World Energy Needs and Nuclear Power
(updated July 2012)
- The world will need greatly increased energy supply in the next 20 years, especially cleanly-generated electricity.
- Electricity demand is increasing twice as fast as overall energy use and is likely to rise 76% to 2030.
- Nuclear power provides about 13.5% of the world's electricity, almost 24% of electricity in OECD countries, and 34% in the EU. Its use is increasing.
- Nuclear power is the most environmentally benign way of producing electricity on a large scale.
- Renewable energy sources other than hydro have high generating costs but are helpful at the margin in providing clean power.
Primary energy and electricity outlook
The World Energy Outlook 2012 and
Electricity Information 2012 from the OECD's International
Energy Agency (IEA) set out the present situation and also
reference, New Policies,* and carbon reduction scenarios. From 1980
to 2007 total world primary energy demand grew by 66%, and to 2030
it is projected to grow at a slightly lesser rate (40%, average
1.5% per year, from 503 EJ to 703 EJ). Electricity growth is almost
double this. It grew at an average annual rate of 3.4% from 1973 to
2010, and is projected to grow 70% from 2010 to 2035 (from 21,511
TWh to 36,600 TWh) in the central New Policies scenario. Increased
demand is most dramatic in Asia, projected to average 4.7% per year
to 2035. Currently some two billion people have no access to
electricity, and it is a high priority to address this lack
With the United Nations predicting world population growth from
6.6 billion in 2007 to 8.2 billion by 2030, demand for energy must
increase substantially over that period. Both population growth and
increasing standards of living for many people in developing
countries will cause strong growth in energy demand, as outlined
above. Over 70% of the increased energy demand is from developing
countries, led by China and India - China overtook the USA as top
CO2 emitter in 2007. Superimposed on this, the UN Population
Division projects an ongoing trend of urbanisation, reaching 70%
worldwide by 2050, enabling world population to stabilize at about
9 billion with better food supply, clean water, sanitation, health,
education and communication facilities.
Nuclear power generation is an established part of the world's
electricity mix providing in 2010 some 12.8% of world electricity
(cf. coal 40.4%, oil 4.6%, natural gas 22.2%, hydro 16.3% and other
3.6%).It is especially suitable for large-scale, continuous
electricity demand which requires reliability (ie
base-load), and hence ideally matched to increasing
The World Energy Outlook highlights the
increasing importance of nuclear power in meeting energy needs
while achieving security of supply and minimising carbon dioxide
emissions. The 2006 edition of this report warned that if policies
remained unchanged, world energy demand to 2030 is forecast to
increase by 53% accompanied by supply crises, giving a "dirty,
insecure and expensive" energy future which would be unsustainable.
The report showed that nuclear power could make a major
contribution to reducing dependence on imported gas and curbing CO2
emissions in a cost-effective way, since its uranium fuel is
abundant. However governments needed to play a stronger role in
facilitating private investment, especially in liberalized
electricity markets where the trade-off between security and low
price had been a disincentive to investment in new plant and grid
The World Energy Outlook 2009 report said that
investment of US$ 25.6 trillion* would be required by 2030 under
the reference scenario, and $10.5 trillion more under an
alternative low-carbon energy scenario. Under this, nuclear
capacity increases 378 GWe (86%) to 816 GWe rather than to 475 GWe
in reference case, energy demand increases by 20% rather than 40%
and CO2 emissions reduce to 26.4 Gt/yr from 28.8 Gt/yr in 2007.
* Of the $25.6 trillion amount, $13.7 trillion is for
electricity: about half for generation and the rest for
transmission and distribution.
The World Energy Outlook 2010 report built on this
and showed that removing fossil‐fuel consumption subsidies, which
totaled $312 billion in 2009 (mostly in non-OECD countries), could
make a big contribution to meeting energy security and
environmental goals, including mitigating CO2 and other emissions.
In the central New Policies scenario, based on recent policy
advances, world primary energy demand increases by 36% between 2008
and 2035, or 1.2% per year average. This compares with 2% per year
over the previous 27‐year period, but is higher than the low-carbon
scenario. In this scenario, non-OECD countries account for 93% of
the primary energy demand growth. The report notes that while
China's energy use was half that of the USA in 2000, it overtook
the USA in 2009.
