Peak Nuclear Energy

T Vijayendra

In the context of Peak Oil one oftens hears about Nuclear Energy as an option. However if one looks at the empirical data it is not an option even if all the dangers associated with Nuclear energy programme, such as waste disposal problems and accidents are discounted for the time being. There is a popular belief that the Three Miles Island accident (1979), the Chernobyl accident (1986) and the Fukushima accident (2011) have slowed down the growth of the nuclear power and the nuclear lobby tries to show that on the whole nuclear power is still much safer than say coal. However the truth is that nuclear power, economically and technically, is not a viable source of power. The accident of course contributed to its unpopularity in public mind, but the nuclear energy is doomed because of its own inner weakness.

The Nuclear euphoria began in the 50s and the US planned 1000 plants within the US and another 1000 outside. They thought that there will be abundant power and it will be too cheap even to meter it. Today there are about 100 plants in the US and a total of 437 plants all over the world generating 371 GWe. Of a total of 192 UN members only 30 countries have nuclear power and the six big ones—US, France, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Japan generated 73% of the total world nuclear power in 2011. They generated about 13% of the world's electricity. About 26 plants are under construction. After Fukushima all the 48 plants in Japan and all the plants in Germany are shut down. In Japan they have restarted them recently.

What is Peak Nuclear Power? It is not like Peak Oil where the main reason is that the amount of oil that can be extracted from earth has sharp limits. Here the problem is that the average life of a nuclear plant is 40 years—although the average age of 130 reactors that were actually shut down was only 22 years! Any attempt to increase the years will be resisted because one of the reasons of Fukushima accident was that the life of the plant was increased beyond 40 years. So the old plants are getting shut down and the new plants are not coming fast enough. The costs and time taken to get the plant going keeps on increasing (the cost has gone up 6 times and it takes 70 months to build a plant) and the order book keeps on falling. In 1970 new construction peaked at 225 plants (some of them were cancelled later) and today it is 64 and it is expected that many of them will be cancelled too. So a time comes when the net production will start falling never to rise again. It is estimated that this will happen in 2015. In 2015 there will be about 462 reactors generating 405 Gwe and thereafter it will start declining rapidly. By 2055 there will be about 10 reactors generating insignificant or no power. It is likely that Peak Nuclear Power is already knocking at the door. It is possible that the production peaked in 2010 with a little over 2500 TWh.

The real competitor for nuclear power are renewable energy sources. Their costs are falling whereas nuclear costs are rising. In 2010 cross over occurred at 17 cents per KWh. In 2015 the renewables are expected to cost 10 cents per KWh whereas nuclear is expected to cost 25 cents. Also in 2010 the net production of renewable was 381 Gwe surpassing nuclear production of 375 Gwe. And yet most of the research funding (70%) goes to nuclear research whereas the renewables receive a mere 13%. Why? Because nuclear energy programme is not an energy programme, but a civilian front for the weapons programme!

Vol. 47, No. 23, Dec 14 - 20, 2014