Going nuclear

After the furies of engaging with fantasy reviews of my book in my last post, let’s get back to something safe and uncontroversial – nuclear power. Here, I continue with my theme from this post about energy futures, particularly the notion that we can transition from our present high energy, high carbon civilization to a future high energy, low carbon one based around nuclear power.

On page 31 of my book, I present a version of Figure 1 below, which shows global primary energy consumption since 1965 by energy source. It suggests that there’s been no transition out of fossil fuels up to now. True, we’re using a lot more low-carbon energy now than we were in 1965 – over 1,900 million more tonnes of oil equivalent in 2018, in fact. But we’re also using a lot more fossil energy too – over 8,000 million tonnes more over the same period. So at the moment, low-carbon energy is merely adding to our growing total use of energy, rather than substituting for the fossil energy component of it. On pp.31-3 of my book I discuss why this is so.

Figure 1: Global energy consumption by fuel type, 195-2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

But of course what’s happened up to now isn’t a secure guide to the future. It’s possible that we soon will begin transitioning to a high energy, low carbon civilization and those climbing fossil fuel quantities in Fig 1 will drop away.

To probe that possibility we need to address a few somewhat technical points. First, most sources of low carbon energy furnish us with electricity, so a high-energy, low-carbon society would have to be largely an electrically powered one. An advantage of low carbon electrical energy is that it’s efficient in its final use, whereas something like a diesel engine or a coal-powered turbine wastes a lot of energy as heat. Therefore, in order to retain the level of final energy usage implied by the fossil energy shown in Figure 1 while replacing it with low carbon electricity, it wouldn’t be necessary to match the levels of total fossil energy consumption shown in the figure, which exceed low carbon consumption by a factor of more than 5. In his paper that I mentioned in my earlier post, Tom Biegler estimates that a more appropriate factor for Australia is a (“conservative”) 2.4 – which could perhaps be generalized globally given that the proportion of electrical energy to total energy consumption is about the same in each case.

When I put together the version of Figure 1 above that appears on page 31 of the book, I hadn’t pondered this point as much as I probably should have done – but I don’t think it matters for the purposes of a retrospective/historical presentation. The graph shows as a matter of historical fact that low-carbon energy has added to rather than substituted for fossil energy consumption, and this is worth knowing. But if we try to project into the future it does matter, because – as stated above – we may not need to use as much low carbon electrical energy in the future as the fossil energy we use now in order to get the same work done.

I used the uncertain “may not” in the previous sentence because there’s another side to the coin. There are some industrial processes like fertiliser and steel manufacture that are less energy intensive when using fossil fuels than electricity. Creating the higher capacity global electrical infrastructure that would be necessary for a fully electrified global energy system, including the end products like electric cars, will also require an enormous upfront energy outlay, as Joe Clarkson pointed out under my earlier post. So exactly how this might play out is debatable.

Anyhow, Figure 2 shows the low carbon electricity (nuclear or renewables, but excluding hydro) that’s been generated year on year from 1965 to 2018, with three projections for how it will have to increase if the global energy economy is to abandon fossil fuels by 2050.

Figure 2: Low carbon electricity generation and projections, 1965-2050 (TWh)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

The blue line indicates the necessary increase if existing global final energy use turned exclusively to low carbon electricity, based on Dr Biegler’s conservative factor of 2.4, while ignoring the factors pushing energy use higher that I just mentioned – therefore underestimating the true challenge. But this leaves untouched the differences in energy use between richer and poorer countries, making this scenario implausible. Poorer countries are unlikely to invest massively in a low carbon energy transition without remedy to the gulf between rich and poor country levels of energy use – especially the energy-hungry poorer countries that are now the world’s industrial powerhouses, and that currently are heavily dependent upon fossil fuels.

The orange line adjusts for this by ‘levelling up’ to show the increased low carbon generation that would be required if every country in the world used energy at the same per capita level as Australia, on which Dr Biegler’s calculations are based – and why shouldn’t they?

Finally, the grey line shows the necessary increase if governments globally adopt the radical energy-cutting measures that a recent paper argued were feasible while retaining a decent life for citizens (though the paper professed uncertainty about how these cuts could be practically achieved).

Nobody can tell how the future will unfold, but my sense of things is that we will not see anything like the steep gradients in the blue and orange lines occurring in practice. The grey line is slightly more feasible, but is still a big leap – and would require rapid energy-cutting measures that are currently not occurring. And of course, for each passing year that new low-carbon generation falls behind the curve, the gradients just get steeper.

