Saturday, 4 May 2019

The impossible fantasy of carbon-free nuclear power

The nearly 300 page long ( plus supplementary annexes) Net Zero – Technical report by Government advisors the Committee on Climate Change [CCC] ( was released on Thursday, with significant media coverage.

(Edie 2 May 2019:; Times 3 May; The Conversation 2 May; Aled Jones: The Conversation, 2 May; BBC 2 May;; The i News 2 May;; Telegraph 2  May;; Independent 2 May; Financial Times, 3 May 2019; Solar Power Portal 2 May;|)

Easier in the week, on Monday and Tuesday, I attended the 14th annual get together of the European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF), held in Prague. Initiated by a decision of the European Council, it is held in alternate years in the Czech and Slovak capital cities.

I spoke critically on Small Modular Reactors(SMRs) at last year’s ENEF meeting in Bratislava. (

This year around 250 attended, mostly men dressed expensively in ties and grey suits, with a small number of female participants. It felt like being inside the Lions’ den of true nuclear believers, two of which opened the event: Andrej Babiš, Prime Minister of host country, the Czech Republic, and Peter Pellegrini, Prime Minister of neighbouring state, Slovakia.

Both are outspoken cheerleaders for nuclear power, the former claiming “nuclear is emission –free” and the latter asserting “nuclear does not produce emissions.” At the following press conference I asked both to justify their claims.

Mr Pellegrini replied arguing it is unfair ro  say that nuclear power  emits CO2- you could equally say electric cars do too. Mr Babiš added “After 2050 [the date set by the European Commission to achieve zero carbon emissions], should  we ban all cowsbecaus ewe wanto achieve net  a net-zero carbon emissions world?”

Romania’s Energy Minister – the splendidly named Anton Anton – subsequently qualified the benefits of nuclear as carbon-cleaner generator, describing it more accurately as “lower carbon.” Later in the afternoon expert panel session on the EC’s 2050 Long-Term Energy and Carbon Emissions Strategy, Pierre-Jean Coulin, President of TEN section of the European Economic and Social Committee - whom he controversially claimed represented  EU Civil Society – claimed “nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases;” Markku Markkula, the first vice president of the European Committee of the Regions added “Nuclear power has a long lasting role as a climate friendly power generator;” while Yves Desbazeille, Director-General of EU nuclear lobby group FORATOM, described nuclear as “carbon-free.”

These contributors undermined their descriptions as experts by peddling this  fake news, one after another. Another panelist, emeritus Professor Ulrich Samm, Director of the Institute for Energy and Climate Research Jûlich (in Germany) , rightly stressed the importanc eof presenting accurate and factual information the public.

Taking this sensible proposition as my cue, I asked in the Q& A session why so many  panelists had inaccurately described nuclear as carbon free, when the full production chain w should be considered, from uranium mining, milling, transport, enrichment,  fuel fabrication, spent nuclear fuel storage and final long-term  waste management – all of which contribute to carbon emissions, enrichment especially so.

Responding, Thorsten Herdan, Director-General at the German  Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy, agreed with me that the nuclear fuel supply chain really needs to be “fully CO2 foot-printed.”

What is the UK government’s climate change advisor’s view?


So how does the UK Committee on Climate Change characterize nuclear‘s carbon contribution in its path-breaking report this week? I have gone through the text for the  mentions of nuclear. They are collected together below in the order they appear

Chapter 2: Power and hydrogen production

We find that emissions from the UK's electricity system can be reduced to almost zero whilst meeting increased electricity demands from the transport and heat sectors, potentially doubling the size of today's electricity system. Our findings in part reflect new research on the impact of heat pumps and electric vehicles on the UK's electricity system.

Reducing electricity emissions close to zero will require sustained and increased deployment of renewables and possibly nuclear power and the decarbonisation of back-up generation


Background. Power sector emissions (which are almost all CO2) come from burning coal and gas for electricity generation. The UK power sector was 15% of UK emissions in 2017 (73MtCOe), 64% below 1990 levels. Supply of renewable power has grown rapidly in the last decade, and combined with nuclear, over half of UK electricity now comes from low-carbon sources.



Costs and benefits. A near zero-carbon power system costs about the same as a high carbon power system in 2050, whilst providing co-benefits which include improved air quality and low-carbon industrial opportunities. Although nuclear, CCS and hydrogen have higher costs, particularly for peak generation, that is outweighed by the cost savings from low-cost renewables and increased system flexibility. We count the costs of providing low-carbon hydrogen in the sectors that use it.


2.Reducing emissions from the power sector

(a) The current role of low-carbon sources

In 2017, 52% of electricity was supplied from low-carbon sources, up from 23% in 1990:

21% of electricity generation was from nuclear power

•19% was from variable renewable sources such as wind and solar

•11% was supplied by bioenergy (9%) and hydro power (2%)

•The remaining 48% was supplied by fossil-fuelled power generation (41% gas, 7% coal)


The majority of the UK’s 9 GW of nuclear power plants are set to retire by the early 2030s, limiting the pace of power decarbonisation over this period. Without these nuclear reactors, low-carbon electricity generation would have been just 33% in 2017 (100 TWh, of 300 TWh total generation). Without additional low-carbon generation, it is likely that existing gas-fired power plants will make up the shortfall in electricity generation, increasing emissions.



