(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON Jan 21 Nuclear power is the energy dream
that refuses to die, despite serious accidents at Windscale
(1957), Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima
Many of the arguments that were employed in favour of
nuclear in the 1950s and 1960s as a solution to oil supplies
running out are now being resurrected in favour of nuclear as a
solution to climate change.
But the promise of safe, clean and reasonably priced nuclear
power seems as far away now as it was 60 years ago. We are still
waiting for the safe, cheap and reliable reactor designs that
were promised in 1956.
Back in the 1950s, plentiful and cheap energy from
fissioning uranium and thorium was seen as the only alternative
to fast-depleting fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
Shell geologist M. King Hubbert is best known as the
grandfather of "peak oil" for his theories about the imminent
exhaustion of oil resources in the United States and around the
But he was also a strong advocate for nuclear power. The
1956 paper that made him famous explicitly linked it to peaking
oil production ("Nuclear energy and the fossil fuels").
"It appears that there exist within minable depths in the
United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1,000
barrels of oil or more per metric tonne, whose total energy
content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil
fuels combined," Hubbert wrote.
"The world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in
terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of
magnitude greater than that made possible by fossil fuels."
On a time-scale spanning millennia, "the discovery,
exploitation and exhaustion of the fossil fuels will be seen to
be but an ephemeral event".
By contrast, nuclear offered an energy supply adequate to
meet the planet's needs for thousands of years.
Writing in the 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet
Union were racing to build ever-bigger nuclear weapons, Hubbert
could not be unaware of the perils associated with splitting the
Nuclear scientists were still learning to master the
peaceful uses of atomic energy to build utility-scale civilian
However, provided the superpowers did not wipe each other
out in the meantime with a devastating exchange of nuclear
weapons, Hubbert thought civilian nuclear power would become a
viable alternative to oil and gas by the 1970s.
"It will probably require the better part of another 10 or
15 years of research and development before stabilized designs
of reactors ... are achieved," Hubbert predicted, but after that
"we may expect the usual exponential rate of growth".
Hubbert would probably have been surprised and disappointed
about how little progress has been made in the intervening
Climate scientists are now revisiting many of the same
arguments in favour of nuclear as a way to avert global warming.
In November 2013, James Hansen, formerly head of NASA's
Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the doyen of the
climate science movement, published an open letter, with three
colleagues, addressed "to those influencing environmental policy
but opposed to nuclear power".
"As climate and energy scientists concerned with global
climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the
development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems,"
Hansen and his colleagues said in the letter.
"In the real world there is no credible path to climate
stabilization that does not include a substantial role for
nuclear power," they wrote.
"Continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity's
ability to avoid dangerous climate change."
While acknowledging the risks associated with nuclear power,
including accidents and the possibility of weapons
proliferation, the scientists said these are dwarfed by the
risks associated with pumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels.
Echoing Hubbert, they insisted: "We understand that today's
nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety
systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And
modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and
solve the waste disposal problem."
Hansen and his colleagues argued that wind, solar and
biomass simply cannot scale up fast enough to provide cheap and
reliable energy on the scale required, so anyone concerned about
global warming cannot afford to rule out nuclear as a way to
displace substantial amounts of fossil fuel combustion.
Nuclear power arouses strong emotions. Hansen's letter was
immediately blasted by climate specialists at the U.S. Natural
Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental groups,
many of which have campaigned against nuclear power for more
than three decades on safety grounds.
"The authors of this letter (and other nuclear energy
proponents) are on the wrong track," the NRDC wrote in a
"Given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and
international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a
practical alternative," they added ("Response to an Open Letter
on the Future of Nuclear Power", Nov. 5, 2013).
The NRDC wants policymakers to focus on energy efficiency
and renewables such as wind and solar, and not become distracted
by dreams of cheap, plentiful and clean nuclear energy.
"The open letter suggests that it is the environmental
community that is somehow holding back a nuclear power surge.
Nothing could be further from the truth," the NRDC complained.
"No one can or should close the door to the prospect of
improved nuclear power technology. But in a world with
constrained capital resources and an urgent need to find the
lowest-cost ways to cut carbon pollution, nuclear power ranks
far down the list of promising or likely solutions," according
to the council.
"A U.S. nuclear renaissance has failed to materialize,
despite targeted federal subsidies, because of nuclear power's
high capital cost, long construction times, the lower demand for
electricity due largely to improvements in energy efficiency,
and competition from renewables," the NRDC said.
The NRDC's critique is not the whole story, however. The
industry's hoped-for "nuclear renaissance" has been thwarted by
three developments: cheap natural gas from the shale revolution;
regulatory delays due to environmental activism; and the
disaster at Fukushima.
Like renewables such as solar and wind, nuclear power plants
have very high capital costs but low fuel and other operating
costs. In contrast, gas and coal-fired power plants are cheap to
build but relatively expensive to run.
In the United States, the economics of nuclear power have
been fatally disrupted by cheap gas, and in Western Europe as a
result of cheap coal.
The shale revolution also imperils renewables. But unlike
wind and solar, nuclear has not benefited from the same level of
subsidies and renewable portfolio standards to help it compete
(except in Britain, where the government has guaranteed special
high electricity prices for nuclear power producers, as it has
for wind power).
A big part of nuclear's high capital costs has been caused
by regulatory and construction delays, most of which stem from a
dogged campaign waged by environmentalists to tie up projects in
administrative and legal delays to make them uneconomic and
force their sponsors to abandon them.
So, it is not entirely true to say the environmental
community has failed to hold back nuclear power.
However, the industry is not blameless. For 60 years,
nuclear engineers and operators have been promising safer and
cheaper designs. By the early 2000s, the industry had recovered
from memories of Chernobyl and was promising a fourth generation
of standardised reactor designs with more passive safety
features. Then Fukushima revealed a host of design flaws and
unsafe operating practices, damaging public confidence.
It is possible that large-scale nuclear power could offer
part of the solution to global warming, just as it promised to
avert Hubbert's fears about peak oil. But the industry appears
no nearer than it was then to building a favourable consensus or
solving its cost and safety problems.
Hansen, like Hubbert, looks set to be disappointed.
(Editing by Dale Hudson)