Nuclear will not save the day

I am of the opinion that the world is about to face an energy crisis of somewhat epic proportions; even if the most dire impacts of the fossil fuel “peak oil” were to be postponed by rapid ramp-up of oil from unconventional sources, the extraction of those resources comes at an environmental price we shouldn’t pay – runaway climate change and eventually population collapse. What is needed is a total energy overhaul and we need it yesterday.

Now, even while increasing amounts of coal is being burned, some people argue renewables could and should save us from the energy crisis. Others, like myself, think there is no way to stave off a crisis but that renewables play a role in mitigating the migration to what will be a fundamentally lower-energy future. Still other people argue that nuclear power will play a key role in the future energy landscape – partly because it’s relatively clean, cheap, abundant, efficient, safe – and predictable in a way wind and solar may not be.

One of those people arguing for nuclear renaissance, if you will, is Rod Adams. I got into a Twitter debate with him earlier about the potential of various energy sources. He thinks nuclear is poised to be much bigger than it is today. I disagreed. So we agreed to disagree (which is already a more civilized way of dealing with differences of opinion than happens in 99% of the cases), wrote down our respective opinions and made a prediction:

Rod predicts that nuclear energy will supply 25% of the world’s electricity and more than 12% of its primary energy within the next 20 years (as measured from Jan 1st, 2013). Sami’s position is that nuclear energy will fall short of these numbers.

For reference figures we agreed to rely on IEA which currently puts the nuclear share at ~6% of world total primary energy and ~13% of the world electricity production. So Rod expects nuclear’s share to roughly double in both categories in 20 years. I don’t.

To have some skin in the game – because, as also NN Taleb has pointed out, making predictions without having any skin in the game can be anything from lame & useless to downright dangerous – we agreed that the one guesstimating the development wrong will serve the other a dinner and act as a tour guide over a week.

Let me go on record to say that if the rise of nuclear comes at the cost of (i.e. replacing) oil, gas and most of all coal, I am all for it and I hope I will be wrong with this prediction. I have no doubt nuclear energy will play an important role in the energy mix going forward; I simply do not believe it will be feasible to have nuclear energy go up that significantly in that “short” timeframe of 20 years.

I won’t go too deep into details why here, but aspects like policy environments, long plant build lead times, limited skill base, waste fuel problems, susceptibility to climate change (primarily from water being used as a coolant), surprisingly low EROEI, high initial costs and energy expenditure as well as questions on the sufficiency of fuel supply all played a role in me coming to this conclusion. A widespread roll-out of thorium reactors and other “unconventional” solutions improve the situation in theory, but I don’t believe they can or will be ramped up in the time period in question.

YMMV and I welcome opinions for or against or entirely alternative views.

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21 Responses to Nuclear will not save the day

  1. J.M.Korhonen says:

    What you write may be true, if the current political realities remain immutable. But the more useful question, in my opinion, is this: SHOULD nuclear be promoted in order to save the day?

    After all, the business as usual scenarios suggest that given the current political realities, we’re heading for more than 4°C warmer world. If policies won’t change, we’re screwed either way, and if policies can change, then why assume that policies regarding nuclear stay the same?

    • sim says:

      Good question. Like you know my position is that it’s already too late to prevent a climate catastrophe; even if the policies regarding nuclear did a complete 180-degree reversal right this instant globally (reversal because apart from a couple of exceptions, the trend currently is to favour less nuclear as opposed to more), it would take a very long time – too long, in my opinion – to ramp up the production in any meaningful extent.

      Even then, nuclear can at best displace coal and some gas from electricity generation – oil would remain the dominant primary energy source (and for all practical purposes the only source for transportation) along with the associated emissions.

      • nuclear can at best displace coal and some gas from electricity generation – oil would remain the dominant primary energy source (and for all practical purposes the only source for transportation) along with the associated emissions.

        That’s not necessarily true.  Nuclear can make better use of storage systems than renewables can (daily cycling for far greater throughput), so coal and gas can be displaced almost completely.  Gas makes a good motor fuel, so it can in turn displace petroleum at far lower carbon intensity.

