Do we need to go nuclear to stay green?
By David Robson It’s the billion-dollar question. Will nuclear energy save the world from global warming? Nuclear power plants produce virtually zero carbon emissions throughout their lifecycle, but they are costly to build and environmentalists claim the money would be better spent on building renewable resources. However, increased energy demands and rising fossil fuel prices may persuade governments to adopt nuclear energy anyway, according to a new report published by the Nuclear Energy Agency in France, which considered three scenarios. Firstly, if renewable energy sources and carbon-capture technology proves to be highly successful, and public acceptance of nuclear energy is low, ageing reactors will be replaced with newer reactors of a slightly higher capacity, but no additional power stations would be built. Overall, the NEA estimates that nuclear installed capacity would increase to 580 gigawatts of electrical energy worldwide by 2050, compared to just 370 GW in 2007. In the second scenario, renewable supplies don’t meet their expected capacity, so our reliance on nuclear energy will need to be even higher. In this case, nuclear energy would provide 1400 GW of electrical in 2050 – roughly 12.5% of the predicted energy demand. Finally, the authors considered whether governments could phase out nuclear energy, but they believe it “unlikely” that other sources could completely fulfil the increased demands. Fabien Roques, an energy expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Paris, France, believes the 1400-GW scenario is unrealistic given the slow pace of construction. “Given the bottlenecks for major parts of nuclear plants it is unlikely that the pace of nuclear deployment could be realistically stretched beyond 680 GW in 2030,” he says. Environmental campaigners also say they are unconvinced by the report. “Government plans to replace the current generation of nuclear plants are unlikely to deliver more than 10% of our energy needs,” says energy campaigner Neil Crumpton from Friends of the Earth, UK. “Expansion beyond this would take decades,” he says. “Urgent action is needed to cut emissions, but throwing more money at the nuclear white elephant is an expensive and dangerous distraction.” Elsewhere, further evidence could be seen today that more countries are now investigating whether to invest in nuclear power. Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, today announced that “no fewer than 50 countries have informed the IAEA that they are considering introducing nuclear power”, in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the NEA. These countries include Turkey, Egypt, Vietnam and Nigeria. In addition, he points out that China will increase its nuclear capacity five-fold by 2020,