Since publication of The Price of Carbon I have been challenged by some within the environmental community as to the strongly stated position in the book that nuclear power is not only safe and sustainable but required to efficiently decarbonize power grids within the timeframe required to limit future surface warming to less than 2°C.
Without doubt, the level 7 nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima resulted in massive and costly cleanup and remediation projects that will stretch over decades. There is no denying this reality and the need to continuously advance safety in the design of nuclear power stations and to establish safe long-term solutions to manage high-level nuclear waste.
However, a narrow focus on the potential damage of future nuclear disasters and issues of waste management often leads to the conclusion that a global shutdown of nuclear power plants and full moratorium on future builds is in order. This outcome would be lead to a catastrophic increase in the use of fossil fuels to produce electricity over the next 30 years.
There are vast regions of the planet that are lacking in sufficient biomass, hydro and geothermal options to produce electricity. Renewables in the form of wind and solar are variable energy sources and grid penetration beyond 40% of total power supply becomes largely impractical based on current technologies. In the absence of hydro and geothermal, the options for baseline power production consist of fossil fuels and nuclear power. If you remove the nuclear option, the critical decarbonization of the electricity supply sector as required over the next 30 years is likely to be impractical. Given the remaining budget of emissions under a less than 2 degrees surface warming scenario there is no luxury of time to delay decarbonization of the electricity supply sector as will happen in the absence of nuclear power.
In Japan, the post-Fukushima shut-down of nuclear power stations, resulted in a compensatory increase in fossil fuel use and an 7% increase in national emissions. Japan plans to re-introduce nuclear power to the energy mix such that nuclear would contribute 20% of the total power supply by 2030. Prior to Fukushima, Japan had planned an ambitious year 2030 low emissions energy mix of 52% nuclear, 19% renewables and 29% fossil fuels. Post Fukushima the 2030 targets have been revised to 20% nuclear, 23% renewables and 56% fossil fuels. As a result, Japan’s ambitions to curtail GHG emissions and to contribute to the global effort to combat climate change have diminished since the Fukushima disaster.
India’s latest energy plans calls for no new fossil fuel power plants to be built, beyond those already under construction, until at least 2027. The massive increase in electricity supply within India over next 9 years will be covered by zero emissions hydro, renewables and nuclear power. This program is vital to the global effort of decarbonize power supply by mid-century.
In 1975, a massive storm dropped a year’s worth on rain within a 24-hour period in the drainage area of the Ru river in China leading to the collapse of the Banqiao dam. Casualties from Banqiao dam catastrophe were estimated at 171,000 deaths and with 11 million displaced. In contrast there were 0 fatalities associated with the Fukushima disaster and the Chernobyl disaster lead to 134 cases of immediate radiation sickness with 28 confirmed deaths from acute exposure. Post Chernobyl there were another 19 deaths from cancer associated acute exposure and there were 9 deaths from thyroid cancer from exposure to radioactive iodide.
Based on a statistic of early death per unit of power production, nuclear, wind, solar and hydro (including Banqiao dam collapse) are safe methods of power production. The WHO estimates that globally there are 7 million early deaths per year due to air quality issues and coal combustion accounts for well over half of this mortality.
In describing the Banqiao dam disaster my intention is not to raise concerns over the safety of hydro power but to put the safety concerns of nuclear power into context and to illustrate the damage potential of unmitigated climate change. With unchecked emissions, and subsequent future global warming the frequency and damage potential of extreme weather events will markedly increase.
The global focus to combat climate change cannot deviate from curtailment of emissions and progressive decarbonization of economic sectors. Nuclear power has a key role in providing a zero-emissions alternative to fossil fuels to produce electricity in regions that are lacking in hydro and geothermal alternatives.
Fukushima Nuclear Disaster (0 deaths) Bianqiao Dam Failure (171,000 deaths)