COP28’s Unrealistic Tripling of Nuclear Power

dabaa nuclear power plant

UN climate conferences since 1992 have failed to follow thru with results, as CO2 emissions continue higher and higher with every passing year. In fact, post climate conference impact of adopted proposals has become something 0f an inside joke. The most recent conference, COP28, embraced nuclear power as a godsend challenging climate change.

“Triple Nuclear Power” still echoes throughout the halls of COP28. If one stands at the podium in the convention center now empty and listens intently, echoes reverberate “triple nuclear power” spewing out of red-faced maniacs from over 20 countries that committed to tripling nuclear power to bail our global asses out of a crazed climate system of epic proportions.

The US, UK, UAE, and others signed a declaration. Since they couldn’t budge oil and gas, it was decided to favor nuclear power as a surrogate for fixing the rip snorting global heating imbroglio found from pole to pole, from ocean to ocean. It’s real, it’s palpable; it’s now, much earlier than forecasts, as 1.5C prematurely comes to surface during irregular episodes.

Yet, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the declaration by 22 countries calling for a tripling of nuclear energy by 2050 is more fantasy than reality: “Even at best, a shift to invest more heavily in nuclear energy over the next two decades could actually worsen the climate crisis, as cheaper, quicker alternatives are ignored for more expensive, slow-to-deploy nuclear reactors.” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dec. 13th, 2023)

Building nuclear power facilities has a long history that unfortunately casts a doubtful shadow over the idea of tripling by 2050. A now-famous plan by Princeton University in 2004 called for a “stabilization wedge” to avoid one billion tons of carbon emissions per year by 2055 by building 700 large nuclear reactors over 50 years.

In 2022, there were 416 operating reactors in the world. Starting in 2005 when the Princeton plan was announced, it would have meant building 14 reactors per year, assuming all existing reactors continued to function. However, over the 50-year cycle aging reactors and those going into retirement would ultimately require 40 new reactors per year. But throughout the entire history of nuclear power, on average 10 nuclear power plants connected to the electricity grid per year, and the number of new units was only 5 per year from 2011-2021.

Once again, like the sticky issue of direct carbon capture, achieving the scale of proposed solutions to climate change’s biggest weapon, or global warming, is beyond reality. Talk is cheap.

Meanwhile less expensive safer wind and solar easily trounce nuclear power’s newly installed output, by a country mile, to wit:

New nuclear energy capacity 2000-2020    42 GWe

New wind capacity from 2000-2020          605 GWe

New solar capacity from 2000-2020          578 GWe

Nuclear costs are prohibitively high: It’ll cost $15 trillion to triple nuclear capacity, assuming existing reactors continue to function, which will not be the case, raising this big bet well over $15T. Who’s putting up $15T?

And is there enough time to triple by 2050? From design to projected operation of the NuScale VOYGR plant takes 13 years. According to the International Energy Agency, the design and build phase for a country’s first nuclear reactor is 15 years. Several countries that signed on to the declaration to triple nuclear power are newbies.

According to a Foreign Policy article, Dec. 13th 2023 entitled: COP28’s Dramatic But Empty Nuclear Pledge: several reasons for skepticism about the nuclear energy triple buildout were enumerated, concluding: “The combination of macroeconomic pressures and regulatory restrictions means that neither pledges such as those made at COP28 nor memorandums of understanding with various industries, utilities, and governments should give anyone much confidence that a major expansion of nuclear energy is forthcoming.”

Nuclear expert Mycle Schneider, the lead author of the prestigious World Nuclear Industry Status Report (500 pgs.) now in in its 18th edition known for its fact-based approach on details of operation, construction, and decommissioning of the world’s reactors was recently interviewed by the Bulletin:  Schneider’s publication is considered the landmark study of the industry.

Regarding NuScale, the US-based company that develops America’s flagship SMR (Small Nuclear Reactors), the company initially promised in 2008 to start generating power by 2015. As of 2023, they haven’t started construction of a single reactor. They do not have a certification license for the model they promoted for a Utah municipality. NuScale’s six module facility would cost $20,000 per kilowatt installed, twice as expensive as the most expensive large-scale reactors in Europe. And SMRs will generate disproportionate amounts of nuclear waste. No bargain here, assuming it even works efficiently enough, which is doubtful.

Schneider: “The entire logic that has been built up for small modular reactors is with the background of climate change emergency. That’s the big problem we have.” A sense of urgency cannot be met: “Considering the status of development, we’re not going to see any SMR generating power before the 2030s. It’s very clear: none. And if we are talking about SMRs picking up any kind of substantial amounts of generating capacity in the current market, if ever, we’re talking about the 2040s at the very earliest.”

Schneider on COP’s pledge to triple nuclear power: “From an industrial point of view, to put this pledge into reality. To me, this pledge is very close to absurd, compared to what the industry has shown.”

Looked at another way: “It took 70 years to bring global nuclear capacity to the current level of 370 gigawatts (GW), and the industry must now select technologies, raise finance and develop the rules to build another 740 GW in half that time… Why would anyone spend a single dollar on a technology that, if planned today, won’t even be available to help until 2035-2045?’ said Mark Jacobson, an energy specialist at Stanford University.” (Source: Nuclear Sector Must Overcome Decades of Stagnation to Meet COP28 Tripling, Reuters, Dec. 7, 2023) How about $15 trillion?

COP28 did not deliver on phase down of fossil fuels, and it’ll likely miss on tripling nuclear power. But once the results are finally known, it’s too late. The heat’s already on.

Robert Hunziker is a journalist from Los Angeles

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