In the WEO 2010 New Policies scenario electricity
demand was expected to grow at 2.2% pa to 2035, almost double the
rate of primary energy, and with 80% of the growth being in
non-OECD countries. Globally, gross capacity additions, to replace
obsolete capacity and to meet demand growth, amount to around 5900
GWe to 2035 - 25% more than current installed capacity. Nuclear
capacity increased by only 360 GWe, somewhat less than in the
reduced carbon scenario. Support for renewable sources of
electricity, estimated at $37 billion in 2009, is quadrupled. But
per unit it drops from average 5.5 c/kWh to 2.3 cents, apart from
costs of integrating them into the grid. CO2 emissions increase
from 29 Gt/yr in 2008 to 34 Gt in 2020 and 35 Gt in 2035, all this
being in non-OECD countries. In the low-carbon scenario they peak
at 22 Gt about 2020 and drop to 22 Gt in 2035 with CO2 emission
costs then being $90-120 per tonne (all in 2009 dollars). In the
'450' low-carbon scenario to 2035, the additional spending on
low‐carbon energy technologies (business investment and consumer
spending) amounts to $18 trillion more than in the Current Policies
Scenario, and around $13.5 trillion more than in the New Policies
Following the Fukushima accident, World Energy Outlook 2011 New Policies scenario
had a 60% increase in nuclear capacity to 2035, compared with about
90% the year before. "Although the prospects for nuclear power in
the New Policies Scenario are weaker in some regions than in
[WEO 2010] projections, nuclear power continues to play an
important role, providing base-load electricity. Most non-OECD
countries and many OECD countries are expected to press ahead with
plans to install additional nuclear power plants, though there may
be short-term delays as the safety standards of existing and new
plants are reviewed. Globally, nuclear power capacity is projected
to rise in the New Policies Scenario from 393 GW in 2009 to 630 GW
in 2035, around 20 GW lower than projected last year."
In this scenario the IEA expects the share of coal in
total electricity to drop from 41% now to 33% in 2035. Electricity
generation increases from 20 to 36 PWh.
WEO 2011 also included a "Low Nuclear Case (which)
examines the implications for global energy balances of a much
smaller role for nuclear power. The lower nuclear component of
electricity supply is not a forecast, post Fukushima, but an
assumption adopted for the purpose of illustrating a global energy
outlook in such a low nuclear world." "In the Low Nuclear Case, the
total amount of nuclear power capacity falls from 393 GW at the end
of 2010 to 335 GW in 2035, just over half the level in the New
Policies Scenario. The share of nuclear power in total generation
drops from 13% in 2010 to just 7% in 2035, with implications for
energy security, diversity of the fuel mix, spending on energy
imports and energy-related CO2 emissions." Its effect would be to
"increase import bills, heighten energy security concerns and make
it harder and more expensive to combat climate change."
The New Policies scenario in World Energy Outlook
2012 showed that "several fundamental trends persist:
energy demand and CO2 emissions rise even higher; energy market
dynamics are increasingly determined by emerging economies; fossil
fuels remain the dominant energy sources; and providing universal
energy access to the world's poor countries continues to be an
elusive goal." Electricity generation increases from 21.5 PWh in
2010 to 36.6 PWh in 2035, with average price increase of 15% in
real terms. WEO 2012 further reduced nuclear capacity projections
for 2035, to 580 GWe, about 10% less than that scenario the year
before and only 55% more than today. That would produce 4.37 PWh,
12% of world total. Renewables are likely to "become the world's
second-largest source of power generation by 2015", with share of
electricity generation growing from 20% in 2010 (mostly hydro) to
31% by 2035, though this "hinges critically on continued subsidies"
which impact electricity prices. The IEA concluded that "taking all
new developments and policies into account, the world is still
failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable
path." This is highlighted by a 28% increase in fossil fuel
subsidies to $523 billion in 2011 (compared with $409 billion in
2010, and $44 billion in 2010 for renewables. Renewables subsidies
are expected to reach $240 billion per year in 2035, for 31% of
In 2012 the IEA issued its Energy Technology Perspectives
Study (ETP 2012), which takes the 450 ppm scenario in WEO 2011
and extends it out to 2050, calling it the 2-degree scenario (2DS).
