Nuclear energy is the most powerful weapon in the war on carbon dioxide

Look at Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar of this blog and you will see the mix of generation sources that are powering the Ontario electricity grid right now. The sources, grouped by the fuel that makes the electricity, are displayed in descending order, based on their power contribution measured in megawatts. Nuclear is always at the top of the list, because it is always by far the biggest contributor of electricity to Ontario’s grid. Notice how much carbon dioxide (CO2) nuclear emits per megawatt of output: zero. That’s an important number. No matter how much electricity nuclear produces, it dumps exactly zero tons of CO2 into Ontario’s air. The amount of waste that it does produce is minuscule—orders of magnitude less than its cleanest competitors—which makes it by far the most environment-friendly electricity generation technology in the world.

Toronto, late afternoon on July 8 2013. More rain fell over the next few hours than ever before in recorded history—just as the province of Ontario is currently reviewing its long term energy plan. The main question in the review is, should Ontario install more, or less, fossil-fired power generation? In light of the scene in this photo, I cannot see how anyone would call for more. Incredibly, that is exactly what the mainstream “environmental” lobby has been doing. Shame on them.

Nuclear waste, moreover, is for the most part solid. This means that managing it is far, far easier than managing gaseous waste. When you try to manage gaseous waste you are fighting against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which favours mixing (the opposite of separation). I know this first hand: one of my projects is an industrial R and D effort the aim of which is separating industrial gases on a large scale. It is far more difficult to keep dangerous and problematic gas like CO2 from mixing with the environment than to keep solid nuclear waste from doing so.

Tables 1 and 2 are pretty much real time. They represent what is happening right now in Ontario electricity. Item 1 up on the right gives a hint of how things would be if Ontario’s nuclear fleet had been replaced by natural gas, as many so-called environmentalists wish had happened. Between noon and one p.m. today, that fervent wish on the part of people who call themselves environmentalists would have resulted in the dumping of more than 10,000 metric tons of CO2 into our air. As it actually was, just over 3,900 tons of CO2 were dumped into our air.

Now, I don’t like it that 3,900 tons of CO2 were dumped into my air. The R&D project I mentioned above involves splitting an oxygen atom off CO2. Take it from me that this is very hard to do. This is because CO2 is a very tough molecule. So those 3,900 tons that were dumped into Ontario’s air will swirl around in our planet’s atmosphere, for many thousands of years. Some will absorb into the world’s oceans, making their water more acidic and hostile to life. But most will continue to swirl around in the atmosphere long after the radioactive elements in nuclear waste have morphed into other elements.

But while I do not like that 3,900 metric tons of CO2 were dumped into my air between noon and one p.m. today, I would like it even less if those 3,900 metric tons had been more than 10,000 metric tons—which is what they would have been if the so-called environmental lobby in Ontario had gotten its way years ago and succeeded in its drive to replace nuclear with natural gas-fired generators.

As mentioned, the figures shown in Tables 1 and 2 are pretty much real time. If you familiarize yourself with them you will quickly appreciate the size of the carbon footprint Ontario’s electric power generation sector would have without nuclear. Ten thousand tons per hour, multiplied by roughly 8,760 hours (the number of hours in a year), works out to CO2 emissions of roughly 87 million metric tons per year. Given that Ontario’s power sector emissions were 16 million tons last year, you can see the environmental value of nuclear energy.

I am quite familiar with this data; I watch it every hour of every day. So to me it is fairly obvious to me that nuclear has made Ontario a far, far cleaner place than the next-clean fuel, natural gas. But that is the problem with familiarity. I am familiar with the Ontario electricity data. Not many others are. So figures that tell the sheer size of the CO2 tonnage dumped into our air don’t mean much to others. Which is why other perspectives, other angles, are often useful in conveying the size of the footprint Ontario would have without nuclear.

One of these other perspectives comes from outside Canada, from a country that is famous for its alleged commitment to fighting climate change and its breathtaking inability to withstand the hostility to science and progress that is embodied in the anti-nuclear movement. That country is Germany. A recent blog article in the Guardian laid out the real implications of Germany’s most recent paroxysm of anti-nukery, i.e. the phaseout that followed the casualty-free Fukushima meltdowns of March 2011.

