No Nukes: The IPCC's numbers don't add up

There's a big problem in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not that it's surprising an economics report would be self-contradictory -- it's not for nothing that they call economics the dismal science. But it's a pretty big problem to sort out. Here's the conflict:

On the one hand, the authors say nuclear power, in the form of good old fashioned uranium-fission reactors, could supply 18 per of the cuts necessary to stabilize greenhouse gas levels and consequently global temperature averages. On the other, it suggests that costs of stabilization will amount to just a bit over one tenth of one percent (0.12%), to be precise) of global GDP per year.

I like that last number, framed as it is with the proviso that some models predict that some of the various mitigations strategies predict an increase in GDP, and that only some foresee an increase. So it's pretty close to a wash There are other red flags associated with these predictions, including the uncertainty that temperatures will stop rising even if we do somehow manage to stabilize GHG emissions, but let's leave that for now.

The trouble with nuclear power is more obvious. Let's look at some basic facts. First, global energy demand right now is approximately 13 or 14 terawatts. Where will it be in 2030, which is the timeframe the IPCC authors are thinking about? If demand continues to grow at 3%, then it should be somewhere around 25 or 30 terawatts. (3% growth implies a doubling time of 23 years.) This is a rough guess and estimates vary widely in the literature. For example, Marty Hoffert, professor emeritus of physics at New York University, suggests will need anywhere from 10 to 30 carbon-free terawatts by 2050. Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, the authors of the forthcomingThe Clean Tech Revolution, a review copy the good people at HarperCollins recently sent me, figure we'll need 14 terawatts of new power by 2050.

So let's take a conservative guess that we might institute a fair bit of energy efficiency between now and 2030, and keep our new needs down to just 10 TW of new power. A typical 1 gigawatt nuclear reactor costs anywhere from $2 billion to $5 billion, depending on who's counting (are the enormous government subsidies and forgiven insurance costs included?). But let's be generous and use the low figure.

Now, consider that as George Monbiot recently wrote, we've already reached the neighborhood of the the IPCC target of 445-535 parts per million in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 plus all the other GHG gases is now 459 ppm). So that means we can't afford any new net sources of power that aren't carbon neutral. Remember the IPCC's figure of 18 per cent of cuts in future power supplies to come from nuclear reactors?

Well, 18 per cent of 10 TW is 1,800 GW, which means we will need 1,800 new 1-GW reactors, at a cost of at least $3.6 trillion. And remember that's using the most conservative estimates at each step of the process. That's 1800/23 = 78 reactors a year, for a cost of $156 billion/year.

But the current global GDP is about $45 trillion. The IPCC figures that all mitigation solutions combined, including the new nukes, will cost only 0.1 % of that, or just $45 billion of this year's global GDP, if we start now.

See the problem? The nukes alone cost more than three times what the IPCC expects the total mitigation expenditures to be. If we're lucky.

And we haven't even begun to talk disposal costs.

More like this

We all know we need to get off fossil fuels and replace them with carbon-neutral alternatives. The question is not IF we should choose this path, but how best to get where we need to go. There are those who, fairly enough, worry that those clean renewables aren't up to the job. This is a critical…
The Conference Board of Canada, usually described as a business-friendly think tank, has come out with a report that is refreshingly honest, and even a bit subversive — especially if you pay extra attention to some sidebars, consider what the authors deliberately left out, and are at least a little…
As a father of a four-year-old, I'm a big fan of Bob the Builder. The basic plot of each episode of the charming stop-motion children's series revolves around one or more pieces of heavy machinery learning self-discipline, which, as a new PNAS study shows, is a key skill associated with success and…
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Thursday that Canada is getting out of the medical isotope business. The implications of the decision, which appears to be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid further political embarrassment, go beyond the confines of the country's health-care system. It…

I think they are questimating the cost difference between this wedge being nuclear versus fossil-fueled. In that case it would be legitimate to subtract out the cost of the displaced technology.

I think the nuclear is questionable, based upon fuel supply. If we don't change the fuel cycle -reprocessing or some other major change- the Uranium supply won't be sufficient.

Actually, for all electric power sources apart from non-sequestered Coal, nuclear comes out cheaper.

And as far as externialities go - certainly, reprocessing is a no-brainer (Can we call it 'Recycling?'); breeder cycles would dramatically reduce the amount of uranium mining as well. And both of these work to cut down the waste stream; eventually, you would hope that the only wastes would be the ~30 year half life fission products plus a minute amount of ~1ma half life stuff.

As far as I can tell, there is enough uranium, especially from seawater, to supply an open-cycle process if we want, but it would be an inefficient usage.

Nuclear may not be a perfect solution, but it has the advantage of actually making a noticeable contribution. Yet it seems that most of the 'green' has already decided against it. Which would be great if we had a scalable, non-GHG-polluting, economic, ready-to-go alterative way to replace coal in baseload power generation, but the problem is that we don't.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

Reprocessing may technically be a no-brainer, but there's quite a few practical difficulties (such as transport) to deal with. Start moving serious amounts of spent fuel back and forward around the globe and the odds of serious accidents creep up into non-negligible territory.

As for breeders, they don't breed fuel that quickly, and they still don't get you to a true closed-cycle (given current technology anyway). The rate is the important thing, and it's not very good - the doubling time is about 10 years, IIRC. Plus none of the past attempts have been particularly successful...

James, you neglect to mention that the 1800 GW would have to be built anyways in the business-as-usual alternative. You have to look at the incremental costs (if any). After including fuel costs to fossil plants, I'm guessing it's a push.

My problems with nuclear power come from growing up in the 1950s and listening to the claims of the industry and their boosters all my life. The problem is that they lie a lot. That tends to make me not trust them (shocker!). Not just lying about leaks and such, but about the basics of nuclear power. Okay, maybe every regular citizen should know enough about new industries to vett technical claims, but how realistic is that? The problem of disposal of spent fuel was glossed over, and the claim was that the plants themselves were good, essentially, forever. Turns out the equipment isn't good forever, naturally, and when it's no longer good there's even more radioactive stuff to dispose of.

I'm not saying it can't be done, just that I am suspicious of the whole industry because of their past actions and words, and I think rightly so -- if a group lies like that to you for decades, you should be suspicious of what they tell you.

A Tough Problem for decisions. France has "6-pack off-the-shelf" fission plants and (allegedly) a closed disposal system.It sounds sane for their energy requirements. Is the scenerio truthful? The alarmists cite that primitive Chenobyl plant as a horror a-coming. How might the sane and scientific colleagues here prescribe the narrow way to self-suffiency without anthropogenic crashes so that we might enjoy this nicely situated planet until Sol runs out of Hydrogen and starts chomping on Helium?