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Can we afford not to have nuclear in our low-carbon energy mix?
22 February 2013
James Smith, chair of the UK’s Carbon Trust, asserted in the UK’s Guardian earlier this week that we can’t stop the damage being done to the climate without having carbon capture and storage (CCS). He also stressed the importance of nuclear power in a future low-carbon energy mix.
Both these assertions assume one thing; that the human race is unable to wean itself off its addiction to large-scale, centralised power generation and, therefore, we must continue to burn coal (mainly) and gas and “decarbonise” (mostly) the process by CCS and, at the same time, invest in new nuclear reactors that will provide low-carbon base load electricity.
What he fails to state is that neither CCS nor nuclear power are short term options. Both will take decades to put into place and decades to make an impact on global carbon emissions – decades that we simply do not have. We must do more now to decarbonise our energy system. Much is already being done - witness the massive expansion of the wind and solar power sectors – and new innovations in how to store renewable energy, whether in batteries or as liquid fuels, are developing rapidly. Hence, the perceived show stoppers of base load and over-capacity in the transmission grid are beginning to diminish.
Progress is also being made on how efficiently we use energy (we currently waste 60% of the energy we generate, mostly as heat), though much more needs to be done. By reducing our energy demand, we will significantly reduce carbon emissions and, therefore, the need for CCS. By changing our behaviours and the way we use and think about energy, particular in relation to the way we design our cities and buildings and the way we move around, further reductions can be made. This will enable the transition to decentralised energy supply, enabling a mainly renewable energy system to develop, perhaps with back-up from small, localised, gas-fired power plants.
CCS and nuclear will play a role, but, in the case of CCS, not at the scale currently envisaged by the IEA (just under 4 GtCO2 by 2050), since burning coal should become a thing of the past and CCS should then only be used in conjunction with small scale gas and biomass power generation (giving a negative CO2 balance with the latter) and certain industrial processes. For nuclear power, investments need to be made now if plants are to come on stream in 30 years’ time.
Not every nation will need this option, but, to paraphrase Mr Smith, can Australia afford NOT to have nuclear power in its future energy mix? That is a question currently being asked more and more and one my Institute will certainly be addressing.
Professor Stefaan Simons, BSc (hons), PhD, CEng FIChemE
Professor Simons, CEng FIChemE, is Professor of Chemical Engineering at University College London (UCL), Director of the International Energy Policy Institute and Director of the Centre for CO2 Technology, a multidisciplinary research Centre, founded in 1998, focused on the development of innovative low carbon technologies.
Since 1994 Professor Simons has been working with universities in Kazakhstan, developing modern chemical engineering degree curricula, and, as the first Dean of Engineering, was responsible for founding the School of Engineering at Nazarbayev University, the new international university in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city.
To read more about Professor Stefaan Simons please click here.
The original article Prof Simons is commenting on, titled ‘We cannot afford not to have nuclear in our low-carbon energy mix’ (The Guardian, 19 February 2013) can be found here.