Shutting down 20GW nuclear translates to 11GW extra coal

And 5GW of newly built gas power plants, which also emit more CO2 than [practically zero carbon] nuclear power plants.

This is just the German case. Meanwhile also Switzerland has announced it will phase out its entire nuclear capacity and on Monday the Italians voted ‘no’ in their own nuclear referendum.

“Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer,” is how Mark Lynas [climate journalist, author of Six Degrees, The God Species, Oxford visiting research associate, advisor to the Maldives’ UNFCCC delegation] responds to this week’s events, in his opinion article for the Guardian Environment Blog.

Lynas´ point is not to deny the environmental risks associated with nuclear power, but to criticise the wrong prioritisation of the European greens, who are riding a wave of protests across the continent, fed by anti-nuclear sentiments after the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima accident of March 2011.

The necessity of tackling the world’s ever-rising carbon emissions is much higher, Lynas states – and that’s where both energy policy and the green movement should focus on.

IEA emission trajectory

Two weeks ago the IEA reported in 2010 (yet again) the world’s fossil fuel CO2 record had been broken, with total emissions rising to 30.6 gigatonnes. To stay within the limit of the internationally agreed climate target of (stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations – allowing a short ‘overshoot’ – at) 450 ppm (CO2 equivalents), there is practically speaking ‘no more room’ for carbon emissions growth in this decade – while from 2020 onwards the world [that includes emerging economies!] will need to embark on a (speedy) decline.

IEA zero-carbon requirements

Fortunately the IEA translates emission targets into concrete energy requirements. To name just one: zero-carbon energy sources (that is nuclear and renewables combined) need to amount to at least 38 percent of electricity production, globally, in the year 2035. [Just three days ago the IEA elaborated on the growth implications for geothermal energy, as wind, solar and biomass can’t do this on their own.]

Nuclear versus renewables

Nuclear energy is still the single largest source of zero-carbon energy in the European Union, with a far greater capacity than for instance wind or biomass. In total there are [2008] 146 operating power reactors that provide in [2006] 29.5 percent of the European electricity consumption. There are another 40 EU power plants proposed, planned or under construction*, partially as a result of the ‘nuclear renaissance’ of just a few years ago – although some of these have already been officially cancelled.

In the German case the current 20GW nuclear capacity provides in roughly a quarter [depending on year and source] of the German electricity demand, still more than all renewables combined – which in Germany in 2010 amounted to 17 percent of electricity demand (indeed significantly higher than in many other western countries).

Nuclear versus coal

The new energy plan of the German government aims for 80 percent renewables in 2050. However ambitious that may sound [it’s a political target] 2050 is still 4 decades away and the linear trajectory towards 20 percent fossil energy – without the use of the current nuclear capacity – can only be reached through building new coal plants, which have by far the worst emissions of CO2 and various other air pollutants per kWh of energy produced.

[Ironically even with respect to radiation concerns coal has a worse track record than nuclear: coal plants emit more radioactive material to their surroundings than conventional nuclear power plants, Lynas remarks.]

Peak Coal before 2020

Apart from a rapid growth in zero carbon energy sources the IEA in their World Energy Outlook 2010, dating from last November, also lists Peak Coal, the point where global coal consumption should start its decline, as having to occur within this decade – just like Peak Oil.

‘But gas is okay, isn’t it?’

And even the world’s consumption of natural gas [the least polluting of the fossil fuels – with CH4 you actually burn 4 atoms of clean hydrogen for each atom of carbon] according to the IEA must start its decline within 19 years from now.

As the EU [and the entire world, Cancún 2010] has agreed to the 450 target, building new fossil fuel power plants simply does not make sense – unless fully equipped with CCS – but that’s yet another green taboo, Lynas notes.

[*) Opposing the shutdown of existing power capacity is not quite the same thing a advocating new nuclear plants. That is because new plants cost a lot of money and because it takes many years before the first fridges and washing machines can be connected. If the same effort were focused on the implementation of renewable energy sources that would result in a comparable energy capacity, which would be available sooner and would offer additional price-lowering and innovation-stimulating effects – beneficial to reaching ambitious zero carbon targets in the longer run.]

© Rolf Schuttenhelm |

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