CCC suggest “Further new build nuclear plants and CCS power plants could also fill the shortfall in low-carbon generation over this period”.


It adds under (d) Options for reducing emissions further

“Reducing emissions towards net-zero will require continued deployment of renewables and possibly nuclear power and other low-carbon sources such as carbon capture and storage and hydrogen11, along with avoiding emissions by improving energy efficiency or reducing demand.”


Nuclear and CCS

'Firm' power is production which can be scheduled with confidence well in advance and may continue to play an important role in the UK's power sector. 'Mid-merit' power is provided by power stations who are able to flexibly adjust their output over short periods of time (e.g. under an hour). Power system modelling suggests that deployment of firm and mid-merit low-carbon power will continue to be important and can usefully complement variable renewable power, particularly if heat is electrified.15

Nuclear power and gas or bioenergy power stations fitted with CCS could provide firm and mid-merit low-carbon power, with significant deployment potential.

•The ETI has identified potential for up to 35 GW of nuclear capacity on existing nuclear sitesin the UK. The total could be higher if Small Modular Reactors can also be deployed on non-nuclear sites.16

16 ETI (2015) The role for nuclear within a low-carbon energy system.  


CCC adds : neighbouring European countries have achieved sustained build outs of large power plant fleets, such as France's 5 GW/year rollout of nuclear power in the 1980s.


(But note, the French nuclear power generation industry has
suffered from a unique atomic malaise:  ‘a negative learning curve’ ie the more experience it has with nuclear, the less efficient its performance has been in both construction and operation




Yannick Rousselet's photo.

Energy Policy

The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing

Author links open overlay panelArnulfGrublerab


|(Energy Policy, Volume 38, Issue 9, September 2010, Pages 5174-5188)



The paper reviews the history and the economics of the French PWR program, which is arguably the most successful nuclear-scale up experience in an industrialized country. Key to this success was a unique institutional framework that allowed for centralized decision making, a high degree of standardization, and regulatory stability, epitomized by comparatively short reactor construction times.

Drawing on largely unknown public records, the paper reveals for the first time both absolute as well as yearly and specific reactor costs and their evolution over time. Its most significant finding is that even this most successful nuclear scale-up was characterized by a substantial escalation of real-term construction costs. Conversely, operating costs have remained remarkably flat, despite lowered load factors resulting from the need for load modulation in a system where base-load nuclear power plants supply three quarters of electricity.

The French nuclear case illustrates the perils of the assumption of robust learning effects resulting in lowered costs over time in the scale-up of large-scale, complex new energy supply technologies. The uncertainties in anticipated learning effects of new technologies might be much larger that often assumed, including also cases of “negative learning” in which specific costs increase rather than decrease with accumulated experience.



Contracts for renewables and the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point are set to increase low-carbon generation by 69 TWh and increasing low-carbon generation to 46% by 2030(compared to the 33% share if retiring nuclear plants were not replaced).


What can professional energy academics inform us?


More recent and comprehensive Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of greenhouse gas emissions from differing power generation technologies by Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University - and director of its Atmosphere/Energy Program - have indicated that nuclear CO2 emissions are between 10 to 18 times greater than those from renewables. He is very qualified for such analysis, being also Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy, and at the Woods Institute for the Environment, He  has developed computer models to study the effects of fossil fuel and biomass burning on air pollution, weather, and climate


Prof Jacobson's career has also focused on better understanding air pollution and global warming problems and developing large-scale clean, renewable energy.


In a newly completed chapter in a forthcoming energy book (,Evaluation of Nuclear Power as a Proposed Solution to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Security In 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything [Textbook in Preparation]


There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. However, all plants also emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.

• On top of that, because all nuclear reactors take 10-19 years or more between planning and operation vs. 2-5 year for utility solar or wind, nuclear causes another 64-102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years to be emitted from the background grid while consumers wait for it to come online or be refurbished, relative to wind or solar.

Overall, emissions from new nuclear are 78 to 178 g-CO2/kWh, not close to 0.”


And finally….

Closing the House of Commons full debate on energy and climate change, initiated by Labour - and opened by its leader, Jeremy Corbyn - held on 1 May, Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, told MPs: “the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, (Claire Perry) and I commissioned the Committee on Climate Change, after the Paris accord, to advise us on precisely how we can reflect this raised ambition in our targets. …We did not ask for that advice in order to ignore it; we intend to act on it, and we are proud of the progress we have made.”

But he made no specific mention of Government support for nuclear power by the Cabinet minister responsible. It was, however, revealingly mentioned by Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow who said she “used to be anti-nuclear, actually, although I am not anymore because it is low carbon.”
And finally, British ministers proved as ignorant as their Czech and Slovak counterparts did in Prague earlier, in a debate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the House of Lords on 2 May, energy minister Lord Henley asserted to his fellow peers: “we remain committed to nuclear power. I accept that we will not  have the Moorside development in Cumbria that we were hoping for, nor the Wylfa development, but we continue to believe that there is a role for nuclear power. We continue to get considerable amounts of energy from nuclear power.” (

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