Renewable Energy Deniers And The Decline Of Nuclear Power


In New Matilda’s ongoing nuclear energy debate, Dr Jim Green responds to claims that nuclear is growing, and renewables are struggling.

In his latest article, nuclear advocate Geoff Russell states that renewable energy advocates “thrill with excitement at a few per cent here, a per cent there”. And in a video that New Matilda repeatedly encourages readers to watch, Dr James Hansen claims that while hydro generates significant amounts of electricity, non-hydro renewables account for “one per cent ‒ between one and two per cent” of global electricity generation.

Both claims are fantastically wide of the mark and the ignorance is mystifying ‒ there is an abundance of evidence regarding the spectacular growth of renewables.

Hansen and Russell ‒ and the rest of the pro-nuclear, anti-renewables brigade ‒ appear to be in denial.

By the end of 2015, renewables accounted for an estimated 23.7 per cent of global electricity generation ‒ that’s actual electricity generation measured in terawatt-hours, not capacity. Hydro accounted for 16.6 per cent, and non-hydro renewables, 7.1 per cent.

Global renewable electricity generating capacity (including hydro) increased by 8.7 per cent in 2015 alone, while non-hydro renewable capacity increased by 18 per cent. From 2004 to 2014, global renewable capacity excluding hydro grew eight-fold while renewable capacity including hydro more than doubled.

IMAGE: Fotolia.
IMAGE: Fotolia.

Steve Kidd, a nuclear industry consultant who spent 17 years with the World Nuclear Association, recently noted in Nuclear Engineering International that the growth rates of wind and solar are “hugely impressive and way ahead of what most analysts were expecting only a few years ago”, whereas “the nuclear situation on this measure looks bleak” with the exception of a few countries.

Kidd warns that “this has been the easy phase for renewables” and ongoing strong growth depends on the resolution of “a number of difficult issues”.

That’s a fair comment ‒ but it’s also true that strong growth can be confidently predicted for the next decade or so (beyond which there are too many uncertainties to confidently predict the trajectory of any power source ‒ few predicted the doubling of renewable power generation or the decline of nuclear power over the past decade).

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) October 2015 Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report predicted 700 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable power capacity from 2015−2020, with renewables accounting for almost two-thirds of new capacity over that period.

The IEA has just released the 2016 version of the same report and it is considerably more bullish than last year’s version. Last year’s estimate of 700 GW of new renewable capacity over the next five years has been upped to 825 GW.

The 2016 IEA report states:

  • annual renewable electricity capacity growth reached an all-time record in 2015 at 153 GW;
  • renewables accounted for more than half of net annual additions to power capacity;
  • record deployment was accompanied by “continued sharp generation cost reductions”, with further cost reductions of 15 per cent for onshore wind and 25 per cent for utility-scale solar PV anticipated over the next five years;
  • global renewable electricity capacity is expected to grow by 42 per cent (825 GW) by 2021; and
  • the share of renewables in overall electricity generation will rise from over 23 per cent in 2015 to almost 28 per cent in 2021.

Keep in mind that the IEA isn’t an advocacy organisation with a track record of publishing over-optimistic renewable energy forecasts. In fact the Agency has a track record of consistently underestimating renewable energy growth.

The IEA’s latest report notes that there is considerable potential for more rapid growth of renewables. The report identifies additional policy initiatives which would result in growth 29 per cent higher than the projection of 825 GW. That would mean around 1,060 GW over the next five years to add to the 912 GW added from 2004‒14 and the 153 GW added last year.

The IEA report states that these additional policy initiatives “would put the global power system on a firmer path towards ambitious climate targets while also improving air quality in key emerging markets (China, India and ASEAN)”.

(IMAGE: Mandalaybus, Flickr)
Air pollution remains a major challenge for China, amid a burgeoning population and an economic boom. (IMAGE: Mandalaybus, Flickr)

“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

Compare all that with Russell’s dismissive “a few per cent here, a per cent there” and Hansen’s falsehood that non-hydro renewables account for “one per cent ‒ between one and two per cent” of global electricity generation.


Nuclear comparisons

How does the spectacular growth of renewables compare to nuclear power? There is no comparison. A decade ago, nuclear and renewables produced roughly equivalent amounts of electricity; now, renewables produce more than twice as much as nuclear and the gap has widened since you began reading this article.

Nuclear power has been stagnant over the past decade if measuring by installed capacity. And to achieve that underwhelming conclusion of stagnant nuclear capacity, you need to include 40 idled reactors in Japan, even though a significant fraction will likely never restart.

As Steve Kidd writes: “Including reactors as “operable” along with those definitely in service, when they have not generated power for many years (and don’t even have a licence to do so) is clearly ridiculous.”

Again quoting Kidd, you have to use “misleading” figures to arrive at the underwhelming conclusion that nuclear power is stagnant.

