[SCMP Column] Nuclear solution

January 19, 2019

In the month since the Katowice Climate meeting, the latest alarums on the accelerating pace of climate change, and the hopeless progress on cutting global CO2 emissions, there must be many tempted to slit their wrists.

Not so Prof Joshua Goldstein from the American University in Washington, and the Swedish engineer, scientist and consultant Staffan Qvist, who last week published their new book: “A Bright Future”.

Goldstein and Qvist have a simple recommendation: “The world just needs to be a bit more like Sweden.”

That means slashing our reliance on fossil fuels as ruthlessly as possible, continuing to build up our renewable energy resources, and above all else, build “karnkraft”. That is Swedish for nuclear power plants.

The proposal is a precocious one, in the week that Hitachi has thrown in its towel on the proposed Wylfa Newydd nuclear power plant in north Wales in the UK, and in the eight years since the Fukushima disaster in Japan has idled 42 nuclear plants across Japan, led to the closure of eight plants in Germany, and stalled government nuclear plans in many other countries.

But there is a ruthless logic to Goldstein and Qvist’s argument: the absolute priority is to decarbonise; and since it will take literally a century to build reliable and sufficient solar and wind power, we need to fill the breach with nuclear power generation, which is reliable and can be cranked up at speed while we solve the problems linked with other renewables. In short, it provides a safe, reliable and cost effective route to fully decarbonised power generation within a time frame that keeps climate chaos at bay.

The authors ask us to look at France, Ontario, and – most closely – Sweden, which effectively de-fossilised its power generation between 1970 and 1990. Admittedly, Sweden had a lucky start with much of its power coming from hydropower, but after the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, it decided to rely on nuclear power.

Its biggest nuclear plant, the 4GW Ringhals reactor, began operation in 1976, and has been purring away quietly ever since at the heart of the country’s “karnkraft” strategy, producing zero CO2. Qvist notes that the fuel to run Ringhals for a year can fit in a single truck – while just a few hundred miles away in Germany the Janschwalde coal-fired plant, almost as big as Ringhals, burns 50,000 tonnes of lignite a day, and throws up into the atmosphere about 22m tonnes of CO2 a year.

Janschwalde is part of Germany’s Energiewende, or “energy transition” policy – which has bet all on renewables, abandoned nuclear power, and resorted to coal-fired power. Today, Germany is praised for lifting renewables to around 29 per cent of its power supply, but its resort to coal to provide reliability in supply means its CO2 emissions today are as high as they have ever been: “Coal burns on,” the authors note: “Germany talks the talk, but Sweden walks the walk.”

They examine Germany’s showpiece Solarpark Meuro, covering 500 acres and Europe’s largest solar facility, which has a capacity of 166MW, and note there would need to be 20 Solarparks to match the capacity of Ringhals – and significantly more when you take account of the poor capacity use of solar facilities, which obviously cannot generate at night or in poor weather, and still need better batteries.

In the face of complaints in the UK and the US at the expense of nuclear facilities, they note that South Korea, and China are reliably building nuclear plants for about US$2bn per GW – compared with $8bn in the UK and $12bn in the US – and selling power at less than 7 US cents per kWh – far cheaper than average US costs of around 10 cents per kWh, and almost on a par with the 3-4 cent cost possible at coal-fired plants.

What fires up the authors perhaps more than anything else are the safety claims targeted at nuclear power: “Radiation rarely kills anyone, but fear of radiation kills a lot of people.” In response to claims that nuclear power is dangerous, they demand that people ask: “Compared to what?”

They recall that in the Fukushima disaster, 18,000 people died as a result of the tsunami, 1000 died because of “a botched evacuation”, and literally zero lives were lost because of the nuclear plant melt-down. They say that more than 1m people a year die or are sickened worldwide by the environmental harm done by burning coal, and ask by what measure nuclear power is dangerous.

They are similarly ruthless with those who say we can solve the climate challenge by changing our lifestyles: “By all means recycle, ride your bike and become a vegetarian, but do not imagine that these actions alone will solve the problem.”

Dismissing such action as “feel-good distractions”, they argue that our challenge is not to use less energy, but to use clean energy. With over 1 billion people worldwide still without access to electricity, they say the irresistible pressure will continue to generate more electricity, not less.

It is for this reason that Sweden provides such a potent poster-child for their decarbonised future. Sweden is among the world’s top ten per capita power consumers, and manages a quality of life that ranks high worldwide without impacting our climate. Decarbonised living does not have to be bleak and austere.

So their suggestion is clear: set aside our irrational and unjustified anxieties about nuclear power and build nuclear plants as fast as possible – over 100 a year – to get rid of fossil-based power generation that is the true and existential threat to our future, and to provide a bridge to the day when renewables can fill the breach.

Their advice to China, which is building more nuclear, more wind, more solar than any other nation, but is still by far the world’s worst emitter of CO2: “Solving the world’s climate problem without solving the China coal problem is flat-out impossible. So China must do what Sweden did, but on a bigger scale.”

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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