        There are also developments in electrified roadways.  Overhead wires are being tested by Siemens, and a team led by Hanazawa is working on capacitive power coupling from roads to steel tire belts.  If you dispense with most of the demand on and for batteries, the price of EVs should plummet and sales explode.

  2. Carl Lumma says:

    Fission has the highest EROEI of any energy source available, commercially and in the laboratory. When evaluating energy systems, the first order of business (and nearly the last) is to estimate their EROEIs correctly.

    • sim says:

      Hi Carl,

      I´d welcome some references for that claim; the majority of studies I have seen on EROEIs put coal and hydroelectric much ahead of nuclear, even with the considerably wide variation in nuclear’s figures (which, depending on the source and methods, are anywhere from 2:1 to 50:1 with the latter rather optimistic for thorium reactors).

      • Rod Adams says:


        The World Nuclear Association has an informative page titled Energy Analysis of Power Systems.

        Many people who instinctively oppose nuclear energy recoil from the notion of using information that the nuclear industry has compiled, but I believe that is somewhat akin to a person who wants to understand computers recoiling from any information that Microsoft or Oracle has ever published.

        Of course, industry sourced information has to be approached with a critical eye to avoid sales pitches, but I have always found that professionals are better sources of valid information than outsiders with agendas. In the case of nuclear energy and EROEI, a large number of publications that conclude that nuclear has a poor return can be traced back to a “study” published by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith that showed an ever increasing energy input for lower grade ores.

        That study assumes the use of 1950s vintage gaseous diffusion among other poor assumptions. For example, if you apply models that Storm-Smith used, the Rossing mine in Namibia, which is extracting U from very low grade ores, would be consuming as much energy as the entire country of Namibia currently consumes. The model thus overestimates an actual mine’s energy consumption by a factor of 60.

      • Carl Lumma says:

        Any breeder (thorium or uranium) should do well over 500. Current LWRs are in the 50-75 range. Despite being the most important number in the study of energy systems, the EROI literature is extremely poor across the board. At Apple we did our own study, and though I’m not able to share it I am working on extending the methods I used in my spare time. I hope to share more later this year. By the way, just as gallons per mile are better units for transportation cost than mpg, 1/EROI is better for energy cost than its reciprocal. For a cost, always put the thing you want in the denominator.

  3. Cyril R. says:

    I have to take issue with some of your arguments that have led you to the pessimistic stance.

    Here are some references regarding the issues of EROEI/LCA:

    As you can see EROEI using actual LCAs is very high. Related to that of course is the size of the resource, which comes in at 1 trillion metric tonnes @ EROEI >16

    Regarding power plant water usage, power plants consume a mere 3% of freshwater usage, even in the power hungry USA:

    • sim says:


      At Atomic Insights you clamoured for some data to back up my opinions (even though at no point I claimed to be an expert). Here are some data points & more explanation for the points I mentioned contributed to my assessment:

      Policy environment

      Aside from a few countries (notably China) I think everyone can agree that the policy environment in most countries is not exactly embracing nuclear power. Sweden, Germany and Japan shunning new builds is indicative of the challenges it faces. Policy environments are obviously subject to change, but a global radical change is going to take a crisis; it could very well be that a crisis will eventually trigger the shift, but with (for example) the US preoccupied with the “drill baby drill”-style drive for energy independence, no matter how misdirected it is, I don’t see a major policy shift happening there anytime soon.

      Note that I’m not saying the current policies are in any way, shape or form desirable.

      Now, some 60 reactors are currently under construction, notably in China and Russia. At an average of 1200MW, that’d be 72,000MW of new capacity. That will increase production significantly, but at the same time the world is planning 1,4 million megawatts worth of new coal plant capacity. Not all of them will be built, obviously, but whatever will, will put quite a big dent in the increase in relative contribution of nuclear power.

      Long plant build lead time

      Generally it takes 10 years to build a nuclear power plant, give or take some years. This means there will be a significant lead time before decisions start showing up as produced electricity.