Here is a passage from this article, which is excellent and highly recommended.

You … need to consider the implications of the fact that switching off the nuclear plants led to Germany’s exports of electricity falling through the floor – by a massive 63 trillion units, according to Carrington.

Unless you think the countries which would have used that power simply turned the lights off, the unavoidable implication is that somewhere a bunch of fossil fuel plants were ramped up to pick up the slack. And not just any fossil fuel plants, but those with available capacity – which will generally mean dirty old ones because the cheaper and more efficient ones, along with all the renewables and nuclear, will already have been working at full capacity.

The core point is this: until we get a 100% decarbonised grid, the marginal impact of turning off any existing low-carbon electricity source – or indeed adding to demand by switching a light on – is virtually always to add more coal to a power station.

This analysis assumes that it was coal plants that picked up the slack when Germany nuclear power exports dropped because of the phaseout, and it is probably right. Anti-nuclear environmentalists will argue that picking up that slack with gas would result in fewer CO2 emissions, and they are also right—in the case of Germany.

But my own analysis, given above, shows, again in pretty much real time, the implications of a switch from nuclear to gas in Ontario. Remember: Ontario’s hourly CO2 emissions would have been in excess of 10,000 metric mid-day yesterday, just before the biblical flood hit Toronto.

Another analysis looks at a switch to natural gas far more systematically. Commissioned by the Power Workers’ Union and the Organization of CANDU Industries, this study (available for free download at the PWU and OCI websites) lays out several counterfactual scenarios for Ontario. Apropos of the provincial government’s review of the Long Term Energy Plan (LTEP), it says the following regarding the province’s current drive to put more wind power into the electricity system:

The retained wind scenario results in greater GHG emissions due to the gas-fired generation capacity required to manage wind intermittency and to replace the nuclear base load capacity removed from service.

If you don’t think wind requires fossil for backup, remember last week’s typically dismal wind performance. In the middle of a heat wave, with every air conditioner in the province running full blast, the provincial wind turbine fleet decided to quit working.

This PWU/OCI report should be required reading for anyone who wants to do something about climate-related events such that Toronto just experienced.

11 comments for “Nuclear energy is the most powerful weapon in the war on carbon dioxide

  1. July 9, 2013 at 11:47 am

    It is far more difficult to keep dangerous and problematic gas like CO2 from mixing with the environment than to keep solid nuclear waste from doing so.

    Right. CO, too.

    But there is an encouraging fact for those of us dismayed by the cold-blooded greed of some fossil fuel tax revenue takers: after carbon has got fully oxidized and mixed into the atmosphere, the Second Law doesn’t forbid an abundantly fission-powered world from taking it out again.

    In fact, in that task the Second Law is on our side! An exajoule spent on enhanced weathering will undo the atmospheric carbonation from about eight exajoules’ worth of past coal-burning, because it will catalyse a raising of the entropy of the universe by reacting olivine and CO2.

    By being condensed into rock or seawater, the CO2′s entropy will be reduced, but the reaction is sufficiently exothermic to more than compensate.

    • Steve
      July 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm

      A fascinating aside… thanks for sharing that! I think we might need an “all of the above” strategy: nuclear, conservation, wind/solar, to reduce production of CO2 and strategies such as this to increase the sink terms at the same time (using clean electricity to mine, grind, and transport all of that silicate mineral into bicarbonate).

    • July 13, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      This is a suggestion that one set of scars and wounds upon the Earth should be remediated… by scarring the Earth some more.

      It may come down to that, but aesthetically it’s lacking.  I like my idea of capturing carbon, turning it into polyethylene or another thermoplastic and injecting it into oil and gas wells to be stuck for another hundred million years.

  2. John ONeill
    July 11, 2013 at 12:09 am

    What puzzles me is that Canada gets such a big part of its electricity from hydro and nuclear, but still has a carbon dioxide output per head about as bad as the USA and Australia. Where’s it all coming from?

