Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Nuclear bandwagon or boondoggle after IPPC climate change report extreme existential warning?

Just as night follows day, the nuclear industry  immediately  followed the new report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – launched  on 8 October in  Seoul, South Korea - advocating a switch to low carbon power generation technologies to  combat  increasing climate change, by jumping on the bandwagon arguing  more nuclear  power was the key to the  solution (“UN report shows increased need for nuclear, World Nuclear Association [WNA] News, 8 October 2018; http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/UN-report-shows-increased-need-for-nuclear?feed=feed).

Responding to the report, Agneta Rising, director general of WNA said: "The IPCC report makes clear the potential benefits of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees, the urgency for action to achieve this and the necessity of nuclear energy as an important part of an effective global  response."(emphasis added)

IPPC argued in its summary report for policymakers (http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf) that: “The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching" transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.’”

Chapter two contains the following paragraph: “Kriegler et al. (2018a) conducted a sensitivity analysis that explores the four central options for reducing fossil-fuel emissions: lowering energy demand, electrifying energy services, decarbonizing the power sector and decarbonizing non-electric fuel use in energy end-use sectors. By exploring these options to their extremes, they found a lowest value of 500 GtCO2 (2018–2100) gross fossil-fuel CO2 emissions for the hypothetical case of aligning the strongest assumptions for all four mitigation options. The two lines of evidence and the fact that available 1.5°C pathways cover a wide range of assumptions (Section 2.3.1) give a robust indication of a lower limit of ca. 500 GtCO2 remaining fossil-fuel and industry CO2 emissions in the 21st century.” (page: 2-30)


It adds at section 2.4.1 Energy System Transformation:

“The energy system links energy supply (Section 2.4.2) with energy demand (Section 2.4.3) through final energy carriers including electricity and liquid, solid or gaseous fuels that are tailored to their end-uses. To chart energy-system transformations in mitigation pathways, four macro-level decarbonisation indicators associated with final energy are useful: limits to the increase of final energy demand, reductions in the carbon intensity of electricity, increases in the share of final energy provided by electricity, and reductions in the carbon intensity of final energy other than electricity (referred to in this section as the carbon intensity of the residual fuel mix).”


and further explains:” Several energy supply characteristics are evident in 1.5°C pathways assessed in this section: i) growth in the share of energy derived from low carbon-emitting sources (including renewables, nuclear, and fossil fuel with CCS) and a decline in the overall share of fossil fuels without CCS (Section, ii) rapid decline in the carbon intensity of electricity generation simultaneous with further electrification of energy end-use (Section, and iii) the growth in the use of CCS applied to fossil and biomass carbon in most 1.5°C pathways (Section”


This is the first mention, in passing, of nuclear at page 52 of 113. It adds: “By mid-century, the majority of primary energy comes from non-fossil-fuels (i.e., renewables and nuclear energy) in most 1.5°C pathways.”


The report then more substantively adds: “Nuclear power increases its share in most 1.5°C pathways by 2050, but in some pathways both the absolute capacity and share of power from nuclear generators declines (Table 2.15). There are large differences in nuclear power between models and across pathways (Kim et al., 2014; Rogelj et al., 2018). One of the reasons for this variation is that the future deployment of nuclear can be constrained by societal preferences assumed in narratives underlying the pathways (O’Neill et al., 2017; van Vuuren et al., 2017b). Some 1.5°C pathways no longer see a role for nuclear fission by the end of the century, while others project over 200 EJ yr–1 of nuclear power in 2100 (Figure 2.15).” (emphasis added)

But this cautiously footnoted section is converted by the World Nuclear Association into a much less nuanced nuclear support. Its own assessment records the following:

“A large increase in the use of nuclear power would help keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees, according to a United Nations report published today. …Under all scenarios compatible with 1.5 degrees outlined in the report, the contribution of nuclear power increases. The shares of nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon dioxide capture and storage in electricity generation are modelled to increase in most 1.5-degree pathways "with no or limited overshoot". (emphasis added)

Somewhat confusingly, it then adds:

"Nuclear power increases its share in most 1.5-degree pathways by 2050, but in some pathways both the absolute capacity and share of power from nuclear generators declines," the Summary for Policymakers of the report says.  (emphasis added)

WNA insists :”An increase in the use of nuclear power can be realised through existing mature nuclear technologies or new options, it says, referring to Generation III/IV reactors, breeder reactors, new uranium and thorium fuel cycles, small reactors or nuclear cogeneration.”

