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The World Can’t Let Nuclear Energy Die

Robert Rapier

This is the final article in a series based on BP’s recently-released Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. Previous articles in this series covered carbon dioxide emissions, petroleum supply and demand, the production and consumption of coal, global natural gas trends, and the continued explosion in the growth of renewable energy:

Today, I want to discuss nuclear energy. First, I will cover the statistics on nuclear energy, but then I want to highlight why it is important that we continue to develop and advance nuclear technology.

Nuclear: By the Numbers

In 2018, the world produced 2,701 terawatt-hours (TWh) of nuclear power. This represents a slight decline over the past decade, but that’s somewhat misleading. Global nuclear power production dropped by 10 percent from 2010 t0 2012, a consequence of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. But global nuclear power generation has risen every year since 2012.

Of course this wasn’t the first accident to impact the nuclear power industry. The most serious incident was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The pace of global nuclear power growth slowed significantly following Chernobyl, but it didn’t contract as it did following the Fukushima accident.

(Click to enlarge)

Nuclear power generation 1965-2018.

The U.S. remains by far the world’s leading producer of nuclear power. In 2018, the U.S. generated 850 TWh of nuclear power, which represented 31.4 percent of the world’s total nuclear generation. France was in second place, well behind with the U.S. with 15.3 percent of the global share. But, the U.S. has nearly five times the population of France, so France does lead on a per capita basis.

China was in third place with a 10.9 percent global share of nuclear generation. However, China’s nuclear program is noteworthy, as they are only one of two countries that grew nuclear power by an annual average above 10 percent over the past decade. (Pakistan is the other country, but they have a minuscule 0.4 percent global share). China also has more nuclear power plants being planned than any other country.

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Rounding out the Top 5 global nuclear producers were Russia (7.6 percent global share) and South Korea (4.9 percent global share).

Japan had the largest percentage increase of nuclear power in 2018, with a 68.9 percent rise over 2017 production. Nevertheless, nuclear generation in Japan remains well below pre-Fukushima levels.

Japan wasn’t the only country that experienced growth in nuclear power in 2018. China, Switzerland, Pakistan, Taiwan, Mexico, and Argentina all experienced double-digit gains in nuclear power generation from 2017. Countries with double-digit declines were South Korea, Belgium, and South Africa.

Germany remains committed to completely phasing out nuclear power, but the country’s nuclear power generation was nearly unchanged from 2017. Germany remains one of the world’s Top 10 producers of nuclear power.

Nuclear Power’s Impact

As I pointed out in the previous article, renewables like wind and solar are poised to generate more electricity globally than nuclear power either this year or next year. While we can celebrate the fact that renewables are growing, it’s important to keep in mind that they aren’t growing rapidly enough to stop the growth of power produced from fossil fuels. Further, these sources don’t represent firm power that can be called upon on demand.

Last year global consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas was nearly four times the growth in renewables. As a result, global carbon dioxide emissions set a new all-time high in 2018. Those trends are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The world will experience a rapid growth rate for renewables, but even greater overall growth from fossil fuels.

Nuclear power could help solve that problem, because it is the only large-scale firm power source that doesn’t generate carbon emissions during its operation. But the general public has a fear of nuclear power. We must address and overcome this collective fear if nuclear power is to help displace fossil fuels. That can only be achieved by convincing the public that accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are no longer possible.

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As I have written before, nuclear power plants must be designed to be fail-safe, if not fail-proof. To be fail-safe means that if an accident takes place, the system fails to a safe state. A simple example of this is an electrical fuse. If too much current tries to flow across the fuse, the fuse melts and stops the flow of electricity. Future nuclear plants must be designed in a way that provides the public with an absolute degree of confidence that they can’t have catastrophic accidents.

Public expectations may be that nuclear designs need to be fail-proof, but there are many reasons why that metric will never be achieved. The most fundamental reason is that we simply can’t guard against every possible outcome. Thus, we try to mitigate possible consequences, and implement fail-safe designs.

There are those who will still reject the idea of nuclear power under any circumstances. But there are consequences from such a stance. Some will idealistically believe that renewables will fill the world’s growing power demands, but in reality that’s just not happening.

Thus, whether you like it or not, absolute rejection of nuclear power almost certainly means higher global carbon dioxide emissions. That’s a high price to pay if you are concerned about the impacts of climate change.

By Robert Rapier

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