The need to reduce carbon emissions whilst maintaining a supply of reliable energy to allow nations to continue to develop is undisputed. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment report’s least-emissions pathway (RCP 2.6 or lower) requires fossil fuel production to be phased out by mid century. What is disputed is whether certain technologies can be up-scaled to meet demand on this timescale. Nuclear power is one of the few technologies that can supply a base load alternative to fossil fuels whilst also being zero-carbon once constructed and producing no air pollution. However, current delays with contemporary “one of a kind” reactors have made many write nuclear off as an option to rapidly expand and provide a sustainable, fossil fuel free future.
A new article from PLoS has undermined this pessimistic view. By studying historical data of the growth of the Swedish and French nuclear programs from the 1960s to 1990s the authors modeled a range of scenarios for the deployment of new nuclear reactors. Their conclusion: if the world were to build nuclear reactors at the same rate as these historical programs, then coal and gas electricity could be replaced in less than a decade. Even the more conservative models (taking into account differing relative economic output across regions, varying construction time and costs, future electricity demand growth forecasts and the need to retire existing aging nuclear plants) predict that fossil fuel electricity could be replaced in 25-34 years.
Such a replacement would have a huge impact on global carbon emissions and averting dangerous climate change. The paper shows that the installation of nuclear power in Sweden between 1972 and 1986, reduced the country’s CO2 per capita emissions by 75%, a figure that according to the World Bank is the most rapid installation of low-CO2 electricity capacity on a per capita basis of any nation in history.
Planning for a decarbonised future, as is currently happening at the Paris COP, is a process littered with uncertainty and speculation. But this paper, with projections grounded in reality and actual historical experience, highlights that nuclear should not be disregarded and provides one of the best options for real progress in the fight to replace fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.