The current deployment pace of nuclear energy is "constrained by social acceptability in many countries", it notes, owing to concerns over risks of accidents and radioactive waste management.

"Though comparative risk assessment shows health risks are low per unit of electricity production, and land requirement is lower than that of other power sources, the political processes triggered by societal concerns depend on the country-specific means of managing the political debates around technological choices and their environmental impacts," the report says.

"Such differences in perception explain why the 2011 Fukushima incident resulted in a confirmation or acceleration of phasing out nuclear energy in five countries while 30 other countries have continued using nuclear energy, amongst which 13 are building new nuclear capacity including China, India and the UK," it adds.

The costs of nuclear power have increased over time in some developed nations, it says, "principally due to market conditions where increased investment risks of high-capital expenditure technologies have become significant".

Unprecedented changes

In a statement to accompany the report, the IPCC said limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to 2 degrees "would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". It adds: "With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to 2 degrees  could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society."

"One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1 degree C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes," said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to 2 degrees, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5 degrees compared with 2 degrees. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5 degrees, compared with at least once per decade with 2 degrees. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5 degrees, whereas more than 99% would be lost with 2 degrees.

The report was prepared under the scientific leadership of all three IPCC working groups. Working Group I assesses the physical science basis of climate change; Working Group II addresses impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and Working Group III deals with the mitigation of climate change.

Global Warming of 1.5 degrees is the first in a series of Special Reports to be produced in the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Cycle. Next year the IPCC will release the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, and Climate Change and Land, which looks at how climate change affects land use.

Industry response

The WNA Association noted nuclear generation increases, on average by around 2.5 times by 2050 in the 89 mitigation scenarios considered by the IPCC. Achieving a rapid decarbonisation of the electricity sector will require, at first, deploying proven technology, the WNA added.

Rising said: "The IPCC report highlights the proven qualities of nuclear energy as a highly effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as providing secure, reliable and scalable electricity supplies.  To maximise nuclear energy's contribution electricity markets need to acknowledge these benefits. We also need more effective harmonised regulatory processes to facilitate significant growth in nuclear capacity and an effective safety paradigm where the health, environmental and safety benefits of nuclear are better understood and valued by society."

Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said the IPCC's target to generate 70-80% electricity from renewables is ambitious, adding there is a need to "look at the broader picture" and focus on reducing the carbon intensity of the whole electricity system,” adding "We have very limited options for more hydro power in the UK, batteries do not yet provide the type of storage needed and other options like liquid air and hydrogen storage are still early in their development stages. Another option to reduce the carbon intensity of the electricity system is to take a more certain approach to nuclear power by planning a long-term rolling programme of development that grows the supply chain and required skills, as well as reducing the overall costs of building new power stations. Going beyond the electricity system, we should explore the relationship between nuclear and producing hydrogen through electrolysis to provide decarbonised fuel for heat, transport and industry."

The IPPC report meanwhile argues: “Energy-demand reduction measures are key to reduce CO2 emissions from end-use sectors for low-carbon pathways. The up-stream energy reductions can be several times to an order of magnitude larger than the initial end-use demand reduction. There are interdependencies among the end-use sectors and also between energy-supply and end-use sectors, which raise the importance of a wide, systematic approach.”

This makes a lot more sense than jumping onto yet another nuclear bandwagon which all too often turns into yet another boondoggle!

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