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Nuclear is Not the Solution, itís Part of the Problem
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A golden age of energy is coming to an end and we have to make the transition to a new age, before our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. But the urgency of the climate challenge and the immaturity of nuclear technology means we must turn to renewables to find a solution, writes Dr. Thiemo Gropp.


24th September 2012 - Published by the Occupied Times

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and professor of sustainable development at Columbia University, said recently that the urgency of climate change and the immaturity of the renewable energy industry, leave us with little option but to expand our nuclear power production. In so doing, he joined a group of vocal nuclear advocates in Europe and the US who insist that nuclear power must form an important part of any serious attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions. This isn’t true.

In the midst of the heated debate about our energy future, it is important to remember that nuclear power is just one of a range of technologies that we could employ to help address our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels, each with their particular strengths and challenges.

At the DESERTEC Foundation, we believe that the world’s deserts hold the key to addressing global climate challenge. By harnessing their abundant energy, renewable technologies such as concentrating solar power (CSP), photovoltaic (PV) and wind can complement renewables in other regions to generate the affordable power we need to reduce emissions and provide greater security of supply. However, in order to take full advantage of the plummeting costs of solar PV and onshore wind, and to get the most out of the clean and affordable power they provide, we will require a transmission grid and an energy mix that plays to their strengths. Such a system would not include nuclear power.

Ultimately, this is why nuclear power is a dangerous distraction. Not because of legitimate concerns about safety, or waste, or proliferation, but because the right combination of renewable technologies can deliver more of the electricity we need, and cut more carbon emissions in less time and with less cost.

Electricity from new nuclear plant designs will be much more costly than that produced by existing nuclear power plants. Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, says that power generated by proposed European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) plants would cost more than double (and perhaps triple) the current wholesale price. That means two to three times more than the present cost of onshore wind power and up to twice as much as the cost of concentrated solar power. Some analysts estimate that two new reactors at Hinkley Point would add a further £200 a year to the average UK household energy bill.

Compare the rising cost of nuclear power to the consistent fall in the cost of various renewable technologies: PV module prices have plummeted, dropping by 75% in the last three years, and in some locations geothermal, onshore wind and PV are already competitive with fossil fuels. Falling prices are being accompanied by explosive growth in the design and use of these technologies. Over the last four years more than half of new capacity in Europe was solar or wind. Last year it was 68%. Nuclear power exhibits a negative learning curve, becoming more expensive and slower to build as time goes on.

The increased use of intermittent solar and wind means there is demand for flexible energy production to fill the gaps. In this case, nuclear is not the answer because plants need to run at close to full capacity to be sustainable. The success of wind and solar PV therefore makes the economics of nuclear much less attractive. Energy companies RWE and Eon recently scrapped their involvement in proposed new atomic plants at Wylfa and Oldbury in the UK, claiming that nuclear power was too long-term an investment in the current economic climate. Perhaps these decisions were made with the projected growth of wind and solar PV in mind?

Another argument against nuclear technologies is that solutions are needed which can be implemented with immediate effect. In late 2011, the International Energy Agency said that the choices made over the next five years regarding our energy supply will determine whether we can prevent runaway climate change. The urgency of the climate challenge cannot be overstated.

According to the Chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Professor Roger Cashmore, fast reactors “are not yet at a level where you can roll them out on a large scale.” On thorium reactors he observed, “of course, until you make one of these things go you really don’t know the costs and difficulties.” Generation-IV reactors may help to address issues such as proliferation and waste in the future, but they cannot deliver the capacity needed in the timescale required, and therefore should not divert finance and political energy from the scalable technologies that we have.

Looking at the available options it is not that difficult to pick winners. Within a few years, wind and solar PV will do what nuclear technology has never done and become fully competitive with fossil fuels. Taken together with other renewable technologies, they offer the most affordable option for the energy future of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East (EUMENA). We should build on their successes, and design our energy system accordingly.

The key to this success will rely on the development of a ‘super grid’. By using technologies that can respond to diverse and dispersed intermittent renewable energy sources, an energy mix with a very high proportion of wind and solar PV can provide reliable power. It is simply a question of the right choreography. A ‘super grid’ would allow the UK to develop the best sites for its enviable wind, wave and tidal power resources and transform itself from a net energy importer to a net energy exporter. A pan-European grid would bring economies of scale, increasing market competition and drive down costs by reducing the need for expensive back-up plants. Extending the grid into North Africa would result in further savings for UK and European consumers.

A golden age of energy is coming to an end and we have to make the transition to a new age, before our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. This means making informed choices on the kind of energy system we want and encouraging the political leadership to drive these changes through. There are no cheap options or quick fixes whichever way we choose to replace our ageing infrastructure, but there is opportunity here. Investment could stimulate growth and lay the foundations for the future prosperity of the EUMENA region.

The more we fear the impacts of either climate change or peak oil, the more judiciously we should invest to ensure the greatest and quickest reduction in carbon emissions per pound, per year. An integrated and complementary energy system based on renewables gives us the best chance of doing that.

Jeffrey Sachs got his reasons right but his target wrong. Over fifty-five years since a nuclear power station first fed electricity into a power grid, the urgency of the climate challenge and the immaturity of nuclear technology means we must turn to renewables to find a solution.


Dr. Thiemo Gropp is Director & Co-founder of the DESERTEC Foundation (www.desertec.org).

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