Global energy issues and the nuclear question

An international team of scientists suggests that we must ramp up energy production by nuclear power if we are to succeed in warding off the worst effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change. Writing in the International Journal of Global Energy Issues, the team suggests that beginning in 2020 we could achieve an annual electricity output of 20 terawatts without needing to develop carbon dioxide trapping and storage technology for the tens of billions of tons of emissions that would otherwise drive global warming to catastrophic levels.

Herve Nifenecker of the Université interages du Dauphine, in Grenoble, France and honorary chairman of “Sauvons Le Climat” and colleagues in Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, France, India, Singapore, and the USA, explain how solutions to the problem of climate change developed in the wake of requirements established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make various assumptions we might not be able to address. One scenario involves attempting to capture and store carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, and oil, in power stations and vehicles. However, the quantities involved amount to a massive geological-scale engineering effort even at today’s emission rates based on rising energy requirements.

The team also points out that if we renounce nuclear power as an option, then aside from the storage needs of carbon dioxide emissions, the international demand for electricity will fall short by about 40% over the period 2020 to 2100. It is unlikely that such a scenario will be accepted by developed and developing nations alike. Several large, highly populated nations, such as China and India are forecast to need more and more power over the coming years. The uptake of sustainable, non-carbon alternatives power sources such as wind, solar, tidal and other technologies seem not to be adopted at the requisite rates to keep up with needs and are limited by physical factors such as their random production, despite the best efforts of environmental lobbyists.

“An accelerated development of nuclear electricity production, starting as soon as 2020, would significantly alleviate the constraints required to stabilise global temperatures before 2100,” the team reports. “The carbon dioxide volume to be stored would be divided by at least a factor of 2.5 and might even prove unnecessary. The constraints on the development of expansive and intermittent renewable electricity techniques might also be lessened,” the team adds.

Their research suggests that it should be physically and economically plausible to multiply by a factor of fifty the production of nuclear energy by 2100, leading to a complete elimination of fossil fuels wherein 60% of electricity demand is met through nuclear and the remainder through sustainable technology. Despite tabloid hyperbole surrounding nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the long-term health effects of these accidents are negligible compared with the chronic pollution of coal-fired power stations. It might even be said that nuclear energy is the most benign way of producing electricity in terms of environmental health and biodiversity. “Nuclear power could both answer the climate challenge and give a perennial solution to humanity’s energy needs for thousands of years,” the team concludes.

Berger, A., Blees, T., Bréon, F-M., Brook, B.W., Hansen, P., Grover, R.B., Guet, C., Liu, W., Livet, F., Nifenecker, H., Petit, M., Pierre, G., Prévot, H., Richet, S., Safa, H., Salvatores, M., Schneeberger, M. and Zhou, S. (2017) ‘How much can nuclear energy do about global warming?’ Int. J. Global Energy Issues, Vol. 40, Nos. 1/2, pp.43-78

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.