Climate change

November 5, 2010

SNE 2060 – can we build nuclear power plants fast enough to meet the 2060 target?

by Barry Brook

The nuclear scenario I describe here requires around 10,000 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2060, to replace most of our current fossil fuel use. (For further justification of this 10 TW target, read this TCASE post.) My next step is to look critically as some of the critical underpinning assumptions — uranium supply and build rates. Now, as was the case for the previous question (are uranium resources sufficient?), I’m not the first to try to provide an answer on possible build rates. So, before I add my say on the matter, I’ll quote from two other sources.


First up, we have Tom Blees from Prescription for the Planet (pg 200+)

So what kind of money and timelines are we talking about here? As to the latter, the idea of building hundreds of nuclear plants a year is something I haven’t seen even remotely suggested by anyone, though there are really no compelling reasons, given the political will, that it couldn’t be done. France has been good enough to give us a perfect demonstration.

Once the oil shocks of the early Seventies jolted the world into a new perspective, France more than any other nation took decisive action. Having precious few natural energy sources of its own, the nation embarked on an ambitious plan to convert their energy infrastructure to nuclear power, supplemented by what hydroelectric power they’d already developed. Within the space of about 25 years they succeeded, and today France’s fourth largest export is electricity.

About eighty percent of their electricity is provided by nuclear power, with nearly all the rest comprised of hydroelectric and other renewable sources. It is truly ironic—and more than a little ridiculous—that France is singled out for being so far behind on meeting the EU’s renewable energy target, a system that was put in place to encourage its member nations to reduce their GHG emissions. The fact that nearly all of France’s GHG emissions come from the transportation sector and that they produce far lower emissions from their electrical generation systems than any other EU nation just isn’t recognized under the renewable energy goal system. So if you happen to see France being castigated as a global warming slacker, take it with a large grain of salt. They are, in fact, helping their neighbors reduce their GHG emissions by selling them electricity from France’s nuclear and renewable energy power plants, all the while enjoying the clearest skies in the industrialized world.

France’s nuclear power buildup proceeded at the rate of up to six new power plants a year. As in most other countries, they tend to build them in clusters of three or four, with a total capacity per cluster of 3-4 gigawatts electrical (GWe). Currently the government-owned electrical utility, Electricité de France (EdF), operates 59 nuclear plants with a total capacity of over 63 GWe, exporting over 10% of their electricity every year (France is the world’s largest net electricity exporter). Their electricity cost is among the lowest in Europe at about 3 eurocents (or €ents, if you’ll allow me to coin a new symbol of sorts, since I know of no euro-native symbol akin to the U.S. ¢) per kilowatt-hour

Just how realistic is it to think we can build 100 nuclear plants per year? Remember that France built up to six per year during their conversion to nuclear, so let’s look at Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a guide to what a given country can financially bear for such a project, keeping in mind that France proceeded without the sense of urgency that the world today should certainly be ready to muster. There are six countries with higher GDPs than France, all of whom already possess the technology to build fast reactors: USA, China, Japan, India (they’re building one now), Germany, and the United Kingdom. Add Canada and Russia (which already has one running and is planning more), then tally up the GDP of these eight countries. At the rate of 6 plants per year with France’s GDP, these countries alone could afford to build about 117 IFRs per year, even without any greater urgency than the French brought to bear on their road to energy independence. And come on, you know that using “urgency” and “French” in the same sentence is pushing the envelope.


Then we have David Mackay from Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (pg 171):

I heard that nuclear power can’t be built at a sufficient rate to make a useful contribution.

The difficulty of building nuclear power fast has been exaggerated with the help of a misleading presentation technique I call “the magic playing field.” In this technique, two things appear to be compared, but the basis of the comparison is switched halfway through. The Guardian’s environment editor, summarizing a report from the Oxford Research Group, wrote

“For nuclear power to make any significant contribution to a reduction in global carbon emissions in the next two generations, the industry would have to construct nearly 3000 new reactors – or about one a week for 60 years. A civil nuclear construction and supply programme on this scale is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible. The highest historic rate is 3.4 new reactors a year.”

Graph of the total nuclear power in the world that was built since 1967 and that is still operational today. The world construction rate peaked at 30 GW of nuclear power per year in 1984.

