The CO2 cost of delaying nuclear power by a year: guest post

This is a guest post by Chris Goodall, who posts regularly at carboncommentary.com

The Fukushima disaster will probably delay the arrival and growth of nuclear power in the UK. Unless the gap is filled by alternative low carbon sources, CO2 emissions will inevitably be higher than they otherwise would be. This note estimates the likely effect.

Count the CO2 saved

Last December, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) produced a carbon budget (big PDF) for the period up to the end of the next decade. It suggested that the UK needs to emit no more than 310 million tonnes of greenhouse gases by 2030. To get there requires emissions to fall at over 4% a year during the 2020s, a hugely difficult target.

Electricity generation is the easiest major source of carbon emissions to decarbonise and the Committee looks for new nuclear power stations to replace fossil fuel plants from 2018 onwards. By the start of the 2020s, the CCC believes it necessary to install an average of 2 – 2.5 gigawatts a year of new nuclear generating capacity. (Broadly speaking, this means construction of one and a half nuclear power plants a year). The Committee sees renewables and carbon capture (CCS) providing approximately the same amounts of new low-carbon capacity each year. Nuclear is needed because it provides reliable electricity 24 hours a day, unlike wind. In addition, the technology is far more mature than carbon capture, meaning that although the first stations are very unlikely to be completed before 2018, they will still be producing electricity before the first CCS stations.

Put simply, to achieve the CCC’s target of emissions from electricity of 50 grammes per kWh, down from about 500 grammes today seems to require the fastest possible expansion of nuclear. The implication of the CCC’s very robust work seems to be that if Fukushima delays nuclear construction, emissions in 2030 will be higher than they otherwise would be. By how much?

Here are my assumptions.

  1. Concerns over the implications of Fukushima delay the UK’s nuclear programme by just over a year. This means that the nuclear programme ramps up later and so has constructed two fewer Areva EPR reactors by 2030.
  2. Instead of these two reactors, the UK is obliged to keep equivalent gas-fired capacity on stream. These gas fired plants generate 350 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity more than the very low carbon electricity from nuclear.
  3. An Areva EPR power station generates 1.6 gigawatts for 8,000 hours a year (just over 90% uptime, its design capacity).

To replace the electricity generated in 2030 by the two EPRs that haven’t been built because of the Fukushima-induced delay, will result in 9 million extra tonnes of CO2 per year, just under 3% of the UK’s carbon budget for 2030. At the government’s target price of CO2 in 2030 of £70 per tonne, the ‘cost’ in 2030 is over £600m a year and the equivalent of several billion pounds over the decade of the 2020s.

Nuclear power may turn out to be extremely expensive. Certainly no-one watching what is going on at the two construction sites of Flamanville in Normandy and Olkiluoto in Finland can be anything but sceptical of Areva’s bland assurances. Nevertheless the reality is that a further year’s delay while politicians, regulators and industry calm a worried UK public will make achievement of carbon targets even more difficult to achieve.

14 comments

  1. Robin Smith says:

    Climate change is a big problem. It is our fault. There is a remedy.

    I assert here it is not the biggest problem though. You may at first find this preposterous. Bear with me if you can find the time.

    This is just an idea. I’m not asking you to agree with me on it. Only humbly requesting you think about it. No need to respond immediately. Just think about it for a couple of weeks.

    http://gco2e.blogspot.com/2011/03/social-effect-of-perfect-solar-power.html

    If you see what I mean, it raises the inevitable question right? What would happen if we could deliver a perfect nuclear renaissance or a 100% carbon free economy? Same thing right?

    There is good news though. There is a remedy. I’ll let you think about it for a while. See if you can guess.

    Best regards
    Robin.

  2. BlueRock says:

    > The Fukushima disaster will probably delay the arrival and growth of nuclear power in the UK.

    Delay it? Let’s hope it kills it in its toxic, subsidy-sucking tracks.

    > Unless the gap is filled by alternative low carbon sources, CO2 emissions will inevitably be higher than they otherwise would be.

    So let’s do that. It’s what a wide range of experts and independent analyses prescribe.(1)

    > …the CCC believes it necessary to install an average of 2 – 2.5 gigawatts a year of new nuclear generating capacity.