To my mind, the graph underscores a point made by Kevin Anderson: people have their silver bullet technologies of choice, but “you cannot build your way out with bits of shiny kit” – and that applies to both nuclear and renewable energy. So where does that leave us? Possibly with a more vernacular than literal interpretation of the phrase that it’s “time to go nuclear”. In other words, it’s time to accept that we need to drastically cut our energy usage in the rich countries, starting right now, and take our efforts to create a renewable economy up to a whole new level of urgency, throwing the kitchen sink (to mix my metaphors with another piece of high tech kit) at energy reduction. This would undoubtedly have to involve the richer countries helping the poorer ones to decarbonize, essentially by gifting them low carbon electricity capacity, which would also have the happy result of creating a more even global economic playing field.

It’s possible that’ll happen, but I can’t quite see it. It seems more likely that the pace of decarbonization will pick up a bit in the coming years, albeit with actual achievements failing to match spoken commitments. Probably, the worst case climate change scenarios for the century’s end will be avoided, accompanied by much thinktanking along the way about how a 3oC world really isn’t so bad – as seems to be the direction that the new look, more serious, post-Michael Shellenberger Breakthrough Institute is headed.

Then perhaps we reach a crunch point in the rich world – carbon taxes begin to bite, people have to hunker down more locally and grow more of their own food while welcoming newcomers from places where the hunkering hasn’t worked out, at the same time probably watching their tax dollars heading off in a desperate bid to reconcile the economic status quo with climate stability by building low carbon infrastructures in the poorer countries while seeing the likes of Jeff Bezos get ever richer, with economy-shredding climate shocks becoming ever more frequent. My hope is that they’ll find a way through that into a more equitable, more local, lower carbon world. But I couldn’t honestly say that it’s my expectation.

22 thoughts on “Going nuclear

  1. Nuclear is not the answer , a techutopian dream , mining uranium is needle in a haystack ounces per ton dug ,requiring enormous open cast holes dug by diesel machines , then theres refining , enriching , rurning into fuel rods and final disposal of toxic waste and bury it for 50 000 years or so , thats just the fuel , steel , concrete , exotic metals , copper , ( 3% copper is now profitable , 6 pounds per tonne ) all dug / transported by diesel , nuke is not the answer , in fact electricity is not the answer , to replace uk gas powered cars would take six new sizwells , i have seen nothing around showing rhe replacement of gas heating or cooking requirements , ( as a side there are no 20 pound exchange propane tanks to be had ) .
    Here in TX the grid is opperating at 100% in summer there is no capacity to charge cars in any numbers , ( we buy electricity from coal plants in mexico ) .
    Apart from people learning how to walk again the elephant in the room is trucks / trains , rail experimented withvbatteries in the 1930’s it. did not work , weight was not the problem , charging times were , no one is looking at battery powered electric trucks battery packs simply do not work too heavy to make it ecanomic unless the lift truck weights to around 100 tonnes gross , hydrogen fuel cells are what the engine makers are looking at and that has severe problems, hydrogen for a start is made from natural gas or busted from water , either way eroei is not kind there , farms could go biodiesel but that eats into the food supply ( byproducts do make animal feed ) .
    the rush for electric vehicles has not been thought thru ,, diesel at one was a byproduct of petrol / gas production and was burned off , now gas will become a byproduct of diesel with no market .
    The green new deal should have been writen by enid blyton it has no foundation on how to move the planet away from FF and feed the planet , the UN is talking about starvation next year caused by the lockdowns , they seem to think throwing money at the problem will make food appear out of thin air , can we sai inflation ?

  2. This post by Dave Roberts explains why it’s unlikely that anything truly significant will be done about climate change, resource depletion or any of the other crises that will mark the end of industrial civilization.


    My own experience living with dramatically different levels of energy consumption agrees with the concept of rapid psychological adaptation to changed living circumstances. My wife and I went from the comfort of a modern, air conditioned liberal arts college, to living on a tropical atoll without any electricity or modern communications and with a new language to speak, to living in a mansion with a full suite of serving staff, all within the space of two years. We quickly became accustomed to each change.

    At first consideration, this ability to adapt to changing circumstances might imply that it would be relatively easy to make dramatic changes to the way we live, but the same adaptive principle applies to motivational factors, too. We can easily adapt to gradual changes that might otherwise motivate us to change our behavior if the changes were more sudden. It’s the old saw about the boiling frog, but there is more than just a germ of truth to it, it’s a bedrock attribute of human psychology.

