This article is the result of some very interesting discussions below a recent TEC article on the potential of coal, nuclear and wind/solar to supply the rapidly growing energy needs of the developing world. In that article, I estimated that nuclear is roughly an order of magnitude less scalable than coal, but more than double as scalable as wind/solar. These estimations were challenged by both nuclear and wind advocates and, as such critical discussions often do, have prompted much closer investigations into this issue. In particular, data pertaining to the near-term prospects of nuclear energy in China, the nation accounting for fully 43% of nuclear plants currently under construction, has been analysed in more detail. — SCHALK CLOETE
Schalk Cloete’s superpower is the ability to execute and explain exactly the analysis required to penetrate a difficult, controversial topic. And there are a few others – you know who you are.
Schalk’s recent article Can Nuclear Make a Substantial Near-Term Contribution? supports answers to my “most important questions”: How can we help the large fast-growers to make the transition from fossil to clean energy? For discussion, let’s focus on three key nations:
The reason I posed this in terms of three different developing countries is because the support & partnership that the rich countries can offer is different in each case.
- China is already putting more resource than any other nation into building up their nuclear deployment capability. Even so, China can benefit hugely from without-limit contributions of capital, science, and engineering know how. I left regulatory know how off that list, though there may be possible contributions there. As it stands today the US NRC is probably mostly a hinderance to the deployment of advanced nuclear – not because of the NRC staff, but because of the budgetary straight-jacket imposed by the US Congress (make the ‘customers’ pay for everything up front).
- India is improving their nuclear deployment capability at a slow, deliberate pace. But India too could benefit from external technology contributions. Remember that India was cut off for decades from western nuclear tech as punishment for their indigenous nuclear weapons development.
- Africa needs affordable energy-machines that are suitable to their infrastructure and operational capabilities. If Africa does not have access to affordable and suitable nuclear they will have no real choice but to build more and more coal and gas.
Cumulative CO2 avoidance potential over lifetime of investment (Gton CO2)
Our affordability challenge is that we need to offer clean, reliable electricity at the best price per ton CO2 avoided. So what can compete economically with coal and natural gas? If you study Schalk’s chart for a few minutes I think you will conclude, as I have, that we need to pull out all the stops to accelerate deployment of mass-manufactured “nuclear batteries”. By “batteries” I mean simply that no-maintenance energy-machines that can be rapidly installed by underground burial, connected to the grid, then left alone for up to four decades until the maintenance crew arrives to replace the “battery”, trundling the original off to the factory for refueling.
China is training-up to build and staff Western-style plants like the AP1000 – which China will be building internally on Chinese-owned IP. That is not going to happen very soon and at scale in Africa. While my guess is that India will need some time to develop their skill-base and supply chain. Sadly, Greenpeace has succeeded in preventing availability of the simple plants that Africa wants to purchase. Given the reality of the nuclear supply chain, it will be close to two decades before vendors are manufacturing and installing plants suitable for most low-tech nations.
Africa isn’t waiting for someone to make a clean generation option available to energize their growth. Currently seven of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Sadly the massive scale of African urbanization and growth is going to be enabled the same way it happened in Europe, N and S America – building relatively cheap coal and gas plants as fast as they can be built. That trajectory will end very badly unless we get serious about what happens next. We can create a happy ending if, inside the next two decades, we achieve the capability to produce affordable nuclear plants that can be installed and operated without losing two additional decades developing a deeply-trained nuclear workforce and local supply chain. By 2015 Africa’s urban population is expected to triple [UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision].
It’s obvious that these SMR designs must be substitutable for the fossil thermal machines that got built in the first phase of dirty industrialization. It will be a lot easier and cheaper if the first-stage dirty plants are designed for such an evolution: rip the dirty heat out, stick the clean heat in.
There’s heaps more to be learned by studying Schalk’s essay, so get on over there. If you find any flaws in his work, please contribute to the dialogue there on TEC (I am subscribed to those comments).
Footnotes from Shalk’s essay: why China’s nuclear avoidance potential is actually greater than the above chart.
 It should also be mentioned that the Chinese tariff system favors wind over nuclear by paying a fixed feed-in tariff of $83–100/MWh to wind and $70/MWh to nuclear. Another important factor to consider is the reduced value of wind relative to nuclear due to the variability of wind power (see my previous articles on this subject here and here). Wind power also requires expensive high voltage transmission networks to transport power from good wind locations to population centres, something which is creating substantial challenges. Thus, if the playing field were to be leveled, the difference between nuclear and wind scaling rates should increase substantially.