    And prior to that Tory-sponsored result, the Sustainable Development Commission concluded that “doubling nuclear capacity would make only a small impact on reducing carbon emissions by 2035″ and “that the risks of nuclear energy outweighed its advantages.” The Tories shut them down.

    > (Broadly speaking, this means construction of one and a half nuclear power plants a year).

    A fantasy, in other words. I think the Finns are now up to 14 years total for deploying their new EPR – assuming no more delays.

    > The Committee sees renewables and carbon capture (CCS) providing approximately the same amounts of new low-carbon capacity each year.

    CCS? Vapourware. A marketing strategy from the coal industry to stave off its demise. Amazing how many ‘experts’ have been fooled by it.

    > Nuclear is needed because it provides reliable electricity 24 hours a day, unlike wind.

    No, nuclear is not needed. And no one is advocating we power the country solely on wind. We use a complimentary portfolio of wind, solar, hydro, biomass, biogas, wave, etc.(2) Inflexible nuclear is the worst compliment for renewables.(3)(4) One or the other, not both.

    > …the first stations are very unlikely to be completed before 2018…

    Stations? Plural?! We haven’t broken ground on any new nukes yet and Lynas thinks we’re going to have more than one in less than 7 years?! This is fantasy. Dangerous fantasy.

    > …they will still be producing electricity before the first CCS stations.

    That’s for certain. CCS exists nowhere outside the coal industry’s marketing department.(5)

    > Put simply, to achieve the CCC’s target of emissions from electricity of 50 grammes per kWh, down from about 500 grammes today seems to require the fastest possible expansion of nuclear.

    Ah, yes – the old “IMMINENT DANGER! No time to think! Must build nukes! No alternatives!” Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine for energy.

    > Concerns over the implications of Fukushima…

    Pfft. Radiation being pumnped in to the atmosphere, contaminated food and water, evacuations, economic damage to add to the tsunami’s, on-site workers being exposed to extremely high levels of radiation. “Concerns”.

    > …delay the UK’s nuclear programme by just over a year. This means that the nuclear programme ramps up later and so has constructed two fewer Areva EPR reactors by 2030.

    One year = 2 EPRs? This is utter tosh. See Finland.(6)

    > Instead of these two reactors, the UK is obliged to keep equivalent gas-fired capacity on stream.

    Why? Renewables can be deployed far more quickly than nukes. The rest of his arguments collapse when built on all of the nonsense that precede them.

    > …a further year’s delay while politicians, regulators and industry calm a worried UK public…

    Yes. We need calming and placating because we’re all such big sillies, fussing over the horrendous consequences of a nuke going in to meltdown. Let’s not even mention the piles of highly toxic waste that needs storing somewhere for 100,000+ years!

    > …will make achievement of carbon targets even more difficult to achieve.

    On the nonsense assumption that we sit on our hands and don’t deploy clean, safe, never-ending renewable energy.

    It seems that the nuke cheerleaders are becoming increasingly desperate and illogical. Their arguments have more holes in them than the containment buildings at Fukushima.

    [links to follow in next comment to avoid moderation queue]

  3. BlueRock says:

    (1) “There are viable and pragmatic energy futures: where offshore wind, waves, tides, biomass and photovoltaics collectively offer the potential to harness enormous energy resources. …the nuclear option is the dearest and riskiest of gambles.” http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/letters/letters-nuclear-power-1961532.html

    (2) Zero Carbon Britain 2030: “A sustainable, secure, efficient Britain can be powered without relying on fossil fuels or nuclear power.” http://www.zerocarbonbritain.org/

    (3) Nuclear Power And Renewable Energy Not Compatible. http://www.energymatters.com.au/index.php?main_page=news_article&article_id=1404

    (4) Renewable Energies and Base Load Power Plants Are Essentially Incompatible. http://www.unendlich-viel-energie.de/en/details/article/523/campatibility.html

    (5) Research paper from American academics is threatening to blow a hole in growing political support for carbon capture and storage as a weapon in the fight against global warming. CCS “is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/apr/25/research-viabilty-carbon-capture-storage + http://twodoctors.org/manual/economides.pdf