      Limited skill base

      Given the world has not been building too many plants in the last couple of decades, there is likely to be a skill shortage for both construction and operation of new plants, should a rapid ramp-up period happen. Training or re-training significant number of new people is not going to happen overnight either.

      Waste fuel problems

      There is exactly one country, AFAIK, that has a convincing solution on what to do with the highly radioactive waste current reactors produce. All others rely on some degree of suboptimal non-permanent “solutions” and as we saw in Japan, these are not risk-free.

      Susceptibility to climate change

      Most nuclear plants use water as a coolant. The water usage per say may not be particularly high compared to other forms of power generation, but they still need the water. Heat waves have already shut down reactors because of too warm water, and heat waves and droughts will worsen with ongoing climate change. Any downtime for the existing plants will also put a dent in their total energy contribution.

      Surprisingly low EROEI

      I’ve used this data as my reference for EROEI – dismissing the outliers somewhere around 20 seems reasonable. At least coal and hydro is superior, and coal – despite being far dirtier – seems the “easy” road for too many (again, not desirable by any means – just realism).

      Reactor types not in widespread commercial deployment may very well achieve far higher EROEI values; this point, however, is academic until those plants are actually built in a significant scale. As far as I know, the vast majority of plants in the build pipeline currently are the “inefficient” variety. Until the high-efficiency plants are actually out there generating electricity in large numbers, their performance on paper or in plans does not help the EROEI values.

      Questions on the sufficiency of fuel supply

      This relates to the above point, but depending on who you believe, there are proven reserves for 20-70 years or thousands of years. Obviously more efficient reactors will be, well, more efficient and change the maths here – but not until they are built. On the other hand, all estimates are always “at the current rate of usage” and doubling or tripling that will inevitably have an impact.

      • Carl Lumma says:

        There are no “data” that would allow someone to determine EROI on that page.

        • sim says:

          There is discussion and review of various EROI studies, and an even longer discussion in the comments. If by “data” you mean a peer-reviewed reliable published article or something, sure – but that would be just a single data point. And they are all over the place in this case.

          What’s your point?

          • Carl Lumma says:

            By “data” I mean just that — data. What are the energy inputs and outputs of the nuclear fuel cycle? If it’s a meta-analysis you want, you’ve got to “harmonize” the conditions (assumptions) used in each study. That’s precisely what Powers didn’t do in his scatter plot. I could make a similar plot for LCAs of solar PV, wind, or oil. So what? I did give a reference with good figures, including a link to the WNA page that demonstrates the sensitivity to enrichment technique. Maybe this URL looks less scary


            Anyway it’s not rocket science. The factor of 10^6 energy density advantage of nuclear fuel practically guarantees it a large EROI advantage. Else, we would see some stage of the fuel cycle dissipating gobs of energy.


      • Cyril R. says:

        I am a bit disappointed in you for clearly not having read the references I provided you. Could you please read them.

        Regarding EROEI for example the link clearly states an EROEI over 90. It also states the billions of tonnes of fuel supply at high EROEI.

        I don’t think you understand the concept of EROEI. It is a condition for a succesful buildout of an energy source, but beyond 10 EROEI or so the difference becomes marginal.

        The difference between EROEI of 1 and 2 are massive, whereas the difference between 20 and 70 are trivial. At 20 you only spend 5% of your energy on the source, at 70 it is 1.4%. The difference is 3.6% which is nothing to make an argument of. EROEI stops being an argument above 10.

        As for cooling water, it’s clear you don’t understand simple thermodynamics and have sadly not read my reference that shows power plant cooling uses only a fraction (3%) of freshwater consumption. If you are referring to once through cooling, higher heat sink temperature could be simply mitigated by going for slightly reduced turbine output. If you understand heat engines you know a 10 degree hotter heat sink isn’t going to reduce powerplant output much.

        Your too long to build argument has been rebutted by France, which has switched to 80% nuclear in 15 years. Yes it takes a long time to build a nuclear plant, but you can build many at the same time in parallel…

        • sim says:

          I think you’re still missing the key point of this post; I am merely saying nuclear will not ramp up to the figures mentioned in 20 years.

