We are very much reaching limits in the field of energy. This seems to mean that we ending up taking more and more risks, so that there is a greater risk of things going wrong. At the same time, the world’s population is so high that without a good deal of external energy, we cannot provide basic necessities for nearly 7 billion people. So we almost have no choice but choose energy sources which are almost out of our reach.
With the problems with nuclear energy in Japan, the question arises as to what would happen if we just discontinued nuclear electricity. How big an impact would this have?
Since many plants are near the end of their originally planned lived, such discontinuation could come simply by not extending any more licenses, and not permitting new facilities. Since such decisions are made by each country, it is highly unlikely that a coordinated decision in any direction might be made. In fact, what we are likely to see is a mixture of different decisions. I thought it might be helpful to have some numbers to look at, to get an idea as to what role nuclear currently plays in generation around the world. I also discuss some other implications–for example, for electric cars.
1. The biggest impact of nuclear discontinuation would be in the OECD countries–that is, the “developed” countries, since these countries disproportionately are the users of nuclear energy.
Figure 1 indicates that nuclear accounts for about 22% of electric generation in OECD countries. “Renewables” is the sum of all types of electricity generation (other than hydroelectric) that are referred to as renewables–including burning wood for electricity generation, wind, solar photo voltaic (PV), geothermal, and biogas. Renewable amounts are from EIA data; the other amounts are from BP data.
The Former Soviet Union (FSU) would also be affected if nuclear electricity were discontinued, although to a lesser extent than OECD.
Figure 2 indicates that the FSU gets about 18% of its electricity from nuclear, and this percentage has been rising. Since the Russia (and some of the other FSU countries) are big exporters of natural gas, if this area were to lose its nuclear, it would probably substitute natural gas, while reducing exports to other countries–especially Europe.
What I have called the “developing countries” (calculated as the World – OECD – FSU), have very rapidly growing energy use, but historically, very little nuclear use-a little over 2%. They would be least affected, as long as they could continue to expand their fossil fuel use (mostly coal) and their hydroelectric. These are big ifs, of course, as the world is running into limits with both fossil fuels and hydroelectric. Some of these countries (including China and India) are planning big increases in nuclear production in the future.
2. Within the OECD, vulnerability to a loss of nuclear power varies significantly.
A number of OECD countries have no nuclear electricity generating capacity. These would include Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey.
At the other end of the range, some OECD countries have a very high percentage of electrical generation from nuclear. These include France, 76%; Belgium/Luxembourg, 56%; Hungary, 43%; Switzerland, 40%; Sweden, 39%; Czech Republic 34%; Finland, 33%; South Korea, 32%; Japan, 25%; Germany, 23%; United States 20%, United Kingdom, 19%; Spain, 18%; and Canada, 14%. (These amounts are based on BP statistical data for the year 2009.)
Within the United States, there is also variability in the proportion of electrical power from nuclear, with the largest concentration of nuclear power being on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
The two facilities in California are built on the coast, near the earthquake “ring of fire”. Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo is reported to be built to withstand an earthquake force of 7.5; San Onofre near San Clemente in San Diego County is built to withstand an earthquake force of 7.0. Both of these are far lower levels than the recent earthquake in Japan, which is now rated as a 9.0. California has limited power availability currently (it imports more power than any other state), so would likely have difficulty replacing lost nuclear power.
It might also be noted that Europe, right now, is at risk from declining North Sea natural gas. Replacing this with imports from elsewhere may be difficult, in and of itself. If declining nuclear production is added to the list of problems for these countries, there could be major difficulty.
3. Without nuclear electric power, electric cars seem very unlikely.
We would need more, rather than less, electric power to run electric vehicles. In the years ahead, it may not be all that easy to add electrical power of any kind. If areas were to lose nuclear electricity, they would be at a particular disadvantage.
4. Rolling blackouts would likely result in many areas, because of the difficulty of making up the shortfall in electricity from renewable or fossil fuel sources.
We are seeing rolling blackouts in Japan, when some of their nuclear electrical generation plants are taken off-line. I expect the same result would occur in at least some locations otherwise. The prices of coal and natural gas would likely rise, in an attempt to get more production. Oil prices might even rise also, since oil can also be used for generation.
Countries with a majority of their production from nuclear would likely lack alternate facilities for generating electricity. Even where such facilities are available, it is doubtful that coal and natural gas production can ramp up enough to provide to make up the shortfall. For example, in the US, nuclear and natural gas provide a similar amount of electrical generation, so it would likely be difficult to double natural gas production of electricity, to make up the nuclear shortfall.
There would be pressure to ramp up renewables other than hydroelectric, such as wind, solar, and biogas, but they are starting from a small base, and tend to be expensive relative to other fuels. For these reasons, it is doubtful that they would be able to replace more than small portion of the shortfall. Wind and solar PV are also intermittent, so pose additional challenges when substituting them for other fuel sources.
The table indicates that coal, natural gas, and nuclear are the least expensive sources of electric generation, and renewables tend to be more expensive.
5. Countries losing nuclear electric power would likely experience much higher unemployment, reduced tax revenue, and other financial problems.
Unless there were a way of replacing the electricity, industrial and commercial activity is likely to be scaled back, leading to widespread layoffs of workers. If those being laid off have loans outstanding, some are likely to default on them. Lower demand for homes is likely to reduce home prices, and indirectly, taxes based on the values of homes. Governments will also receive less revenue based on the salaries of people in the area, further adding to their financial problems. All of this will make it difficult for governments to pay their debts.
6. To the extent that fossil fuels are able to scale up to replace nuclear, CO2 levels are likely to be higher.
The fossil fuels most in use for generating electricity are coal and natural gas. To the extent that more of these fuels are burned than today, CO2 levels can be expected to be higher. Both of these fuels have other issues as well. Coal also has huge pollution issues, in addition to CO2 issues. Natural gas is now increasingly being extracted using fracking, a technique which has become controversial, especially when used in populated areas. Its price will likely need to be much higher in order to significantly raise production, making it less affordable for homeowners than either coal or natural gas today.
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In spite of all of these issues, phasing out or scaling down nuclear electric may still be the way to go, especially in earthquake prone areas. We are also seeing rising political instability. It seems like building nuclear facilities in countries with political revolutions could prove to be disastrous.
If there were good choices available, decisions would be easy. The problem is that we need electricity for many things, including
- Keeping up industrial production
- Keeping oil pipelines moving crude oil and oil products
- Keeping gasoline stations pumping fuel for cars
- Keeping refineries refining oil
- Keeping offices, restaurants, and other businesses open
- Allowing medical equipment to work
- Allowing refrigeration of food
So it is hard to walk away from a source of electricity that looks like it has a chance of being made to work, without too much damage to the environment. Except for Chernobyl (which was an exceedingly poor design choice) the outcomes have not been too bad–especially in comparison to the alternative of rolling blackouts, or more fossil fuel use.
If only the choices were easier!