    (6) Billions over budget and years over schedule, Finland’s symbol of resurrection becomes showcase for hassles, delays and cost-overruns. http://www.climatesceptics.org/country/finland/olkiluoto/finlands-symbol-of-resurrection-becomes-showcase-for-hassles-delays-and-cost-overruns

    • Jared says:

      Actually, your entire argument falls apart at the beginning, on your response to:
      “> Unless the gap is filled by alternative low carbon sources, CO2 emissions will inevitably be higher than they otherwise would be.”
      You seem to conclude that the “gap” in power production can be replaced by non-nuclear, low carbon (renewable?) sources. From the very article you sited as source (1):
      “In fact more non-nuclear generation is already under construction and will come on-line by 2015 than is scheduled to go off-line. A further 1GW of new capacity beyond 2015 is being planned, permitted or constructed. Although this is predominantly gas- fired, the International Energy Agency has made it clear that gas is available in an increasingly global market to deliver reliable and affordable access for the UK.”

      Note, buried in this paragraph, “Although this is predominantly gas- fired.” That means still 1/2 the carbon output of coal. I want far less than that, installed asap. No power source can do this besides nuclear. Nuclear plants should be replacing those planned gas-fired plants as well as coal until we can get enough renewables to meet our needs (which isn’t for quite some time).

      “There are viable and pragmatic energy futures: where offshore wind, waves, tides, biomass and photovoltaics collectively offer the potential to harness enormous energy resources. Other energy futures include: large-scale networks for energy distribution; radical market innovations from energy supply to energy services, comprehensive energy efficiency, and the restructuring of our built environment to provide for more distributed and integrated energy systems.”

      This is also from your source (1). While it paints a picture of potential that I hope we can reach soon, it’s not going to happen in the next decade.

  4. Andy says:

    Have you ever thought about using less energy? How about quite a bit less energy? Thought about what your life might be like using a 1/4 or a 1/5 less. You would eat well, drink well, have friends and family close by, live and work (a bit) where you live. And amazingly it might not need colossal amounts of complex energy to sustain your life. Not that difficult to imagine is it? What more do you want out of life?

  5. patsi baker says:

    interesting story over at the Greenpeace website (and yes, they would say this), but I’d like to see an answer to this:

    http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/Forget-Fukushima/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=feature&utm_term=2503011_1140&utm_campaign=fukushima

    “The International Energy Agency has looked into future energy scenarios and concluded that if existing world nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050 its share of world energy consumption would still be below 10%. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4%. (Source: Energy Technology Perspectives 2010, IEA/OECD, June 2010 http://www.iea.org/techno/etp/index.asp)

    Still. Every percentage shaved off of our ambitious CO2 reduction targets is a big thing, right? So let’s say we set a target of quadrupling nuclear power capacity. We’d best get started soon – to reach this target would mean building a new reactor every 10 days from now until 2050.”

    So I ask – is the IAEA wrong? Is Greenpeace wrong?

    Answers please.

    • ColinG says:

      Patsi, Greenpeace says: “Even if it were 100% clean, 100% safe, and 100% foolproof, nuclear power can do little or nothing in the fight against climate change.” And then goes on to state that this is because even if nuclear power is quadrupled it would only cut global emissions by 4%.

      They imply that this is “nothing”, but they fail to point out that it is more than any single renewable electricity technology will do. In the IEA scenario that they quote, nuclear does almost as much as all the different renewable electricity sources combined. That is presumably not “little or nothing”.

      As Mark says, nuclear is a significant part of the solution. It’s not the whole thing.

      Greenpeace has been pushing this deceptive gambit for a while. e.g.
      http://ec.europa.eu/energy/nuclear/forum/meetings/doc/2007_11_26/2007_11_27_greenpeace_mr_haverkamp_en.pdf

      They say nuclear cannot be built fast enough to provide part of the solution; but they blatantly cite the IEA chart which shows unequivocally that nuclear is a sizeable component of the climate change mitigation solution – and at least as important as any renewable electricity technology.

      One reactor every ten days is ambitious but plausible. That’s why the IEA includes it in the scenario. In the 1980s France brought one online every 90 days or so – and that was just one country.

    • RichardDM says:

      …they fail to point out that it is more than any single renewable electricity technology will do.”