This scenario is then compared with the status quo (6-degree
scenario) and with a 4-degree scenario in between. It then goes a
step further to see if a zero emissions energy system is possible
by 2075. The study makes the case that environment and energy
development must go hand in hand. Some of the findings:
- A sustainable energy system is still within reach and can bring broad benefits
- Technologies can and must play an integral role in transforming the energy system.
- Investing in clean energy makes economic sense – every additional dollar invested can generate three dollars in future fuel savings by 2050.
- Energy security and climate change mitigation are allies.
- Despite technology’s potential, progress in clean energy is too slow
- Nine out of ten technologies that hold potential for energy and CO2 emissions savings are failing to meet the deployment objectives needed to achieve the necessary transition to a low-carbon future. Some of the technologies with the largest potential are showing the least progress.
- The share of energy-related investment in public research, development and demonstration (RD&D) has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s.
- Fossil fuels remain dominant and demand continues to grow, locking in high-carbon infrastructure.
It then goes on to focus on how energy policy must address the
key issues and the role of government in formulating that, finally
concluding with recommendations to energy ministers (assuming these
recommendations were to be considered at Rio+20).
The study focuses on renewable technologies such as wind and solar,
energy efficiency technologies to reduce demand, and carbon capture
technologies to clean up the ever-expanding fossil infrastructure,
though this is prime area where progress is obviously "too slow".
Nuclear technology is also shown to be important although its
suggested role is less than the others.
The electricity generation mixes for each of the three scenarios in
2050 range from almost 50,000 TWh in 6DS down to 40,000 TWh in 2DS.
Improved energy efficiencies is the most important source of clean
generation, along with huge growth in renewables (wind, solar,
hydro and biomass) and an increase in nuclear output to about 8,000
TWh in 2DS. Most of the remaining fossil generation, contributing
10,000 TWh, is assumed to have CCS installed.
Looking at the needed capacity, due to the variability and low
capacity factors of renewables such as wind and solar, capacity
must increase even more than the output. This demonstrates the
importance of nuclear as it has high capacity relative to other
forms of generation. With less than 5% of the generating capacity
(about 550 GWe), it produces about 20% of the electricity,
indicating its importance in a low-carbon electricity system.
The main tool in achieving CO2 reduction targets for the 2DS is CO2
price, increasing from USD 40/tCO2 in 2020 to USD 150/tCO2 in 2050.
This greatly increases the electricity generation costs of
CO2-emitting technologies and thereby improves the relative
cost-competitiveness of low-carbon power technologies. The report
suggests that the only way to achieve a low-carbon world is to
price carbon aggressively to force behavioural change; first by
reducing demand and second through the implementation of higher
cost low carbon technologies. This has a major impact on
electricity prices, however, and the only mitigating factor is the
relatively low cost of power from nuclear plants allowed to operate
on a continuous full-power basis unrestrained by subsidised
high-cost intermittent sources having dispatch preference.
