A topic that comes back again and again is how nuclear can’t help get us to zero CO2 emissions as it is ‘too slow’. After all, Olkiluoto-3 only got into commercial production last month after the build was started in August 2005, and Vogtle 3 and 4 are in the final stages of starting up after starting th build in March and November 2013 respectively.
So, clearly, nuclear energy has no place in the road to zero emissions, right? After all, we simply don’t have the time to build nuclear power plants. We’re in crisis mode after all!
Of course, this narrative would be more convincing if the likes of Greenpeace weren’t celebrating the closure of Germany’s nuclear sector or sue the EU over the audacity of democratically deciding nuclear is actually green energy.
But granted, before 2050, we probably won’t be building a lot of new large nuclear power plants and the fledgling SMR sector might just be maturing at that point. Although, this is really a matter of choice, not a matter of time constraint. Poland for example wants to develop dozens of new SMR’s in the next few decades with 3 GWe of BWRX-300 units already online by the early 2030s.
The real time constraint is that of politics. Whereas public opinion is already pro-nuclear, this isn’t always reflected in political reality, to put it mildly. Policy makers are so completely focused on achieving the goals for 2050, and intermediary goals in between, that they lost sight of the bigger picture.
To put it into a target politicians can understand then: what’s our view for what energy should look like in 2100?
Put into this frame, the question of nuclear being ‘too slow’ immediately becomes laughably irrelevant, even in the most pessimistic scenarios. It is however relevant to ask this question as there will be a life after 2050. By this time, when we reached our goal of zero emissions (I keep hope that we’ll reach this target), the problem after all is that we need to replace all these wind and solar parks we’re building right now.
Why is this a problem, you ask? In one word: resources.
The IEA is already concerned we’re not going to reach the targets we set ourselves for 2040. And once decommissioned these solar panels and wind turbines probably end up in a landfill, despite that we keep being promised ‘breakthroughs’ in this regard. I’m a little more pessimistic and point out the obvious again: the cheapest way to dismiss the bits we don’t have to recycle is to just dump them, preferably far away so we don’t have to confront the waste, much like we don’t have to confront the toxic waste when producing them.
So, we’ll be replacing these every generation or so, until the end of time. That’s the plan, apparently.
Or maybe we could plan for an energy source that costs a fraction of the resources and could be a safe bet for many centuries to come? I wonder which clean options we’d have for that…
Oh, that’s right: we have nuclear energy for that.
Just to give a ball park idea, let’s go with the example of the Westinghouse lead-cooled fast reactor. This unit is under active development, so I’m pretty happy with that one as breeder reactors can provide us with all energy until the sun runs out.
Now, this is a 450 MWe unit running at around 500ºC, making it ideal for a lot of industrial applications, like making fertiliser. We’ll assume we can use a lot of that heat, so 450 MW of electricity is about 750 MW of total energy, or about 6 TWh a year.
Current total energy use is about 14,000 Mtoe, or ~163,000 TWh. So that’s 27k units of these LFR’s. But humanity’s energy use will rise, especially as the third world is going to develop, so it wouldn’t be a wild guess to assume 60k units will be needed by the turn of the century. They’ll cost $1.35 billion a piece, and probably have a lifespan similar to the BREST-OD-300 of 30 years. This brings the cost per kWh to 0.75 cents per kWh. Add staff to that figure, fuel use (which is extremely low), and saving up for stuff like decommissioning, and you get to about 2 cents per kWh.
Can we build ~2000 of these units a year by the end of the century? Well, if they’re assembled in a factory, like the SMR hype promises, there’s no reason to doubt that. But we again need time to build out that kind of capacity. So, until 2050 we need solar and wind to get to zero carbon emissions. It’ll be a workable, but pricey, transition method to get humanity to become a fully nuclear species.
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