211. DO WE NEED NUCLEAR?
Roland asks an important question:
I still don't understand why we need nuclear power. Isn't one of the main points of this site that electricity is almost entirely from coal and gas, and oil is used in cars, where it's mostly wasted? Why do we need nuclear at all?First of all, let me say that I am not a great fan of nuclear myself, but I regard it as a necessary transitional step.
1) Lots of countries don't have any coal, gas or oil -- France is a classic example. So let's suppose that the French finally come to their senses, realize that nuclear is icky, irresponsible and dangerous, and shut down their nuclear grid. What will you replace it with? Renewables (like solar, wind and tidal) alone cannot drive a reliable power grid:
[Variable renewables] are defined as energy that cannot be generated at a constant level. Some examples are tidal, solar and wind power. These are sometimes called intermittent sources, but I prefer the term "variable" over "intermittent", because the latter implies an "all or nothing" energy generation, whereas the output more commonly varies from nothing to full output with every intermediate level possible. It should be noted that it is essential that constant power supplies must be available to cover the maximum demands, so that variable renewables can only serve to allow conventional power stations to be "eased off", thereby reducing fuel consumption. Good weather forecasting is a sine qua non of useful exploitation of variable supplies, so that the constant requirements can be foreseen and the plant brought up to speed accordingly.So where will you get the other 80% of the power supply (i.e. the base power)? Hydro is nice, but except in certain favorable countries, it accounts for a small fraction of the power supply. In France, for instance, hydro accounted for 11.5% of generation in 2002Source. I'm not familiar with the exact topography of France, but on the whole hydro is a mature industry, and I find it very hard to believe that France can increase its hydroelectric generation capacity by 8 times.
It must be noted that there is a limit to the amount of variable energy that a power grid can handle at any one time. Above that limit of 18 - 20 per cent, experience in other countries has shown that the whole grid system may become unstable, leading to black-outs.Source
2) This is where the "magic" comes in: "But we have energy storage!" Actually we don't, and this is a fantasy, just like abiotic oil. Today, the number one form of energy storage for power generation is pumped storage. If you carpet France with solar collectors and windmills, and store energy with pumped storage, you're talking about France covered with dams again. Maybe you can do that, but I'll believe it when I see the plan for the grid, with the numbers. The same goes for batteries etc.
3) Since renewables aren't going to cut it, should France turn to oil, gas and coal? Well, they could if they had some, but they don't. Of course they can import, but oil isn't the best idea for obvious reasons. They could burn gas or coal, but Europe is pretty tapped out of both, so they're going to have to import, most likely from Russia. Which brings up geopolitical issues like the recent Ukranian crisis. It's hard to maintain an independent foreign policy when some other nation can bring you to your knees by turning a valve.
4) France could turn to their buddies in the U.S. and Australia for coal. But if that's the road we're all going to take, then all of Europe, and Japan, and Mexico and most of Latin America, and every tapped out country in the world will be sucking down those coal deposits. Can the U.S. and Australia mine and transport coal that fast? It's a great selfless gesture, but do they really want to let everybody else raid their coal deposits as fast as possible? It's one thing to fuel the U.S. grid with U.S. coal, but it's quite another to fuel the U.S. grid and half of the rest of the world with U.S. coal. They could probably only keep it up for a few decades.
5) This also ignores the problem of global warming. If France, Japan, the US, the UK and all the other nuclear nations all switch entirely to natural gas and goal, you're talking about a horrendous increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which we should be reducing, not increasing.
6) This is becoming a real-world problem right now in the UK. George Monbiot is one of the few renewable advocates who has actually made the effort and produced some figures. In a recent piece called How Much Energy Do We Have?, he writes: "Are there enough renewables to keep the lights on? The answer will be comforting to no one." Even assuming that a cost-effective energy storage technology with 50% efficiency is developed by 2030, he concludes that renewables could provide 19GW of capacity in the UK. That compares to current installed capacity of 77GW. The UK can't wait for that new miracle storage technology to come on line in 2030. They have very little coal, and their oil and gas is running out. So what are their options for the next 20-30 years? I see three possibilities:
- Become the geopolitical poodle of Russia
- Experience a devastating contraction of their electrical power grid, or
- Continue with, and expand, nuclear.
-- by JD