather similar to Alfred Wegener, who postulated continental motion back in about 1912 on the basis of a lot of observations, but was unable to explain the mechanism and was consequently not taken seriously. Continental drift was not understood until long after his death. Climatologists are only now exploring the feedbacks between land cover and weather (see for example Bonan’s “Ecological Climatology”, CUP 2002), and if this work leads to understanding of how Gaia-type feedbacks actually operate we will regard Lovelock as ahead of his time, not as a crank.

  10. May 29th, 2004 at 18:07 | #10

    The fundamental flaw with windmills and solar are-
    1) diluteness. Relatively large outlays are needed for relatively small amount of energy. The amount of power you are going to get out of solar panels might improve with more research, but it is absolutely limited by solar intensity.

    2) regulating output. We cant crank up the wind when we need more power. So those coal fired (or atom-fired) boilers will have to stand by for wind loss.

    Re nuclear reactors, it is my understanding from talking to nuclear physicists that they relance their productions cost (energy) in over a small fraction of their operating lifetime. As for costs, these are artificially inflated by overzealous safety regulations.

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