An OECD report has highlighted the contribution nuclear already makes to the energy mix as well as how it can fit into future low-carbon networks. The report is aimed at informing the policymaking of the body's member governments.
Entitled The Role of Nuclear Energy in a Low-Carbon Energy Future, the document seeks to point out the contribution made by the world's 433 operating power reactors, assess their lifecycle carbon emissions and look ahead at the barriers to their wider deployment. The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) counts 30 industrialised countries as its members.
A literature review drawing on studies by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Nuclear Association, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others revealed that carbon emissions from plant construction and the nuclear fuel cycle varied a lot with technology and location. Nevertheless this was "more than an order of magnitude below the direct emissions from fossil fuel generation, and... comparable to the indirect emissions from most renewable energy sources."
In the end, the NEA used a conservative figure of 30 tCO2-equivalent per GWh generated for its comparisons. This results in an estimate of annual emissions from the global nuclear fleet of about 0.08 GtCO2 (in 2009). However, substituting nuclear for other energy forms would mean emissions in teh range 0.8-2.6 GtCO2. The low figure is based on Denmark's high renewables and non-nuclear generation mix, showing nuclear power is ten times less polluting.
The NEA refers to the IEA's Blue Map Scenario, which had 1200 GWe of nuclear capacity providing 24% of global electricity by 2050, compared to 14% now. To achieve this target would require the construction of 16 GWe of new plant per year to 2020, which is actually only slightly more than achieved in 2010. "It would appear that achieving an installed nuclear capacity of around 512 GWe by 2020 is certainly feasible with a gradual build-up of industrial capabilities and human resources."
Each decade would require a faster rate of build: 20 GWe per year in the 2020s; 36 GWe per year in the 2030s; and 42 GWe per year in the 2040s. The rate of increase after 2030 is mainly to replace the retirement of the many units built about 50 years previously.
Among the many barriers to achieving this, the most pressing was said to be economics and finance, with restoring public confidence also significant. The NEA suggested to its member governments that "In the longer term, rather than choosing particular technologies to support, introducing technology-neutral carbon pricing or trading systems is likely to improve the cost-effectiveness of energy supply and CO2 emissions reductions." The rapid deployment of variable renewables on a mass scale was not seen as disadvantaging large single generators like nuclear, and the development of a smart grid was said to help nuclear by smoothing out demand and increasing the need for constant reliable supply.
However, despite nuclear's credentials as the lowest cost generation method over the long term, the high upfront capital costs mean that, "At least in the early stages of nuclear expansion, some form of government support for financing costs may thus be required in some cases."
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News