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.