“This report of my death was an exaggeration.” So said Mark Twain in 1897. He died in 1910. And so said nuclear power in 2014. But though, like Twain in 1897, nuclear power today is in its early sixties, don’t expect it to die in thirteen years. In the grand sweep of human history, and by the yardstick of human progress, nuclear power just recently mastered walking. En route to this mastery it stumbled slightly, giving rise to a small hiatus in some of the countries that were its early adopters; this is what prompted the reports of its death that were as accurate as that of Twain’s in 1897. “Renaissance” was the term given to the resumption of civilian nuclear activity. But renaissance is a bit of a misnomer in describing the nuclear activity that is occurring today in electric power sectors in North and South America, Europe, and especially Asia.
Renaissance implies that something has lain dormant, submerged, and is now being reborn. Nuclear power never went dormant. It was conceived in the 1940s, and born in the 1950s with the advent of the U.S. nuclear navy. Within ten years of that there were only a few prototype electric power generators that ran on uranium. But then the walking began.
These prototypes begat, within the next couple of decades, a fleet of more than 435 machines that ensconced themselves to varying degrees in the power supply of dozens of countries. These very same machines have been hard at work since then, merely fulfilling to the letter the promise of their early proponents. They have never gone dormant. They have done exactly what they were designed to do: produced electric power in bulk, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, usually for hundreds of days at a time. They are doing that today, right now. They are in every jurisdiction among the lowest-cost producers of electricity. We have just grown so accustomed to 24/7 power that we haven’t noticed.
This prodigious nuclear power output is no small thing. Look at Item A1 in the upper left: it gives the latest reading of the concentration of CO2 in the global atmosphere; the reading was taken at the Mauna Loa CO2 observatory in Hawaii. It has, over the past few weeks, dipped below 400 parts per million. That reflects the enormous CO2 consumption by green plants especially in the northern hemisphere—it is summer up here, the plant growth season. But it will soon move back above 400 ppm and stay there. We humans are putting so much CO2 into the air that even all the greenery the world over cannot eat enough to keep up. But without the 435 nuclear power reactors in the world, we would have hit 400 parts per million much much earlier.
So, “Nuclear renaissance” is a misnomer. “Nuclear early childhood,” while it doesn’t have quite the same ring, is a much more accurate term—if you can imagine very young children who easily outwork, outproduce, and outperform their parents by orders of magnitude. In Ontario, my home jurisdiction, nuclear provides by far most of the power that makes society and the economy run—have a look at Table A1 on the left.
Other jurisdictions around the world look with great favour the example of Ontario and other highly nuclearized places. While Ontario is impressive, France is actually the model of achievable environmentally and economically sustainable electricity. About eighty percent of French electricity comes out of nuclear plants. This makes French electricity incredibly clean—every kilowatt-hour of electrical energy in France comes with something like 77 grams of CO2. It also costs around 17 cents American.
By contrast, Germany—much beloved by self-styled environmentalists and energy gurus for its brave commitment to wind power and abandonment of nuclear power—has electrical energy that comes with at least 477 grams of CO2 and costs twice as much per kWh. Clearly, France is doing it right and Germany wrong.
As mentioned, other jurisdictions have noted this and are aiming for a France-itudinal or at least Ontarian solution. China, Romania, and Argentina are three of them. All three have new reactors: Romania brought a 700 megawatt CANDU 6 into service in 2007; Argentina one of similar technology and roughly the same capacity just last month. And China… well, I will get to that below. Both Romania and Argentina are looking to build more of them. Romania just announced plans to add two CANDU 6 units; Argentina has announced a plan to build another unit, technology—and builder—to be determined.
My country, Canada, was instrumental in the development of the nuclear sectors in both Romania and Argentina. Canada also built reactors in India and Pakistan, and more recently in South Korea and China. The latter is building great numbers of new reactors, and not a moment too soon: China has the highest CIPK of grid electricity among major countries, higher even than the U.S., and is today the world’s single biggest contributor to atmospheric CO2.
China, Romania, Argentina—all are economies on the move. All are low-cost-power jurisdictions. China and Romania are (currently) high-CIPK jurisdictions and are in Quadrant I of the Carbon-Price Matrix. Argentina is in Quadrant II, close to Quadrant I. With its two new CANDUs Romania will sink toward Argentina’s position in Quadrant II. Argentina will move toward the centre of Quadrant II.
But China, a country of 1.3 billion souls, many of whom have an inadequate personal power supply, has a gargantuan task ahead of it. To get to Quadrant II—clean, cheap power—it has to build nuclear plants like it’s building coal plants. Then it has to use them like it is using coal plants. And stop using coal.
Is China moving in that direction? It has 28 nuclear reactors under construction, according to the WNA. A further 58 are planned (see the IAEA and WNA tables in this post at Brian Wang’s excellent Next Big Future).
That will help, but in China—really, everywhere across the world—nuclear has to reach at least adolescence. Remember, it is today only in early childhood. When it’s a teenager, then the global atmospheric concentration of CO2 will stabilize.