If we measure by actual electricity generation, nuclear power is clearly in decline. The latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report provides the following facts:

  • nuclear electricity generation in 2015 was 8.2 per cent below the historic peak in 2006;
  • nuclear power’s share of global commercial primary energy consumption was 4.4 per cent in both 2014 and 2015 ‒ the lowest level since 1984;
  • nuclear’s share of global electricity generation ‒ 10.7 per cent in 2015 (compared to renewables’ 23.7 per cent) ‒ has declined from a historic peak of 17.6 per cent in 1996; and
  • since 2000, countries have added 646 GW of wind and solar capacity (combined) while nuclear capacity (not including the idled reactors in Japan) fell by 8 GW.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report concludes: “In short, the 2015 data shows that renewable energy based power generation is enjoying continuous rapid growth, while nuclear power production, excluding China, is shrinking globally. Small unit size and lower capacity factors of renewable power plants continue to be more than compensated for by their short lead times, easy manufacturability and installation, and rapidly scalable mass production. Their high acceptance level and rapidly falling system costs will further accelerate their development.”

(IMAGE: Rodrigo Gómez Sanz, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Rodrigo Gómez Sanz, Flickr)

Moreover it is far from certain that new reactors will keep pace with closures as the global fleet of middle-aged reactors enters old age. Steve Kidd wrote in January 2016: “The future is likely to repeat the experience of 2015 when 10 new reactors came into operation worldwide but eight shut down. So as things stand, the industry is essentially running to stand still.”

Responding to the nuclear industry’s wishful thinking, Kidd writes: “Although the near future should at least see more reactors starting up than shutting down, the revival rests on shaky foundations. These include the Japanese restarts, where there remains huge uncertainties, a range of new technologies such as small modular reactors, advances in development (still many years away), several major nuclear build programmes about to get under way (where and when?), and a positive shift in public support for nuclear energy in many Western countries (where?).”


A fast track to nowhere

More than US$100 billion (A$131 billion) has been spent on the development of fast reactor technology, yet worldwide there are just three operating experimental reactors, two larger reactors, and a number of mostly unapproved, unfunded proposals. How many more billions or tens of billions should be spent in light of those pitiful returns?

And is that the best use of finite resources when a modest push could increase the projected 825 GW of new renewable capacity to over 1,000 GW over the next five years?

Russell says there are “so many” reactor designs under active investigation at the moment. But with precious few exceptions, they are low-level R&D projects as opposed to approved, funded reactor construction projects.

According to a US think tank, 48 companies in North America, backed by more than US$1.6 billion in private capital, are developing plans for advanced nuclear reactors. Even if all that capital was invested in a single project, it wouldn’t suffice to commercialise even one new reactor type. And it isn’t being invested in a single project: proponents of different reactor types squabble incessantly and the venom they direct at nuclear critics is nothing compared to the venom they direct at proponents of other reactor types.

Fast reactors would be immensely more attractive if there was any serious likelihood that they would deliver on the promises ‒ in particular, the promise that instead of contributing to WMD proliferation problems, they could contribute to the resolution of those problems by converting weapons-useable materials into low-carbon power.

Nuclear weapons proliferation continues to be a problem in nations like India.
Nuclear weapons proliferation continues to be a problem in nations like India.

However the sad truth is that fast reactors have contributed to WMD proliferation problems in India and France (and perhaps elsewhere), and nowhere have they contributed to the resolution of those problems. France used the Phénix fast reactor to produce plutonium for weapons. India’s first nuclear weapon test used plutonium produced in the CIRUS research reactor; the plutonium was ostensibly separated for India’s fast breeder nuclear power program.

James Hansen states: “Nuclear reactors can also be made more resistant to weapons proliferation than today’s reactors.” But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation than today’s reactors?

In a word: No. India plans to produce weapons-grade plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. Compared to conventional uranium reactors, India’s plan is far worse on both proliferation and security grounds.

India refuses to place its fast reactor program under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and there can be only one explanation: India plans to use fast reactors to produce plutonium (and/or uranium-233 produced from thorium-232) for nuclear weapons, or at least it wants to leave open those options.

That’s the reality of fast reactors. How many more billions or tens of billions should be spent on fast reactor technology in light of its pitiful and highly problematic track record?

Russell trots out a number of furphies and falsehoods about nuclear weapons proliferation (comprehensively debunked here). For example he states: “You don’t need reactors to make bombs. You don’t need plutonium. All you need is very highly enriched uranium and you can make that with centrifuges.”

In fact, eight or nine of the 10 countries to have produced nuclear weapons have produced plutonium bombs (and most have produced enriched uranium bombs as well); five of those 10 countries developed weapons under cover of a ‘civil’ nuclear program; and several countries have used power reactors to produce plutonium for bombs.


Offensive, misleading, and just plain wrong

Russell rarely gets through an article without making at least one offensive statement. His latest article asserts that “when nuclear goes wrong, the only significant risks to the public come from fear itself.” Try telling that to the 6,000 people ‒ mostly children and adolescents ‒ who have suffered thyroid cancer from the Chernobyl disaster, with thousands more to come.

Russell’s claim to have science on his side is bogus. On radiation and health, he confuses mainstream science with the “ancient defunct slogans of the anti-nuclear movement”. A 2010 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states that, “the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates”.

Likewise, the 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy of Sciences states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans”.

Russell is perfectly entitled to differ, but it is misleading to conflate his fringe views with mainstream science, or to conflate mainstream science with “ancient defunct slogans of the anti-nuclear movement”.

And for every factoid that Russell can muster in defence of his fringe position, there is a counter-factoid such as the International Commission on Radiological Protection’s near-doubling of its estimate of the carcinogenicity of radon.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia, and editor of the World Information Service on Energy's Nuclear Monitor newsletter.