Hence the study continues to include a "high nuclear" sensitivity
case for the 2DS scenario. In the 2DS-hiNuc case, nuclear
generation is increased to 34% in 2050. Compared with the base 2DS,
nuclear replaces fossil power plants with CCS and renewables, whose
share in 2050 falls, in the case of CCS from 15% to 7%, and in the
case of renewables from 57% to 49%. This scenario reflects a world
with greater public acceptance of nuclear power. On the technical
side, the average construction rate for nuclear power plants in the
period 2011 to 2050 rises from 27 GW/yr in the base 2DS to 50
GW/yr. The cumulative investment costs of this case are only USD
200 billion higher than in the base 2DS and are more than offset by
costs savings for fossil fuels in the order of USD 2000 billion (10
A system with about one third of the generation provided by nuclear
is achievable if the industry can overcome the major issue of
public acceptance. It raises the question of whether the public
will prefer very high electricity costs with a large increase in
renewable generation, or a greater role from nuclear power
involving a relatively modest increase in the number of
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its annual
Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period
to 2050 published in September 2010 revised upwards its
projections for 2030, as it had done the previous year. Its
low projection showed a nuclear capacity increase from 376 GWe
today to 546 GWe in 2030, the high one gave 803 GWe then, in line
with forecast growth in all power generation. For 2050 it
estimated 590 to 1415 GWe. The rising costs of natural gas
and coal, together with energy supply security and environmental
constraints, are among the factors contributing to anticipated
nuclear growth. Increased commitments by governments,
utilities and equipment vendors to expand nuclear capacity, plus
the end of nuclear trade restrictions with India, confirmed earlier
trends. The September 2011 edition of this took into account
reduced expectations following the Fukushima accident, and its low
projection for 2030 was 501 GWe, the high one 746 GWe, producing
3946 to 5857 TWh, of 33449 to 42056 TWh total (12-14%). For 2050 it
estimated 560 to 1228 GWe, of total 20,391 GWe electrical capacity
then. This would be expected to produce 4513 to 9893 TWh, of 73,021
TWh total. Then in September 2012 it reduced some of these
figures to 456 GWe for 2030 in the low scenario, and 740 GWe in the
high scenario. For 2050 the projections were 470 and 1337 GWe
The OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency published its first Nuclear
Energy Outlook in October 2008. Apart from nuclear being
virtually carbon-free, it points out that energy security is
enhanced due to nuclear fuel's high energy density, which means
that transport is less vulnerable and storage of large reserves is
easy. In its high scenario, life extensions and plant
upratings continue and present plans for new capacity are largely
implemented to 2030. After that new build accelerates to
bring over 50 GWe on line each year, giving 1400 GWe nuclear
capacity in 2050. It identifies factors which would result in
In June 2010 this NEO was supplemented by the joint
NEA-IEA Nuclear Technology Roadmap, with scenario for
cutting energy-related CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050. This would see
1200 GWe of nuclear capacity on line then, providing 24% of
electricity (world production having grown from 20,000 TWh in 2007
to 41,000 TWh then). Nuclear power would then be the single largest
source of electricity. If constraints on building new nuclear
capacity were overcome, nuclear could provide 38% of electricity by
2050, and in this case the power would be 11% cheaper then. The
roadmap saw nuclear as a mature technology which
required no major technological breakthrough to achieve the
projected growth. However, global industrial capacity to construct
nuclear power plants will need to double by 2020 if nuclear
capacity is to grow in the 2020s and beyond as projected. The
Roadmap estimates the investment in nuclear power needed by 2050 to
be almost $4000 billion: including $893 billion in China, $883
billion in USA and Canada, $615 billion in OECD Pacific (including
Japan & Korea), $389 billion in India, and $330 billion in
The US Energy Information Administration has also revised
upwards its normally low projections for nuclear in recent editions
of its annual International Energy Outlook (IEO). In 2010
it projected 558 GWe nuclear capacity in 2030 and 593 GWe in 2035.
The 2030 figure is 53% higher than its 2030 projection published
seven years earlier. The reference case for 2035 includes 66 GWe
added in China, 23 GWe in India, 25 GWe in Russia and 12 GWe in the
USA. It projected 4200 TWh from nuclear in 2030 and 4510 TWh in
In November 2011 the World Energy Council (WEC) published a
report: Policies for the future: 2011 Assessment of country
energy and climate policies, which ranked country performance
according to an energy sustainability index, meaning how well each
country performs on "three pillars" of energy policy - energy
security, social equity, and environmental impact mitigation
(particularly low carbon emissions). The five countries with the
"most coherent and robust" energy policies included large shares of
nuclear energy in their electricity fuel mix. The best performers,
according to the report, are: Switzerland (40% nuclear), Sweden
(40% nuclear), France (75% nuclear), Germany (30% nuclear prior to
reactor shutdowns earlier 2011), and Canada (15% nuclear). The
report said that countries wanting to reduce reliance on nuclear
power must work out how to do so without compromising energy
sustainability. In Germany this would be a particular challenge
without increasing the reliance on carbon-based power generation
"since the renewable infrastructure currently does not have the
capability to do so."
