OECD: nuclear energy in perspective

In December 2009 the OECD released an eight-page report on nuclear energy. Fast neutron reactors are covered only by reference in the context of expanding the supply of uranium resources. There is no discussion of the coming revolution embodied in mass manufacture of modular reactor designs.

The discussion of waste says not a word to educate the public that “nuclear waste” is a valuable future fuel and must not be unreachably sequestered. And proliferation worries are only mentioned, but not addressed. Safety is said to be “generally excellent”, but “weighs heavily on public perceptions”.

In summary, a politically correct report from the bureaucracy. For a more useful reference, please see the earlier OECD bulletin Climate change: The case for nuclear energy:

(…) Looked at in terms of equivalent CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour of energy output, the nuclear chain emits an average of some 8 g CO2-eq./kWh, while the gas chain (assuming use of the combined-cycle technology) emits around 400 g CO2-eq./kWh and the coal chain with state-of-the-art power plants emits around 1,000 g CO2-eq./kWh. Carbon capture and sequestration could drastically reduce the emissions of coal-fired power plants; however, this is not yet a mature and competitive technology. Most renewable energy chains for electricity generation emit between 5 and 60 g CO2-eq./kWh, hydropower being on the lower side of the range and photovoltaic sources on the higher side.

(…) More rapid deployment of nuclear energy could improve on this scenario, and is achievable from the technical, industrial and financial viewpoints, but would require stronger political and social support.

This also means overcoming some of the main challenges to its further development. It is high time the nuclear industry and governments addressed the legitimate public concerns about radioactive waste disposal for instance, as well as reinforcing safeguards in non-proliferation agreements. In addition, the financial risks of nuclear projects need to be discussed openly. Like other low-carbon technologies such as renewables, the cost structure of nuclear energy is characterised by high capital costs and low variable costs, which can be a disadvantage in liberalised power markets with volatile prices. On the other hand, nuclear energy has the advantage that its average costs over the full life cycle of the plant are highly competitive. Suitable financing models and government support can address the question of capital costs for nuclear as well as for other low-carbon technologies.