Nuclear Power and the IPCC Report

A few of my pronuclear friends have been disappointed by the treatment of nuclear energy in the recently released final draft of the IPCC working group III Summary for policy makers. For example, Steve Aplin at Canadian Energy Issues thinks that the IPCC is prejudiced against nuclear energy.

While there may be some members of the body who don’t like nuclear energy very much, the rational, numerate members of IPCC working group III managed to slide some very important words past the dissenters in a way that makes me, as a lover of careful wording, want to praise their composition skills.

Policy makers should note that the word ‘nuclear’ appears 11 times in the summary. In four of those important passages, it is a key component of a short list of zero- and low-carbon energy sources.

  • At the global level scenarios reaching 450 ppm are also characterized by more rapid improvements in energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon supply from renewables, nuclear energy AND fossil energy with carbon capture and storage (CCS) OR bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) by the year 2050. (p. 15)
  • Zero- and low-carbon energy supply includes renewables, nuclear energy, AND fossil energy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), OR bioenergy with CCS (BECCS). (p. 16)
  • In the majority of low-stabilization scenarios, the share of low-carbon electricity supply (comprising renewable energy (RE) nuclear AND CCS) increases from the current share of approximately 30% to more than 80% by 2050, AND fossil fuel power generation without CCS is phased out almost entirely by 2100. (p. 23)
  • annual investment in low-carbon electricity supply (i.e., renewables nuclear AND electricity generation with CCS) is projected to rise by about USD 147 (31-360) billion (median: +100% compared to 2010) (p. 29)

(Emphasis and capitalization of operators added.)

Not only have I spent time smithing words for human consumption in intensely political environments, but I also have a fair understanding of Boolean logic. I admire what the IPCC authors have accomplished. In both human communications and computer programming, the operators ‘AND’ and ‘OR’ have important meanings. So do modifiers like ‘with’. (Fossil with CCS is a completely different animal than fossil without CCS.)

In my analysis, the recommendation for policy makers is quite clear. The only way to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentration at acceptably low levels is to nearly quadruple the output of renewables, nuclear, AND electricity generation from fossil or bioenergy with CCS. The ‘and’ means that all of the items on the list are needed, the program cannot pick and choose the one or two that it likes the best.

However, since current electricity generation with CCS is virtually zero, nearly quadrupling it will mean it is still nearly zero in 2050. Renewables will gain a substantial market share, but the biggest current source of zero- or low-carbon energy in the developed world — nuclear energy — will have to grow the most in absolute terms to keep doing its share of the heavy lifting.

IPCC working group III also provides some explanation for the current state of nuclear energy and its perceived utility.

Nuclear energy is a mature low-GHG emission source of baseload power, but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993). Nuclear energy could make an increasing contribution to low-carbon energy supply, but a variety of barriers and and risks exist (robust evidence, high agreement)
Those include: operational risks, and the associated concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion (robust evidence, high agreement. New fuel cycles and reactor technologies addressing some of these issues are being investigated and progress in research and development has been made concerning safety and waste disposal.

That explanation, in my opinion, is carefully worded to answer the logical questions that curious policy makers would be sure to ask – “If nuclear energy is a proven, mature, low- or zero-emission power source, why isn’t its use growing?” The IPCC working group has informed policy makers that the engineers and scientists are doing their part of addressing the reasons why nuclear energy has not been growing for the past 20 years, but the rest of the issues must be tackled by the policy makers themselves.

Most of the listed barriers to increasing clean energy output using atomic fission are political, not technical. That does not make them any more difficult to solve. In fact, the solutions are at hand, now all we need is a little more honesty and accurate risk assessment. The public’s opinion can be swayed by the people who have assumed the burden of leadership and spend most of their days working to influence the public to do the right thing.

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