In December 2011 the European Commission (EC) published its
Energy 2050 Roadmap, a policy paper. This was very
positive regarding nuclear power and said that nuclear energy can
make "a significant contribution to the energy transformation
process" and is "a key source of low-carbon electricity generation"
that will keep system costs and electricity prices lower. "As a
large scale low-carbon option, nuclear energy will remain in the EU
power generation mix." The paper analysed five possible scenarios
leading to the EU low-carbon energy economy goal by 2050 (80%
reduction of CO2 emissions), based on energy efficiency,
renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS). All
scenarios show electricity will have to play a much greater role
than now, almost doubling its share in final energy demand to
36%-39% in 2050. The EC high-efficiency scenario would reduce
energy demand by 41% by 2050 (compared with 2005); the diversified
supply technologies scenario would have a combination of high
carbon prices, nuclear energy and introduction of CCS technologies;
a high-renewables scenario suggests they might supply 75% of total
energy supply by 2050; a "delayed CCS" scenario has nuclear power
would playing a major role; and a low-nuclear power scenario had
coal plants with CCS providing 32% of total energy (ie 82-89% of EU
electricity). The highest percentage of nuclear energy would be in
the delayed CCS and diversified supply technologies scenarios, in
which it would account for 18% and 15% shares of primary energy
supply respectively, ie 38-50% of EU electricity. Those scenarios
also had the lowest total energy costs.
The World Nuclear Association introduced Nuclear Century Outlook projections for nuclear
growth based on country by country assessments extending to
2100. These projections appear on the WNA website. For
each country, two projections are made, using optimistic and
pessimistic assumptions. When added, the projections provide
high and low "boundaries" for likely future global nuclear
capacity. For 2030 the boundaries are now 602 GWe and 1350
GWe. The Outlook also aims to identify what
would be required to achieve a worldwide change to clean energy and
to assess how much nuclear power could contribute to this. It
envisages the capacity needed for full transformation of
electricity to be emissions-free plus much greater use of
electricity in transport. It also envisages greater use of
electricity or clean heat for industrial processes including
desalination, synthetic oil and hydrogen production, though most of
this beyond the 2030 time frame.
Electricite de France (EdF) in about 2008 published forecast
world figures for the period to 2020. These show 140 GWe of
new capacity being built and 10 GWe decommissioned to give 480 GWe
in 2020. Of the 140 GWe new build, almost 30% is in China,
15% is in India and 15% other Asia. Europe, Americas and
Russia have about 12% each.
Cameco is reported to project a net increase of 97 nuclear power
reactors by 2020, including eight in the USA by then.
The renewable energy sources for electricity constitute a diverse group, from wind, solar, tidal and wave energy to hydro, geothermal and biomass-based power generation. Apart from hydro power in the few places where it is very plentiful, none of these is suitable, intrinsically or economically, for large-scale power generation where continuous, reliable supply is needed.
Growing use will however be made of the renewable energy sources in the years ahead, although their role is limited by their intermittent nature. Their economic attractiveness is still an issue also. Renewables will have most appeal where demand is for small-scale, intermittent supply of electricity. In the OECD about 2% of electricity is from renewables other than hydro and this is expected to increase to 4% by 2015.
This diagram shows that much of the electricity demand is in fact for continuous 24/7 supply (base-load), while some is for a lesser amount of predictable supply for about three quarters of the day, and less still for variable peak demand up to half of the time.
Without nuclear power the world would have to rely almost entirely on fossil fuels, especially coal, to meet demand for base-load electricity production. Most of the demand is for continuous, reliable supply on a large scale and there is little scope for changing this. There is as much electricity generated by nuclear power today as from all sources worldwide in 1960.
There is much made of comparisons with renewables. Aside from
the obvious intermittency and non-dispatchability of renewables,
the following comparisons of plant materials is interesting. Per
MWe of installed capacity (disregarding capacity factors):
Solar PV: 40 t steel, 19 t aluminium, 76 t concrete, 85 t glass, 13
Wind: 118 t steel, 298 t concrete
Nuclear (1970s plant): 36-40 t steel, 75-90
Implications of Electric Vehicles
Future widespread use of electric vehicles, both pure electric and plug-in hybrids, will increase electricity demand modestly - perhaps up to 15% in terms of kilowatt-hours. But this increase will mostly come overnight, in off-peak demand, so will not much increase the system's peak capacity requirement in gigawatts. Overnight charging of vehicles will however greatly increase the proportion of that system capacity to be covered by base-load power generation - either nuclear or coal. In a typical system this might increase from about 50-60% to 70-80% of the total, as shown in the Figures below.
