US nuclear to grow, but not fast enough

27 June 2008

Current US policies are not enough to give nuclear power a leading role in climate protection. Although policies would promote a 15% increase in nuclear power capacity by 2030, American energy use overall would grow by 19%, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 16%.


The data comes from the US Energy Information Administration's (EIA's) Annual Energy Outlook 2008, which projects the effects of current energy policies to 2030 using the National Energy Modeling System. The report makes it clear that future US administrations must affect fairly radical changes in energy policy if they truly wish to control CO2 emissions.


Past editions of the report have been noted as sceptical about the possibilities for nuclear power in coming years, but this edition's reference scenario puts nuclear at a total capacity of 114.9 GWe in 2030 - up from 100.2 GWe now. The increase includes 2.7 GWe of power uprates at existing reactor units, plus 17 GWe of new nuclear build, and 4.5 GWe of retirements.


The projection of 15% growth in nuclear by 2030 is 33% higher than that in last year's report, but still compares less favourably to an overall growth in energy use of 19% as other energy sources grow faster. Under current policies, some 40% of new power plants are expected to be coal-fired; non-hydro renewables more than double.


Compared with these sources, nuclear power's growth rate looks essentially flat, apart from a small step change around 2018 which the EIA links to the helpful financial measures of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which also help renewables. The USA's second major source of low carbon electricity after nuclear, hydro, is not expected to grow.


The EIA puts forth two more scenarios based on low and high energy cost conditions, each of which vary from the reference case by 4% in generic cost of energy.


In the low energy cost scenario, natural gas suffers from its comparatively high fuel overheads while nuclear power benefits most and grows by an extra 10 GWe compared to the reference case.


The high-cost scenario sees the larger capital costs of renewables and nuclear hold those sources back, with 17% less renewable additions and no new nuclear at all until 2030. Under this scenario, natural gas grows fastest and takes 43% of new capacity due to its short plant construction times.


All the analyses foresee US CO2 emissions growing steadily. EIA did not think carbon capture and storage technologies would come into use without new policies and thus did not include them in the Outlook. Although the US fuel mix would shift to reduce carbon intensity, CO2 emissions would be expected to rise 16% from 2006 to 2030. Nevertheless, this increase is less than half that predicted in 2007's report.