          You may disagree with my reasoning there, and dispute some of them entirely as you have. Note, however, that nowhere am I saying it couldn’t be done – I’m merely predicting it won’t be. These are very different things.

          • Cyril R. says:

            But your predictions are based on false notions of EROEI, cooling issues, and fuel supply.

            I was merely trying to correct your false notions.

            Since your position is based on such notions, your position may change to be more favorable to nuclear, even if you still believe that there won’t be a big buildout in the next 20 years.

            • sim says:

              Fair enough. And to a degree, they have – although as I mentioned in the original post, I was never anti-nuclear to begin with.

              Unfortunately even if all the other grounds were overly pessimistic, I don’t see the first one – policy environment – doing a 180 degree shift anytime soon in most countries. Maybe I’m wrong, but there just aren’t any signs of that.

  4. The problem is that in the US, we consumed about 100 quads of energy a year. Of that total, petroleum, natural gas and coal supply 83 quads of energy.

    That means an alternate energy supply needs to replace a a substantial amount of energy.

    Nuclear is an obvious choice but its costs and risks provide substantial barriers. However, liquid fluoride thorium reactors are a compelling alternative. There are technical barriers to overcome, such as the highly corrosive nature of the fluoride-thorium reactor liquid, but LFTRs require less fuel processing, have very low risk of meltdown, pose little terrorist threat and can still generate the electricity we would need.

    • The cost of nuclear power could be cheaper than coal (it was, under AEC rules) and the risks are greatly over-stated (and partly created by the NRC regulations purported to reduce them; TMI Unit 2 was completed under NRC authority, TMI Unit 1 is humming along to this day).

      If we’re actually going to try to save the day with nuclear, we have to start building things using resources that can turn out units en masse.  That means proven designs that do not require scarce manufacturing facilities (e.g. huge forges).  The only thing I know that fits that description is the CANDU.  We could start replacing CANDUs with MSRs 30 years from now, but we can’t waste the intervening 30 years.

    • sim says:

      Another quite major problem is that much of that oil is used as transportation fuel, which is not readily replaceable by electricity – electric cars as a significant proportion of the vehicle base are still ways off – 20yrs to get to 10% would be optimistic.

      • much of that oil is used as transportation fuel, which is not readily replaceable by electricity

        But it is readily replaceable by other things, like natural gas; total US transportation fuel consumption is roughly equal to natural gas consumption.  Electricity delivered over wires can replace natural gas delivered through pipes.

        This happened once before; oil-fired generation accounted for 16.8% of US electricity in 1977.  By 2010 it was under 1%.  Oil freed from electric generation went to transport instead.

        Siemens is testing overhead wires to power heavy trucks over the road, and Hanazawa’s capacitive coupling system can deliver power to light-duty vehicles without resorting to large batteries.  Hybrids plus electricity from the road equals large fuel savings at all speeds and low-speed operation with no fuel at all.

      • Rod Adams says:

        About 6% of the world’s oil consumption is on ocean going ships; the USS Nautilus proved that uranium fission can replace oil on even small ships when it went to sea in January 1955.

        Another substantial oil demand remains home heating, which is readily replaced with electrical power, preferably with heat pumps that have resistance heating for the very coldest days.

        Rail roads are another place where electricity has proven its ability to replace oil.

        The electricity supply in many oil producing countries is still largely based on burning their export useful product. The UAE, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are all pursing nuclear energy to replace oil in domestic power production so that they have more product that can be sold into the lucrative export market.

        There is a large quantity of oil consumed in industrial process heat, especially at refineries.

        Finally, the technology for converting coal into more useful liquid hydrocarbons is also well proven. Unfortunately, it is also quite inefficient and half of the coal input is consumed to provide heat to the endothermic process. If nuclear heat was used as the input instead, the Fischer-Tropsch process would be much more economical and less polluting.

        IOW, I can think of plenty of ways in which fission can be used to ease our oil supply worries.

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