3000 sounds much bigger than 3.4, doesn’t it! In this application of the “magic playing field” technique, there is a switch not only of timescale but also of region. While the first figure (3000 new reactors over 60 years) is the number required for the whole planet, the second figure (3.4 new reactors per year) is the maximum rate of building by a single country (France)!

A more honest presentation would have kept the comparison on a per- planet basis. France has 59 of the world’s 429 operating nuclear reactors, so it’s plausible that the highest rate of reactor building for the whole planet was something like ten times France’s, that is, 34 new reactors per year. And the required rate (3000 new reactors over 60 years) is 50 new reactors per year. So the assertion that “civil nuclear construction on this scale is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible” is poppycock. Yes, it’s a big construction rate, but it’s in the same ballpark as historical construction rates.

How reasonable is my assertion that the world’s maximum historical construction rate must have been about 34 new nuclear reactors per year? Let’s look at the data. [The figure] shows the power of the world’s nuclear fleet as a function of time, showing only the power stations still operational in 2007. The rate of new build was biggest in 1984, and had a value of (drum-roll please…) about 30 GW per year – about 30 1-GW reactors. So there!

See also: Plan C (PDF)


Barry Brook takes on the matter

Okay, so I think it’s clear from the above two extracts that the deployment of 50 new reactors a year, worldwide (i.e., 1 GWe per week) would be quite achievable, assuming any serious socio-political impediments were overcome, like they were in France in the 1970s — 1990s, and are today in places like China, South Korea and India. I crunched some further numbers to back up this assessment.

World GDP in 2009 is $US 58 trillion. Yet the top 30 nations encompass 87.4 % of this total (and 22 of those already have commercial nuclear power, with another 4-6 of them actively seeking it), or $US 50.7 trillion, so to simplify, let’s just consider these nations. In 2009, France ($US 2.68 trillion) represented 5.3 % of the Top 30 cumulative total. So if France could build at a rate of 3.4 GWe per year (6 reactors with average unit size of 500 to 600 MWe), the Top 30 could do it at 3.4/0.053 = 64 GW/yr. Back in 1980, however, France’s GDP per capita was $12K, versus $32K today, a 2.7-fold increase. If we applied that multiplier to the figures above, we get a possible build rate, on an equal-terms economic basis, of ~170 GWe per year.

To go from 380 GW in 2010 to 10,000 GW in 2060, however, would require an average of 190 GW to be built each year. Actually, as this table from the previous SNE2060 post shows, the maximum rate I calculate from the TR2 scenario is 386 GW per year, but that peak doesn’t occur until 2040, giving plenty of time to ‘tool up’ (the implied rate from my modelling in 2020 is 25 GW/yr, and in 2030 is 130 GW/yr).

So, another take. China’s electricity consumption grew by an average of  360 TWh over the last 5 years, or 40 GW of equivalent generation capacity, driven by a national GDP of $US 4.9 trillion. If this rate of build is scaled-up to the Top 30 (i.e., assume that all other nations built nothing), this would be like adding 410 GW of electricity generation capacity worldwide. Now, let’s say that in some hypothetical future, where the world’s economic powers urgently wanted to replace coal with low-carbon alternatives (including substituting oil with electricity-derived synfuels), and the goal was to emulate France. such that ~80% of their new build was nuclear power stations, then China’s current pace setting would allow for 410*0.8 = 330 GW of new nuclear capacity per year.

Bottom Line: Folks, the conclusions are that: (a) it’ll require a massive effort to build 10 TW of replacement nuclear (and renewable etc) capacity by 2060, but (b) it’s certainly doable, based on no more than the level of urgency currently shown by China today (with France as backup).


1 Comment »

  1. Hate to burst you’re bubble but if the maximum built rate globally is 30 GW/yr then it would take you 333 years…but no of course, once reactors start hitting retirement you’ll top out at around 1440 GW’s…actually no! because most nuclear reactors in the world are due for retirement soon (average reactor age is around 25 I believe).

    Using GDP as a guide isn’t a good idea as it ignores certain practicalities, not to mention economics (i.e. renewables are now cheaper than nuclear so why would any government or corporation in the right mind invest in such a megalomaniac scheme?)

    Comment by daryan12 — July 18, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

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