This then has significant implications for the cost of electricity. Base-load power is generated much more cheaply than intermediate- and peak-load power, so the average cost of electricity will be lower than with the present pattern of use. And any such major increase in base-load capacity requirement will have a major upside potential for nuclear power if there are constraints on carbon emissions. So potentially the whole power supply gets a little cheaper and cleaner, and many fossil fuel emissions from road transport are avoided at the same time.
Drivers for increased nuclear capacity
The first generation of nuclear plants were justified by the need to alleviate urban smog caused by coal-fired power plants. Nuclear was also seen as an economic source of base-load electricity which reduced dependence on overseas imports of fossil fuels. Today's drivers for nuclear build have evolved:
Increasing energy demand
Global population growth in combination with industrial development will lead to a doubling of electricity consumption by 2030. Besides this incremental growth, there will be a need to renew a lot of generating stock in the USA and the EU over the same period. An increasing shortage of fresh water calls for energy-intensive desalination plants, and in the longer term hydrogen production for transport purposes will need large amounts of electricity and/or high temperature heat. See first section above for recent projections.
Increased awareness of the dangers and effects of global warming and climate change has led decision makers, media and the public to realize that the use of fossil fuels must be reduced and replaced by low-emission sources of energy, such as nuclear power, the only readily available large-scale alternative to fossil fuels for production of continuous, reliable supply of electricity.
Security of Supply
A major topic on many political agendas is security of supply, as countries realize how vulnerable they are to interrupted deliveries of oil and gas. The abundance of naturally occurring uranium makes nuclear power attractive from an energy security standpoint.
Increasing fossil fuel prices have greatly improved the economics of nuclear power for electricity now. Several studies show that nuclear energy is the most cost-effective of the available base-load technologies. In addition, as carbon emission reductions are encouraged through various forms of government incentives and trading schemes, the economic benefits of nuclear power will increase further.
Insurance against future price exposure
A longer-term advantage of uranium over fossil fuels is the low impact that increased fuel prices will have on the final electricity production costs, since a large proportion of those costs is in the capital cost of the plant. This insensitivity to fuel price fluctuations offers a way to stabilize power prices in deregulated markets.
As the nuclear industry is moving away from small national programmes towards global cooperative schemes, serial production of new plants will drive construction costs down and further increase the competitiveness of nuclear energy.
In practice, is a rapid expansion of nuclear power capacity possible?
Most reactors today are built in under five years (first concrete to first power), with four years being state of the art and three years being the aim with prefabrication. Several years are required for preliminary approvals before construction.
It is noteworthy that in the 1980s, 218 power reactors started up, an average of one every 17 days. These included 47 in USA, 42 in France and 18 in Japan. The average power was 923.5 MWe. So it is not hard to imagine a similar number being commissioned in a decade after about 2015. But with China and India getting up to speed with nuclear energy and a world energy demand double the 1980 level in 2015, a realistic estimate of what is possible might be the equivalent of one 1000 MWe unit worldwide every 5 days.
A relevant historical benchmark is that from 1941 to 1945, 18 US shipyards built over 2700 Liberty Ships. These were standardised 10,800 dwt cargo ships of a very basic British design but they became symbolic of US industrial wartime productivity and were vital to the war effort. Average construction time was 42 days in the shipyard, often using prefabricated modules . In 1943, three were being completed every day. They were 135 metres long and could carry 9100 tonnes of cargo.
See also the paper in this series: Heavy Manufacturing of Power Plants.