    • July 11, 2013 at 6:36 am

      Transportation. With the exception of some public transportation in some cities, all transportation in Canada is fossil powered. Plus space heating, where bone-headed policies such as in Ontario encourage fossil space heating instead of electric, even though electric is much cleaner.

      • Barry Butterfield
        July 16, 2013 at 10:05 am

        I agree that transportation is a major source, but there is the reigning political question (at least among those of us in the States: How much carbon dioxide is coming from the oil sands mining in eastern Alberta? Is it a “significant” percentage?

        • July 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

          Good question. Oil sands GHGs, mostly from the use of natural gas as the heat source for separating bitumen from sand and as the hydrogen source for upgrading bitumen to syncrude, were about 50 million tons in 2011. That works out to about 7 percent of Canada’s total anthropogenic GHGs.

          It also works out to about 2.5 percent of America’s GHGs from coal-fired electric power generation.

          Ironically, the people who are most against Keystone are the ones who are most in favour of replacing America’s zero-carbon nuclear generating fleet with natural gas-fired generators. Your nuclear fleet cranks out upwards of 700 billion kilowatt-hours of power every year, carbon free. Gas-fired plants producing an equal amount of power would dump nearly 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

          This is why I roll my eyes when I listen to “environmentalists” complaining about Keystone. I wonder if their main problem is that oil sands represent competition for natural gas.

  3. July 11, 2013 at 6:25 am

    You’re kidding. After the present peak oil period, give or take 10 to 20 years from now, we will be on the downslope, the beginning of the end of modernity. The combined effects of overpopulation, pollution, resource scarcities, biodiversity reduction, deforestation, climate change, will lead to civil unrest and resource wars. Once nuclear sites become unsupervised in the chaos, we wil curse the day we ever started using that technology. Because the delapidated nuke sites will leak radioactivity into the environment, potentially killing all higher life forms on earth. Reducing carbon emissions can be achieved by changing lifestyles.

    • Joris van Dorp
      July 11, 2013 at 7:40 am

      For what it’s worth, lifestyle change is not enough to reduce carbon emissions. We need to decarbonize the energy supply as well, and nuclear power is the most effective way to do that after the (limited) potential of efficiency improvements and lifestyle changes has been tapped.

      The quickest way to end modernity is to hinder or sabotage nuclear new build. Access to modern sources of energy is the difference between a life expectancy of 43 years, or 73 years. Ensuring abundant, clean energy supply is in the interest of all humanity. Preventing access to clean, abundant energy supply is tantamount to directly undermining both the survival of humanity as well as the environment.

    • Steve Foster
      July 11, 2013 at 8:53 am

      By advocating against abundant, cheap and sustainable nuclear power, you are in fact supporting the very factors that will accelerate the decline of civilization as we enter the twilight of the Oil Age – somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The future need not be one of decline as energy becomes more expensive, leading to economic anxiety and the threat of resource wars, nor must the future become something to fear due to increasing climate instability thanks to fossil-fuel emissions.

      Access to energy is essential for civilization. I’m a nuclear proponent because with advanced nuclear power I can see a hopeful vision of the future: one in which energy is abundant, secure, non-polluting, and sustainable so my kids, their kids and ALL future generations can live in a *better* world. That is a vision worth fighting for.

      As was thank our grandparents for defeating Nazism and global fascism in what was their finest hour, thereby making the world safe for us today, now it is our turn to secure the future for generations to come. Ridding the world of its toxic dependence on fossil fuels is the greatest challenge of our time. Lets try and be worthy of this and pick up the torch. Lets have it be said by future generations that, when humanity faced ruin as it fouled the air and headed for climate disaster, we changed our ways ridding the world of this menace in what will be known as OUR finest hour. In this we have a duty and obligation to future generations, a debt to be paid for the sacrifices of our forebears.

  4. Dr K S Parthasarathy
    July 17, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Thank you Mr Steve Aplin for an excellent, informative blog. The relevance of the topics is evident; the blog is often followed by very extensive and pointed discussions on various related topics.

    I look forward to more of such items.

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