Search GSSD

Why nuclear energy is sustainable and has to be part of the energy mix

Humanity must face the reality that it cannot depend indefinitely on combustion of coal, gas and oil for most of its energy needs. In the unavoidable process of gradually replacing fossil fuels, many energy technologies may be considered and most will be deployed in specific applications. However, in the long term, we argue that nuclear fission technology is the only developed energy source that is capable of delivering the enormous quantities of energy that will be needed to run modern industrial societies safely, economically, reliably and in a sustainable way, both environmentally and as regards the available resource base. Consequently, nuclear fission has to play a major role in this necessary transformation of the 21st century energy-supply system. In a first phase of this necessary global energy transformation, the emphasis should be on converting the major part of the world's electrical energy generation capacity from fossil fuels to nuclear fission. This can realistically be achieved within a few decades, as has already been done in France during the 1970s and 1980s. Such an energy transformation would reduce the global emissions of carbon dioxide profoundly, as well as cutting other significant greenhouse gases like methane. Industrial nations should take the lead in this transition. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, replacing coal-fired generating stations with gas-fired stations will not necessarily result in a reduction of the rate of greenhouse-gas emission even for relatively low leakage rates of the natural gas into the atmosphere. The energy sources popularly known as ‘renewables’ (such as wind and solar), will be hard pressed to supply the needed quantities of energy sustainably, economically and reliably. They are inherently intermittent, depending on backup power or on energy storage if they are to be used for delivery of base-load electrical energy to the grid. This backup power has to be flexible and is derived in most cases from combustion of fossil fuels (mainly natural gas). If used in this way, intermittent energy sources do not meet the requirements of sustainability, nor are they economically viable because they require redundant, under-utilized investment in capacity both for generation and for transmission. Intermittent energy installations, in conjunction with gas-fired backup power installations, will in many cases be found to have a combined rate of greenhouse-gas emission that is higher than that of stand-alone coal-fired generating stations of equal generating capacity. A grid connection fee, to be imposed on countries with a large intermittent generating capacity, should be considered for the purpose of compensating adjacent countries for the use of their interconnected electric grids as back-up power. Also, intermittent energy sources tend to negatively affect grid stability, especially as their market penetration rises. The alternative — dedicated energy storage for grid-connected intermittent energy sources (instead of backup power) — is in many cases not yet economically viable. However, intermittent sources plus storage may be economically competitive for local electricity supply in geographically isolated regions without access to a large electric grid. Yet nuclear fission energy will, even then, be required for the majority displacement of fossil fuels this century.
Barry Brook, Augstin Alonso, Daniel Meneley, Jozef Misak, Tom Blees, Jan van Erp
Domains-Issue Area: 
Industry Focus: 
Bibliographies & Reports