When Wright is wrong

Matthew Wright proclaimed "The end of nuclear" earlier this week, but if it is, endeavours to tackle dangerous climate change have hit a massive speed-bump.

It is a longstanding tactic of anti-nuclear ideologues to paint the nuclear industry as a technologically stagnant, declining dinosaur with no future, for the simple reason that no one likes to back a loser. It’s a great way of keeping Australians from bothering to look more closely. The article by Matthew Wright (The end of nuclear, May 8) continues this tradition.

Actual data works against Wright’s contention. At May 2012, 60 nuclear reactors were under construction worldwide, with total capacity of around 60 GW. Forward planning is in place for a whole lot more in 27 countries. The World Energy Council’s report World Energy Perspective: Nuclear Energy One Year After Fukushima concluded that:

“The Fukushima accident has not so far led to a significant retraction in nuclear power programmes in countries outside Europe, except Japan itself. In Europe, changes in nuclear policies have only taken place in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Progress in many national programmes, especially in non-OECD countries, has been delayed, but there is no indication that their pursuit of nuclear power has declined in response to Fukushima.”

In February, the United States issued the first new construction licences for nuclear reactors in 38 yearsand in March the Department of Energy announced “a total of $450 million would be available to support first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for up to two SMR (small modular reactor) designs over five years”. In June 2011, National Policy Statements for the United Kingdom confirmed a major commitment to growth of renewables, as well as the construction of eight new nuclear reactors. The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change makes this statement in 2012:

“Nuclear power is low-carbon, affordable, dependable, safe and capable of increasing diversity of energy supply. New nuclear power stations would therefore help the UK address the twin challenges of climate change and security of energy supply.

“The global nuclear renaissance provides a multi-billion pound opportunity for those industries involved in the supply of goods and services required for the construction, operation and maintenance, as well as decommissioning, of nuclear power stations.”

Wishing for something does not make it so. For Wright to speak of the end of nuclear is to transparently push his barrow that places preferred technologies over actual outcomes, and rhetoric above data.

The decision to use or not use nuclear power in Japan lies with the Japanese. However the atmosphere is a global commons, to which every nation has a common responsibility. It is reasonable for us to critically consider what Japan’s decision means for global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. Here, the news is very, very bad.

Those concerned by climate change keeps their eyes on two key metrics: annual greenhouse gas emissions, nation by nation, and our overall carbon (greenhouse gas) budget. We need rapid and steep cuts in the former to avoid blowing the latter. The long lived nature of carbon dioxide means every new bit matters.

Japan is the world’s fifth highest emitter of greenhouse gas, responsible for a little over 1.1 bn tCO2-e per year. Over 20 years from 1990 to 2009, national greenhouse gas emissions barely budged, increasing a negligible 0.3 per cent. So to be clear: lots of emissions, but fortunately not growing.

This has changed, big time. The Breakthrough Institute reported the following:

“In January 2012, consumption of fuel oil, crude oil, and LNG were up 118 per cent, 115 per cent, and 27 per cent respectively compared to January 2011 figures. To meet surging demand for these fossil fuels, Japanese utilities increased imports of fuel oil by 165 per cent, crude oil by 174 per cent, LNG by 39 per cent, and coal by 12 per cent. It appears that much of this fuel was used for thermal power generation, which rose 29 per cent in January 2012 compared to January 2011 levels.

“Already, the high cost of these fossil fuel imports has contributed to Japan's newfound trade deficit of $32 billion, the country's first in over 30 years.”

Nuclear has been replaced by fossil fuels in the immediate term. That’s bad news, but entirely predictable.

Should this become entrenched, the consequences are severe. The Breakthrough Institute estimated that replacing only the 38 reactors built before 1990 and the 14 that were planned would drive up national emissions by between 189 million tonnes (if replaced with gas) and 317 million tonnes (if replaced with coal); an increase of between 15-26 per cent from our fifth highest emitting nation. That’s called going backwards, fast. Those are the climate stakes of this decision.

In response to this possibility, I often hear that renewable energy sources will do the job.

Firstly, let’s be clear: renewables must help to replace fossil fuels, not nuclear, if we hope to stay within our carbon budget. Anyone saying otherwise is selling ideology, not talking science.

But secondly, the idea that renewables can step up to this task demands serious examination.

To replace the 38 old and 14 planned reactors would require a 49 fold increase in generation from renewable sources in Japan by 2030, from 8.15 billion kWh to 399 billion kWh. In carbon emission terms, that gargantuan effort would be in the name of standing still.

Could this even be done? Wright tells us we are on the “cusp of a solar revolution”, so let’s look at that.

Scaling up the performance of the Andasol plant in Spain, replacing the electricity generation of 1Gwe of nuclear operating at 90 per cent capacity factor (7,890 GWh) has a land demand of 100km2 of high solar resource conditions. Japan has no such conditions, so let’s say 150km2 in Japan. Cutting a long story short, we need to cover 4,000-5,000 km2 in solar to replace existing Japanese nuclear. This, in an archipelago that is 73 per cent mountainous and home to nearly 130 million people. To say nothing of the very high cost of power from this source, placing hopes in a solar Japan is sheer folly.

For those of us genuinely concerned about climate change, the current stance of Japan is of the utmost concern. It is not some act of pessimism to fear a further embrace by Japan of fossil fuels. The alternative 50 fold increase in renewable electricity generation would demand an unthinkably unlikely convergence of successes to overcome extraordinary barriers of geography, politics and technology. And the payoff in terms of progress towards winning back a safe climate?

Absolutely zero.

It might be Japan’s decision. But the climate consequences will belong to all of us.

Ben Heard is the Director of ThinkClimate Consulting and Founder of Decarbonise SA.

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