How To Tell

Replacing fossil fuel combustion with nuclear energy to supply our electricity should hopefully appear a lot more achievable to everyone after today, with the publication of an open access peer-reviewed paper by Qvist and Brook in PLOS One. These are my favourite parts:

Why consider a large-scale nuclear scenario? The operation of a nuclear reactor does not emit greenhouse gases or other forms of particulate air pollution, and it is one of few base-load alternatives to fossil energy sources currently available that has been proven by historical experience to be able to be significantly expanded and scaled up. Large-hydro projects are geographically constrained and typical have widespread impacts on river basins. The land use, and biodiversity aspects of a large-scale expansion of biomass for energy make its use as a sustainable global energy source questionable.

…Between 1960 and 1990 Sweden more than doubled its inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) per capita while reducing its per capita CO2 emissions through a rapid expansion of nuclear power production. The reduction in CO2 emissions was not an objective but rather a fortunate by-product, since the effect on the climate by greenhouse-gas emissions was not a factor in political discourse until much more recently. Nuclear power was introduced to reduce dependence on imported oil and to protect four major Swedish rivers from hydropower installations. As illustrated [below], in the pre-nuclear era (1960–1972), the rise in Swedish CO2 emissions matched and even exceeded the relative increase in economic output. Once commercial nuclear power capacity was brought online, however, starting with the Oskarshamn-1 plant in 1972, emissions started to decline rapidly. By 1986, half of the electrical output of the country came from nuclear power plants, and total CO2 emissions per capita (from all sources) had been slashed by 75% from the peak level of 1970.


Importantly, the paper does not seek to neglect the contributions from other technologies. But it does redress the habitual exclusion of any nuclear potential in the bulk of “energy plan by this-or-that year” scenarios – which undeniably tend to optimistically favour dilute renewable sources like wind and sun.

2000-06-20:O1,O2 och O3 från sydväst.

Oskarshamn NPP. 3 reactors. 10% of Sweden’s power. Beautiful spot.

But with all these studies, models and scenarios, how to tell which are realistic? How, without a nerdy interest in terawatt hours and capacity factors, can a normal blog reader decide which ones are really just written to reinforce a preconception? How about these for pointers:

  • Proposed technology rollout rates are given in kilowatt hour per person per year, or an easily convertible metric, as in the Qvist and Brook paper. This allows quick comparison between technologies, historical rates, countries and so on.
  • Technology tribalism. Failing to consider nuclear’s role, while succeeding in heroic optimism for other technologies, speaks directly to the authors’ bias (and even more clearly when an author’s bias is taken to ridiculous extremes elsewhere).
  • The authors have no problem with consulting industry professionals and scientists who work in the relevant field.
  • The authors keep coming back to carbon emissions reduction. Alternatives to coal, oil and gas are supposed to reduce emissions. Sometimes one has to dig deep into a “100% Renewables” study to find out where it connects to “0% Fossil Fuels”.

On that last point, wouldn’t it be something to see environmental non-governmental organisations – routinely so vocal regarding climate action – promoting this latest historically-grounded analysis as part of a technology-inclusive, rapid fossil fuels phaseout?

The results indicate that a replacement of current fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear fission at a pace which might limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible—whether this will in fact happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance.



2 thoughts on “How To Tell

  1. A point that seems lost on many is that replacing coal and gas fired baseload with nuclear could make a huge difference to emissions, say 150 Mt out of 536 Mt here in Oz. Conserve gas for peaking plant realistically assuming lithium batteries won’t do this job. Later on nuclear electricity and hydrogen/synfuel could help displace oil powered transport. In contrast nonhydro renewables are barely 5% of our electricity and effectively nil for transport and industrial heat.

    Avowed greens who don’t see this in my opinion are not part of the solution, they’ve become part of the problem.

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