In the context of Peak Oil and the general depletion of fossil fuels, we often hear about Nuclear Energy as an option. However, if we look at the empirical data, we will soon discover that it’s not – even if we discount all the dangers associated with Nuclear Energy programme, such as waste disposal problems and accidents. In fact, as figures in a recent World Watch Institute study shows, we might have already passed the peak of nuclear power as a viable energy source.
By T. Vijayendra, POI Founder-Member
There is a popular belief that the Three Miles Island (1979) , Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima nuclear accidents (2011) have slowed down the growth of the nuclear power, even though the nuclear lobby continues to claim that, on the whole, nuclear power is still much safer than other options, say, coal. However, the truth is that nuclear power, economically and technically, is not a viable source of power. The accidents, of course, contributed to its unpopularity in the public mind, but the primary reason why nuclear energy is doomed is its own inner weakness.
The Nuclear euphoria began in the 50s, when the U.S. announced plans for a 1000 nuclear plants within the country and another 1000 outside. At the time, they thought that it would supply such abundant power so cheaply that it would not even be necessary to meter it. Today, there are about 100 nuclear plants in the U.S. and a total of 437 plants all over the world, generating a total of 371 GWe (Gigawatt electrical) of power. Of a total of 192 U. N. members, only 30 countries have nuclear power and the six big ones – U.S., France, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Japan generated 73% of the total world nuclear power in 2011 – which was roughly 13% of the world’s electricity. In addition, about 26 plants are under construction. However, after the Fukushima disaster, all 48 nuclear plants in Japan, and all 22 plants in Germany, have been shut down.
What is Peak Nuclear Power? It is not like Peak Oil, the main reason for which is that the amount of oil that can be extracted from earth has sharp limits. Here the problem is that the average life span of a nuclear plant is 40 years (never mind the fact that the average life span of 130 reactors that were actually shut down was only 22 years!) Any attempt to increase the life span of nuclear plants will be resisted by the public in the future because one of the reasons for the Fukushima accident was that the life of the plant was increased beyond 40 years. So, old nuclear plants are getting shut down and new ones are not replacing fast enough.
The costs and time taken to get a plant going keeps on increasing (the cost has gone up 6 times and it takes 70 months to build a plant), and as a result, the order book keeps on falling. In 1970, new construction peaked at 225 plants (some were cancelled later) and today it is 64, and it is expected that many of them will be cancelled too. So a time comes when the net production will start falling never to rise again. It is estimated that this will happen in 2015.
In 2015 there will be about 462 reactors generating 405 Gwe and thereafter it will start declining rapidly. Projecting this further, by 2055, there will be about 10 reactors generating insignificant or no power. At the time of the report*, the Fukushima disaster had just happened. It is likely that Peak Nuclear Power is already behind us. It is possible that the production peaked in 2010 with a little over 2500 TWh (terrawatt hours).
The real competitor for nuclear power are renewable energy sources. Their costs are falling whereas the cost of nuclear energy is rising. In 2010, renewable energy costs beat nuclear power costs at 17 cents per KWh. In 2015, renewables are expected to cost 10 cents per KWh, whereas nuclear is expected to cost 25 cents.
Also, in 2010 the net production of renewables was 381 Gwe, surpassing nuclear production of 375 Gwe. And yet, most of the research funding (70%) goes to nuclear research whereas renewables receive a mere 13%. Why? Because nuclear energy programme is not an energy programme, but a civilian front for the weapons programme, stupid!
*The figures for this article are taken from a World Watch Institute Report.