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Fukushima and beyond: nuclear power in a low-carbon world

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Peter Karamoskos − Nuclear Radiologist, member of the National Council of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)

Review of: Christopher Hubbard, 2014, 'Fukushima and beyond: nuclear power in a low-carbon world', Ashgate Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4094-5491-5

When Tony Benn was Britain's Energy Secretary, he warned about people who came to you with a problem in one hand, and a solution in their back pocket. He learnt this from Britain's nuclear industry. One should keep this in mind when considering climate change as the latest rationale for expansion of the nuclear industry.

This book, authored by a lecturer in International Relations and International Security at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, is rooted in the premise that nuclear power is essential to climate change mitigation.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is used as a contextual leverage point to argue the counterfactual that this event, and more particularly the response to it, has made nuclear power more desirable than he contends it previously was. As the author states, rather blithely, on the issue of safety, "... simply put, the nuclear energy sector is extremely safe because it must be."

The foundational premise of the book, that nuclear power is essential to climate change mitigation is axiomatic to all arguments which follow. If it is not, then nuclear power becomes nothing more than a 'climate choice'.

The problem with this premise, which the author does not challenge, is that if we only address greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, then we can't avert climate change. Indeed, an important point not stated until the last chapter is that electricity does not account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, yet, this is the only sector that nuclear power can influence.

The latest IPCC Report1 states that the latest global greenhouse gas emissions were 49 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-eq/yr as of 2010. Electricity and heating accounted for 12 Gt, with electricity alone about 9 Gt. Agriculture, forestry and other land use account for 12 Gt, transport 7 Gt, industry 10 Gt. Other energy sources account for the balance. So, approximately 80% of greenhouse gases (GHG) have nothing to do with electricity.

We need to reduce our GHG emissions by 40–70% of 2010 emissions by 2050 and near-zero emissions by the end of this century if we are to maintain a global temperature rise of <2 °C and thus avoid distressing climate change impacts in ecological and socio-economic systems.

If we assume the (incorrect) argument that nuclear power produces no CO2 emissions and that every kW produced avoids 500 g of CO2-e/kWh being released into the atmosphere (the average carbon intensity of global electricity generation), nuclear power currently abates 1.5 Gt per annum of GHG.

The IAEA in a report advocating nuclear power as a solution to climate change, forecasts two scenarios for the future of nuclear power: a 'low' scenario (435 GW), and a 'high' scenario (722 GW) generation capacity by 2030. However, the claim that the nuclear industry will more than double its capacity over the next few decades (in the 'high scenario') is pure fantasy.

We currently commission about one new reactor a year somewhere in the world. If under the most optimistic conditions we raise that to 8 a year for the next 10 years and 15 a year for the 10 years after that, we simply have replaced the reactors that will be de-commissioned by then. And for every year we do not meet this rate of build, the hill to be climbed gets steeper.

However, assuming that the nuclear industry pulled the proverbial rabbit out of a hat and was able to double its capacity over this time period, and (falsely) assuming that it generates no greenhouse gases itself, it would only abate an additional 2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per annum over the existing 1.5 Gt it already abates, i.e. 4% abatement on 2010 emissions. Therefore, how can a 3.6 Gt abatement (assuming it replaces mainly fossil fuels for electricity generation and it does not generate GHG in its life cycle – clearly not the case) be considered indispensable?

Surely it can be readily and quickly replaced with renewables, which can also address several of the other non-electricity GHG-emitting sectors. In 2013 alone, the world brought online 69 GW of solar PV and wind capacity.

If simple arithmetic escapes Hubbard's sanguine assertions as to the desirability and indispensability of nuclear power, also missing from his treatise is consideration of the blatant evidence of nuclear power being in long-term decline – long before Fukushima. The nuclear share of the world's electricity generation has declined steadily from a historic peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 10.8% in 2013.

Nuclear power and renewables in China

Even in China, which has the most ambitious nuclear power programme in the world and is the poster child for nuclear boosters, including Prof. Hubbard, more renewable electricity capacity was brought online than nuclear and fossil fuels combined in 2013. This is also reflected in a new assessment by the OECD's International Energy Agency. During 2000–2013, global investment in power plants was split between renewables (57%), fossil fuels (40%) and nuclear power (3%).

