The UK prime minister said last week that he may consider shifting to nuclear power to offset rising prices of natural gas, which have spurted up by about 150% in Europe since the start of the war in Ukraine. This price increase is more than double.
This would also support UK’s strong climate stance of net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — because nuclear power delivers green energy. However, it’s not so clean in other respects – see below.
But high-energy countries have been shifting away from nuclear and toward natural gas. The Bloomberg Green Newsletter said Germany’s nuclear power generation in 2021 was 60% lower than its peak, the UK’s was 50% lower, and Japan’s was 87% lower.
With war raging in Ukraine, one observer suggested that Germany, if faced with a gas crunch, might reopen nuclear power stations that had been mothballed. Germany imports 49% of its gas from Russia.
Does nuclear power warrant another look as an alternative to natural gas energy and as a way to decarbonize the world?
If Russia turned off the main pipeline to Germany, Nordstream 1, how could Germany and other European countries replace the gas? The new pipeline twin, Nordstream 2, will be no help because it was shut down recently by Germany, citing the Ukraine war, before it even started flowing gas from Russia.
One solution would be to beef up imports of LNG to Europe by leading exporters Australia, Qatar and US. Just need more export terminals and more of the specialized LNG cargo tankers. Is nuclear an option to replace natural gas energy? Not easily, because 28 of 34 countries in Europe in 2020 consumed more natural gas energy than nuclear.
Germany consumed 2.6 Exajoules (EJ) more energy from gas than from nuclear. The next largest differentials are Italy (2.4 EJ) and UK (2.2 EJ).
Most countries depend on natural gas more than they do on nuclear. France is the one large exception because 37% of France’s electricity is provided by nuclear plants — nuclear energy consumed is significantly more than natural gas (1.7 EJ more).
Natural gas is a fossil fuel, unless it has been sourced from waste. Many have argued that gas will be a bridge fuel in the transition to renewables, because it burns twice as clean as coal and oil. For example, the oil major bp’s Energy Outlook 2020 postulated future scenarios in which gas would be the dominant fossil fuel needed to reach net-zero by 2050, but this would only be half the amount of energy coming from wind, solar and hydro.
But ratcheting up some nuclear power plants would certainly help to lower GHG emissions and reduce the dependence on gas and coal-fired power plants.
Bill Gates adds another positive for nuclear. In his book How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, Gates says that for each pound of construction material a nuclear reactor provides much more energy than traditional renewables. Solar, hydro and wind systems require 10-15 times more concrete and steel than building a nuclear reactor, for the same unit of energy produced. This is a big deal, he says, because there are a lot of GHG emissions when manufacturing these concrete and steel materials.
What would it take to replace all of Europe’s natural gas by nuclear energy? One estimation is 50-150 new nuclear power plants. If averaged over 34 countries, this would mean each country would have to build roughly 1-4 nuclear power plants. Perhaps this is doable by 2050, but the contentious issues discussed below would make it very unlikely.
Contentious nuclear issues.
Two big issues are a nuclear reactor takes a long time to permit, regulate and build, and is also expensive and usually over budget. Contrast this with wind and solar and battery renewables that are getting cheaper all the time.
Second, spent nuclear fuel is radioactive and its awfully hard to be certain that underground storage will be safe for a long time. Although only a small fraction of nuclear waste is long-lived and highly radioactive (3% of the total), this needs to be separated and isolated, usually by deep geological storage, for tens of thousands of years.
As a sidebar, storage of nuclear waste in the US is a compelling issue. The waste nuclear fuel in the US exists in 33 different states where it’s stored in 75 sites. The waste grows by 2,000 tons every year and the enormous liability approaches $30 billion.
A temporary solution has been proposed for storage at two sites: one in New Mexico called Holtec and one in Texas called ISP. Both of these would lie in the Permian basin, but are controversial partly because of a growing number of earthquakes. A new bill in the US senate has been proposed to stop this happening.
Small modular reactors.
An SMR is a small modular reactor that minimizes the first issue from above — a long time to permit, regulate and build a nuclear plant. An SMR typically produces 300 MW of electricity, and is designed to be built in a factory. Such a reactor could power over 200,000 homes. There exist over 50 different designs for SMRs.
DOE has spent more than $1.2 billion on SMRs to date, and now wants to give companies such as NuScale at least $5.5 billion more to develop and demonstrate SMR designs over the next decade. Practical application is probably 10-20 years away.
How soon nuclear fusion?
Fusion of hydrogen releases an inordinate amount of energy, as has been demonstrated by hydrogen bombs that lit up the Pacific in the 1950s. In a joint European enterprise called JET in Oxfordshire, UK, a huge donut-shaped magnet contains plasma that is heated to an ultra-high temperature of 100 million degrees.
The team recently announced they have doubled the fusion energy produced, a major step forward. The fusion of hydrogen kept going for about 5 seconds – a big advance over previous tests. The plasma inside the donut magnet was mimicking the conditions in the interior of our sun for these 5 seconds. Fusion is of course the source of the sun’s energy.
The next step will happen in a bigger and better lab in France called Iter, expected to start up in 2035. The attraction is that 1 pound of fusion fuel will generate more than 10 million times the energy of 1 pound of coal, oil, or gas. But commercial application of fusion is decades away, so is not a solution for climate change before 2050.
Nuclear energy is clean energy and facilities are compact compared with acreage of wind farms but are more expensive. Nuclear also emits much less GHG when manufacturing the materials like concrete and steel used to construct a nuclear reactor. Nuclear also has a great safety record aside from Chernobyl in 1986. Fukushima in 2011 was terrifying, but no lives were lost.
But the concerns mentioned above mean that nuclear is not a practical solution for replacing natural gas in Europe if its price keeps soaring or if war-related sanctions or sanctions payback lead to closure of the gas flow from Russia.
It’s also unlikely that nuclear could make a large contribution to ease global GHG emissions as it contributed only 4.4% of global energy consumption in 2020. The permits, regulations, construction, and expense of newbuild nuclear plants are just too much. And the starting line is too far back for most European countries — the nuclear energy consumption fractions are only 6.7% in UK, 4.9% in Germany, and 8.6% in the US – unless mothballed nuclear reactors could be resurrected quickly.