      This point would be valid if Greenpeace were advocating only a single renewable technology – but they are not. So, why did you make this observation? It seems designed to confuse the issue.

      In the IEA scenario that they quote, nuclear does almost as much as all the different renewable electricity sources combined.”

      That’s a snapshot of today – it says nothing about the best solution moving forward.

      Greenpeace has been pushing this deceptive gambit for a while.

      But you’ve not demonstrated any deception from Greenpeace – although your rhetoric is suspicious… at best.

      They say nuclear cannot be built fast enough to provide part of the solution; but they blatantly cite the IEA chart which shows unequivocally that nuclear is a sizeable component of the climate change mitigation solution – and at least as important as any renewable electricity technology.

      You’ve once again switched from what Greenpeace (and many others) predict – that nuclear cannot be built quickly enough, to stating what the current energy mix is. You are conflating issues – and the repeated pattern of doing the same makes you appear quite dishonest.

      One reactor every ten days is ambitious but plausible. That’s why the IEA includes it in the scenario.

      A new reactor coming online every ten days for the next four decades is fantasy. The IEA make no such claim that it is possible. You appear to be simply making things up to suit an agenda.

      In the 1980s France brought one online every 90 days or so – and that was just one country.

      The first French nuclear reactor came online in 1965. They built another 57, the last was connected to the grid in 2000. That’s 58 in 35 years. That’s one every 210 days – not “90 days”. You appear to be simply making things up to suit an agenda.

      So the best anyone has achieved – via a massive socialisation of energy production – is one nuclear reactor every 210 days. Not very close to every 10 days, is it?

  6. Robin Smith says:

    To Patsi

    So increase it 40 times?

  7. Robin Smith says:

    Oops sorry Patsi. France built one a year for some time. Without an issue except for extremism doing a great job to stop them.

    There are a 100 nations in the world that could do the same. Its right in the ball park.

    The problem is not how much can be produced. It is do you reallyy want to do It?

  8. patsi baker says:

    one new reactor every 10 days just ain’t gonna happen. We can’t afford them, for one.

    Amory Lovins in Huffington Post (and this is someone who knows his stuff):

    “Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy. The last two made 18% of the world’s 2009 electricity, nuclear 13%, reversing their 2000 shares–and made over 90% of the world’s additional electricity in 2008.”

    Moreover, the lovely nuclear industry spends its time lobbying hard against renewable energy. Given that the climate-solving energy equation with nukes would involve a lot of renewables and energy efficiency, you’d think that the industry would recognise that. But no. See this piece in the FT as an example:

    “EDF is also concerned that the additional incentives for renewables will lead to so much wind capacity being built that nuclear power stations will have to be shut down at times of high wind power output, jeopardising the economics of new reactors.”

  9. patsi baker says:

    @ Robin

    “There are a 100 nations in the world that could do the same. Its right in the ball park.”

    well, sort of, except there aren’t that many nuclear experts on the planet who could do it. there could be a teensy bit of protest.

    And to quote you: “see finland” ;-)

  10. Kjell Kühne says:

    Hi Chris,

    thank you for this thought experiment. Have you thought of the possibility that the EU-ETS will actually work and drive carbon prices up in a way that speeds up the transformation to a lower carbon economy?
    Carbon markets are already responding to the nuclear crisis (see http://www.carbonpositive.net/viewarticle.aspx?articleID=2291).

    cheers,

    Kjell

  11. Ben Treuherz says:

    Is this a clear choice between nuclear and coal?
    Haven’t we forgotten the root cause of the energy crisis?
    The root cause is not what fuel or source we use to produce the electricity, but the demand.
    If demand is reduced to a sustainable level, then which source to use would be a much easier choice.

    At current levels of demand renewables can’t meet the total demand, but if demand is reduced then they could meet a larger proportion.

    So there are 3 options not 2.
    1) BAU with coal and gas instead of nuclear
    2) BAU with nuclear, coal and gas as they are today
    3) Reduce demand t0 a sustainable level and increase the share or renewables instead of nuclear and coal

    Let’s remember what the root cause. Reducing demand is the first and most important solution and should be prioritised ahead of any other options.
    Let’s not forget our most important solution.

Post a comment