    So, I doubt that there will be any great change in any of the worrying trends in climate change, resource depletion or any of the other crises you summarized so well in your book and which should be prompting dramatic action. Nothing will change until something very big and important breaks down completely and irreparably.

    But I expect that that first breakdown will mark a tipping point for other breakdowns, resulting in a rapid end to industrial civilization. A small farm future will then become inevitable. My suggestion, become a small farmer now and avoid the rush.

  3. Chris,

    I assume that you and I are fairly similar in age – I am 58, but the child of late parents, this gives me an insight into pre war Britain.

    In addition to this I suffer the Vice that Has no Name – I’m a railway enthusiast.

    So, back in about 1975, as a teenager I saw the first part of a series of articles called ‘Keeping the Balance’ which ran in Model Railway Constructor, included in it was an extract from the 1938/1939 RCH – Railway Clearing House statistics for the average speeds of passenger trains in the UK.

    Southern Railway 18mph
    The Rest 14mph

    Now that might give you an idea of what it might be like travelling any kind of distance. If my late mother’s family had elected to go on holiday to Bournemouth via the Somerset and Dorset rather than there usual choice, the GWR it would have taken them about 4 hours to cover the 80 or so miles and even The Pines Express took 2 hours between Bath & Bournemouth. In 1953 she went a day trip to London for the Coronation, something that was thought to be quite remarkable.

    So if instead of increasing the speed of our trains, cars and of course travelling by air we had taken the efficiency gains offered by diesel and electric vehicles but kept the speeds down that would clearly have a significant effect on our consumption.

    Possibly even now it might be possible to put the genie back in the bottle both with transport and many other areas of energy consumption by changing our lifestyles, the challenge is to sell it to the bulk of the population

    • I grew up in the uk in the 1950’s ( gives me 10 years on you lol ) , in a draughty farm house we lived in the one room that was heated , bedroom windows froze over every winter , hot water bottles were almost compulsary , I warmed my hands many times on a friendly cow .School was heated by a pop bellied coke stove ,yup the ink froze in the inkwells, and the toilets froze , being cold was normal , every kid had chillblains !
      Cant see todays people / kids tolerating such conditions untill there is absolutly no option .
      Steam , now ya talkin ! I once stood on the footplate of Black Prince in steam , poetry in motion , Dutches’s used to scream thru Whitmore flat out , some still with their partial streamlining on their way to crewe and Edinborough , and a uncle owned a Sentinel DG4 .

  4. Today, Dec. 7, is well known as the anniversary of the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. As with all human events, the detailed reasons and sequence are complex, but one strand was the access to energy. The U.S. had blocked oil shipments to Japan, forcing them into desperate actions.

    WW2 was won ( again, things are complicated) arguably because the allies, primarily because of the U.S., had much more fuel to burn.

    Point being, competition over resources, and most especially energy, leads to conflict. It has throughout history. Even as the fossil era was expanding and giving humans more wealth beyond past kings’ wildest dreams, it was still not enough. As the per capita energy decline continues, conflict (small, and big) will be a large part of any calculations on what path to recommend.

    Human psychology is the real problem to solve (Both individually and in groups). Going to a small farm economy, phasing out fossil fuels, taking on legitimately sustainable lifestyles all sound good, but are unlikely to happen at scale. The phenomenon of shifting baseline and general human adaptability that Joe C mentions further entrench the current patterns.

    Other websites concentrate specifically on some psychological aspect of the inability of our culture to see and avoid the unfolding transition. un-Denial.com is one, Collapse of the Empire was good for a while, and of course, Greer explored this piece of the puzzle for years. Plenty of diagnoses out there, no solutions.

    A strategy to select a pathway to a small farm future will need to consider that it will not be done at the nation state level. Your book rightly recognizes that sun, soil, water and ecosystem fiddling will get figured out on the technical level, the political arena is where we determine if we can avoid the many dystopian options or not.

    At the end of the day, we will be growing food without fossil fuels.

    • The political arena is at best a short sighted greenwash farce aimed at winning the next election and kicking the can down the road , replace oil / gas with electricity ! but no way of building enough capacity to cope just a lot of wishfull thinking that unicorns will generate electricity for us .