China set the world record for solar PV implementation in one year at 12 GW (compared with 3 GW for nuclear) and as of the end of 2013 has more solar PV capacity than nuclear, and five times more wind power than nuclear – and the gap between renewables and nuclear in China keeps increasing. China sees electricity generation capacity as a portfolio enterprise and is clearly putting vastly more bets on renewables than nuclear – as is the rest of the world. China's plan is for 58 GW of nuclear capacity by 2020, but wind alone already exceeded this capacity last year.

Hubbard uses optimistic projections of 300–500 GW nuclear capacity in China by 2050, but doesn't divulge that these have been promoted by the industry itself and have not been approved by the government and are certainly not government policy.

Furthermore, rapid technological advances are also making low-carbon alternatives to nuclear power appear more attractive. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an industry publisher, forecasts that onshore wind will be the cheapest way to make electricity in China by 2030.

Nuclear output accounts for only 4.4% of global energy consumption, the smallest share since 1984. Renewable energy, on the other hand, provided an estimated 19% of global final energy consumption in 2012 (electricity, heating, transport) and continued to grow in 2013. Of this total share in 2012, modern renewables accounted for approximately 10%, with the remainder (estimated at just over 9%) coming from traditional biomass. Heat energy from modern renewable sources accounted for an estimated 4.2% of total final energy use; hydropower made up about 3.8% and an estimated 2% was provided by power from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, as well as by biofuels.

Nuclear safety

Hubbard writes off concerns of nuclear safety in the industry with the circular assertion 'safe because it must be' (although the Fukushima disaster, which he analyses in detail using the excellent independent report of the Japanese Diet which declared the 'myth of nuclear safety', actually contradicts his assertion).

Hubbard insists on using China as an exemplar of nuclear safety, yet his research is wanting. Philippe Jamet, a French nuclear safety commissioner, told his country's parliament earlier last year that Chinese counterparts were 'overwhelmed'. Wang Yi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an expert body, has warned that there are indeed 'uncertainties' in China's approach to nuclear safety.

Hubbard doesn't even touch on the proliferation hazards of an expansion of the nuclear industry (Iran is clearly an inconvenient truth); waves away nuclear waste disposal problems (science will fix it); and fudges the (increasingly deteriorating) economics of nuclear power (conveniently absent is the fact that private investors haven't put a cent into nuclear power for decades, unlike renewables).

Furthermore, Hubbard's description of new Generation IV and small modular reactors (these apparently will solve all major problems, e.g. waste, proliferation, accidents) might as well be no more than a cut and paste from a nuclear reactor sales brochure, in its lack of any critical appraisal of these fantasy claims. These designs are literally still only on paper with no track record, and won't be implemented for decades – if at all (too bad for GHG abatement).

The UK Government's Nuclear National Laboratories have released several reports stating that purported benefits of these new-generation reactors are at best overstated. Furthermore, proliferation hazards abound from proposals to use up existing plutonium stocks in these reactors (it needs to be converted to the bomb-ready metallic form first). Their safety is also questionable despite claims to the contrary, as their designs contravene the 'Defence in Depth' principles of nuclear safety of most nuclear regulators (most lack proper secondary containment, especially small modular reactors). In other words, they might never be licensed because they are not safe.

The author's forte is not radiation science and it shows. He lacks an understanding of the various world bodies involved in nuclear power and radiation science. This is disappointing for someone who claims expertise in the nuclear sector. For example, the IAEA is not a global regulatory body, as he claims, but an advisory body that member states join to provide guidance on implementation of nuclear activities. It has no legal jurisdiction to investigate or advise any member state without an invitation by the relevant member state.

The IAEA does have teeth to investigate suspected clandestine-prohibited proliferation-sensitive nuclear-cycle activities, but cannot impose itself (Iran is a case in point) without permission – hardly the global cop the author seems to think it is.

It is the member states themselves which regulate their own nuclear activities. This distinction is critical because it means nuclear safety is dependent on member states willingly implementing international best practice, and furthermore, not engaging in clandestine weapons development. However, where there is a lack of transparency and accountability − the two main principles of nuclear safety − safety is compromised. It is noteworthy that the main countries expanding their nuclear industries are those which rank low on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

It is difficult to reconcile the author's views with the real world. The author engages in wishful, uncritical, almost magical thinking on a grand scale in its blandishments of the nuclear power industry.

1. IPCC. 2014. "Summary for Policymakers." In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Edited by C. B. Field et al., pp.1–32.

Abridged from Medicine, Conflict and Survival, March 2015,