Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable? by Derek Abbott
In a "Point of view" article in the Proceedings of the IEEE in October 2011: "Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?", Derek Abbott starts by asserting that "robust debate" exist over climate science.
Given the awesome power density delivered by nuclear stations, it is a valid question to ask if nuclear power can be massively scaled in order to meet our global energy needs. We shall explore the consequences of a future where nuclear power is the main energy source. Currently, the total global power consumption by mankind is about 15 terawatts (TW) - so the question we address is: Can nuclear power feasibly supply at least 15 TW?
If we can show that nuclear power can viably provide massive power at this level, for millennia to come, then the investment in improving and scaling-up nuclear technology is justified. However, if we find it does not scale up, then major investment must be redirected to a different solution that is truly scalable.
This presupposes that any technology which cannot supply 100% of the planet's needs - say only 50% - is of little use and "major investment" should be reserved for a technology which could supply 100%. This view is not supported by the findings of IPCC WG3 who find that we need renewables, nuclear, and CCS for effective climate change mitigation.
It has been argued that the one renewable energy solution that is scalable well beyond 15 TW is solar thermal technology - this is where large mirrors are used to focus sunlight to heat water thereby creating superheated steam, which can then generate electricity via a conventional steam turbine. The potential is enormous, as the amount of solar power that reaches ground level is 5000 times our present world power consumption. Therefore, the pertinent question is to ask how nuclear power compares to solar thermal power as an energy resource on a massive global scale.
The reference  which Abbot gives for his assertion that concentrating solar thermal electricity generation (CSP) is a scalable alternative, is to a paper of his own, "Keeping the Energy Debate Clean: How Do We Supply the World's Energy Needs?".
Abbot proceeds to identify and discuss various issues which he identifies as
- I. THE NUCLEAR SITE LOCATION PROBLEM
- II. THE LAND AREA PROBLEM
- III. THE EMBRITTLEMENT PROBLEM
- IV. THE ENTROPY PROBLEM
- V. THE NUCLEAR WASTE PROBLEM
- VI. THE ACCIDENT RATE PROBLEM
- VII. THE PROLIFERATION PROBLEM
- VIII. THE ENERGY OF EXTRACTION PROBLEM
- IX. THE URANIUM RESOURCE PROBLEM
- X. THE SEAWATER EXTRACTION PROBLEM
- XI. FAST BREEDER REACTORS
- XII. FUSION REACTORS
- XIII. THE MATERIALS RESOURCE PROBLEM
- XIV. THE ELEMENTAL DIVERSITY PROBLEM
- XV. NUCLEAR POWER AND CLIMATE CHANGE
This article does not (as yet, if ever) attempt to discuss all these aspects, but some points to note are:
The Nuclear Site Location Problem
Abbot asserts that "One has to find locations away from dense population zones, natural disaster zones, and near to a massive body of coolant water."
In his first criterion Abbot doesn't specify how far away he thinks nuclear power stations should be from population zones, or what density of zones he thinks should be avoided, so this is rather unhelpful.
Abbot's second criterion is away from natural disaster zones. He doesn't give examples of such. Areas at risk of inundation by lava flows from active volcanoes are indeed probably best avoided. However Japan experiences some of the most severe earthquakes in the world and has 54 nuclear reactors, all of which survived, undamaged, the Great East Japan (Tōhoku) earthquake of 2011 which was the 4th most violent earthquake ever recorded anywhere. The reactors included designs dating from the 1960s and 1970s. (The only reason some of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were damaged was because the owners, TEPCO, had negligently failed to design for the magnitude of the tsunami encountered.)