  5. Thanks for the above. I like Dave Roberts’ writing. Much will probably depend on the confluence of crises/change dynamics and how they influence each other. There’s a crisis in political economies independently of biophysical ones, and in my book I try to use this to suggest possibilities for positive change – though without any huge conviction that these sunny outcomes will be the norm.

    Perhaps railway reform is a good place to start. Or is this just a case of rearranging the locomotives on the west coast main line?

  6. As per efficiency of fuels, one must also consider the heating sector, where efficiency of fossil fuels and biomass is very high as there are few losses. Where I live, Sweden, heating use more energy than the whole power sector, mostly heating is by biomass (the last fossil fuel powered district heating furnace closed this year. Efficiency of nuclear power electricity is no better than fossil fueled electricity generation. In addition, the efficiency of electricity generation will drop if all stuff is electrified as there will be energy lost in storage of various sorts (I am told-not checked that – that batteries have 90% efficiency, other storage technologies may have lower efficiency. The grid loose 10 percent as well. Last time I checked the whole hydrogen chain, which now is heavily promoted had a lousy efficiency.

  7. btw, do you follow Tim Morton’s blog, https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/ He seems to have a more sophisticated take on energy and economy than Gail T and those that are obsessed with EROEI (I do think it is relevant and fairly important, but not THAT important). But honestly I have not fully understood his Surplus Energy model, and don’t know if I should try to do it. I am interested to know if you or any of the active commenters hare has an opinion about it?

    • I have been following Dr Morgan’s blog for a year or so. I think the basic concept is sound (the basis for all economic activity is energy, so adjust apparent prosperity for actual access to energy), but he doesn’t publish the details of his model or calculations, so it is difficult to know where potential inaccuracies might be found.

      He actually is obsessed with EROI, but he calls it the Energy Cost of Energy or ECOE. He uses ECOE to adjust per capita energy availability and combines that adjustment with one for the influence of debt on GDP numbers to come up with net per capita prosperity. His report is that per capita prosperity has been declining in wealthy countries for a couple of decades now.

  8. I’m convinced that the continued use and expansion of nuclear energy will most likely be about rich countries trying to maintain their high energy lifestyles, while all countries of the world have to share the externalized costs.

    Even in the “ambitious” expansion scenario being pushed by the World Nuclear Association, only 10,000 total TWh of nuclear electricity would be produced in 2050 (which is much less than the blue line’s 60,000 TWh of global electrification in 2050, or the gray line’s 40,000 TWh, in Chris’ Figure 2 above).


  9. I suggest all read Jim Kunstler’s latest essay in (of all things) the American Conservative.
    (I suspect that Conservative here, means conservation..yes?)
    As a conservation biologist with more than a smattering of skills in physics etc, he is absolutely correct. Powering down is going to be very hard for most folks who have been reared on the “Everything is going to get bigger, brighter in the future”.

  10. “Everything is going to get bigger, brighter in the future”.?

    “ . . . our best estimate is that the net energy
    33:33 per barrel available for the global
    33:36 economy was about eight percent
    33:38 and that in over the next few years it
    33:42 will go down to zero percent
    33:44 uh best estimate at the moment is that
    33:46 actually the
    33:47 per average barrel of sweet crude
    33:51 uh we had the zero percent around 2022
    33:56 but there are ways and means of
    33:58 extending that so to be on the safe side
    34:00 here on our diagram
    34:02 we say that zero percent is definitely
    34:05 around 2030 . . .
    34:43 need net energy from oil and [if] it goes
    34:46 down to zero
    34:48 uh well we have collapsed not just
    34:50 collapse of the oil industry
    34:52 we have collapsed globally of the global
    34:54 industrial civilization this is what we
    34:56 are looking at at the moment . . . “


  11. Thanks for the further comments – all interesting stuff, to which I have nothing particularly useful to add. I’ve looked occasionally at Tim Morton’s blog. Perhaps I should follow up some more, but thanks for the summary Joe. Thanks also to Steve C for the other websites he suggested earlier. So basically … thanks.

  12. I once worked in industrial energy efficiency. Our aim was to help companies to reduce their energy consumption. Of course, that would leave a hole in their budget – to fill it, they could spend as much on energy and increase productivity. The consumers could buy more.
    As we increase efficiency at converting natural resources to consumer goods, it gets easier to cause more impact on the environment, buy more, and discard more.

  13. Need to apply some standards here! Going Nuclear – no author stated, graphs with unlabelled axes, graph font is microscopic and can’t be read, legends the same. How can we take it seriously?

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