Clean Air and Greenhouse Gases
On a global scale nuclear power currently reduces carbon dioxide emissions by some 2.5 billion tonnes per year (relative to the main alternative of coal-fired generation, about 2 billion tonnes relative to the present fuel mix). Carbon dioxide accounts for half of the human-contributed portion of the global warming effect of the atmosphere.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has comprehensively reviewed global warming and has reached a consensus that the phenomenon is real and does pose a significant environmental threat during the next century if fossil fuel use continues even at present global levels. See also Climate Change - science paper.
The 2007 IPCC report on mitigation of climate change says that the most cost-effective option for restricting the temperature rise to under 3°C will require an increase in non-carbon electricity generation from 34% (nuclear plus hydro) now to 48 - 53% by 2030, along with other measures. With a doubling of overall electricity demand by then, and a carbon emission cost of US$ 50 per tonne of CO2, nuclear's share of electricity generation is projected by IPCC to grow from 16% now to 18% of the increased demand (ie 2650 TWh to some 6000 TWh/yr), representing more than a doubling of the current nuclear output by 2030. The report projects other non-carbon sources apart from hydro contributing some 12-17% of global electricity generation by 2030.
These projected figures are estimates, and it is evident that if renewables fail to grow as much as hoped it means that other non-carbon sources will need to play a larger role. Thus nuclear power's contribution could triple or perhaps quadruple to more than 30% of the global generation mix in 2030 - around 10,000 TWh.
Nuclear power has a key role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. Every 22 tonnes of uranium (26 t U3O8) used saves one million tonnes of carbon dioxide relative to coal.
Of more immediate relevance is clean air, and the health benefits of low pollution levels. A World Health Organisation (WHO) study published in 2011 showed that some 1.34 million people each year die prematurely due to PM10 particles - those less than 10 microns (μm) - in outdoor air. Outdoor, PM10 particles mostly originate in coal-fired power stations and motor vehicles, and indoors, residential wood and coal burning for space heating is an important contributor, especially in rural areas during colder months.
WHO studied publicly-available air quality data from 1081 cities across 91 countries, including capital cities and those with populations of more than 100,000 people. The data used are based on measurements taken from 2003 to 2010, with most being reported for the period 2008-09. The WHO air quality guideline for PM10 is 20 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) as an annual average. However, eleven cities exceeded 200 μg/m3 average, eg UlaanBaatar at 279 μg/m3, whereas most of the 490 cities below the guideline level were in North America.
Use of Natural Resources
Carbon and hydrocarbon resources have many other uses that generating power on a large scale. Coal and other fossil fuels are required in much larger quantities than uranium to produce the equivalent amount of electricity – nuclear power is very energy-dense, an extremely concentrated form of energy – see Table below. Nuclear power already has substantially reduced the use of fossil fuels. There are particular questions of ethics and opportunity cost in the use of gas to generate base-load power.
Energy conversion: the heat values of various fuels
|Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)
|Natural gas (UK, USA, Canada, Australia)
|Natural gas (Russia)
|Natural gas as LNG (Australia)
|Hard black coal (IEA definition)
|Sub-bituminous coal (IEA definition)
|Lignite/brown coal (IEA definition)
|Lignite (Australia, electricity)
|Natural uranium, in LWR (normal reactor)
|Natural uranium, in LWR with U & Pu recycle
|Natural uranium, in FNR
|Uranium enriched to 3.5%, in LWR
Uranium figures are based on 45,000 MWd/t burn-up of 3.5% enriched U in LWR
MJ = l06 Joule, GJ = 109 J; % carbon is by mass; mass CO2 = 3.667 mass C MJ to kWh @ 33% efficiency: x 0.0926
One tonne of oil equivalent (toe) is equal to 41.868 GJ
Sources: OECD/IEA Electricity Information 2008, for coal; Australian Energy Consumption and Production, historical trends and projections, ABARE Research Report 1999.
A further aspect of natural resource use in some places is regarding fresh water. Coal-fired plants are often built on coalfields for logistical reasons, and then cooled with fresh water using evaporative cooling towers. These use a lot of water. With nuclear plants, there is no similar siting consideration and they may more readily be put on the coastline, using seawater for cooling without evaporation. In Australia, a dry continent, a move from coal-fired to nuclear power could save enough fresh water to supply a city of four million people.
See also Sustainable Energy in this series.