I’m currently working on a longer paper on the use of nuclear power as a climate strategy, but here is a key section I’ve written so far on shifts in perspective at the IPCC on nuclear power:
The International Panel on Climate Change was formed in 1988 by the UN. The IPCC report on Response Strategies in 1990 originally seemed fairly neutral about strategies, proposing “[e]xpansion of conventional nuclear power plants” along with “[s]tandardized design of nuclear power plants to improve economics and safety” as short term options to avert climate change (53). The report likewise projected that “West European countries [as well as North American and Pacific OECD countries may be able to stabilize or reduce C02 emissions by early in the next decade through a variety of measures including …[fuel switching to] nuclear power (68).
IPCC’s second report in 1996 affirmed that “Nuclear energy could replace baseload fossil fuel electricity generation in many parts of the world, if generally acceptable responses can be found to concerns such as reactor safety, radioactive-waste transport and disposal, and proliferation,” though they noted that nuclear power development had been in decline since IPCC I due to capital costs and safety concerns (Executive Summary).
IPCC III, released in 2001 was starting to get a bit cagey about nuclear power, proposing that “[l]ow-carbon energy supply systems can make an important contribution …through the use and lifetime extension of nuclear power plants.” Suggestively there is no mention of new builds. They also emphasized the caveat that “[e]nvironmental, safety, … proliferation concerns may constrain the use of some of these technologies (Section 3.8.4; Summary for Policymakers).
In 2007, IPCC IV still indicated hopes from “advanced nuclear technologies” but also strongly highlighted safety barriers and investment barriers such as “financial markets commanding a higher interest rate to cover perceived risks, thus increasing the cost of capital and thereby generation costs” (WGIII 14). This time they put a firm number on nuclear’s limits, projecting only a 2% uptick in the share of global electricity from nuclear power generation by 2030 (from 16% to 18%) due to “costs relative to other supply options,” and only then in the best scenario where concerns about “safety, weapons proliferation and waste” did not swamp these developments. At the same time, they foresaw renewable energy jumping from 18% of the electricity supply to 30-35% share of the total electricity supply in 2030, assisted by a carbon price of at least $50 a ton of CO2 (WG3 Summary).
Perhaps not coincidentally, 2007 was a banner year for renewable energy policy. In 2007 the European Union introduced its 20-20-20 targets which put its money and hopes behind renewable energy, calling for 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 but tying these specifically to binding national policies to raise the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20% as well as to a 20% improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency (“Climate Action” EU). Nuclear power was not mentioned as a favored option. China set out targets in a long-term renewables development plan in 2007 (REN21), as did a coalition of Latin American and Caribbean countries and about a dozen other countries as well as U.S. States and Canadian provinces.
Then, in 2011, the IPCC published a Special Report, Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, claiming that “renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades” leading to a lot of press about how “Renewable Energy Can Power the World” (Guardian, 2011-05-09). In the charts in this report, Fossil Fuels were grouped with Nuclear and seemingly as less desirable options than Renewable Energy Sources, in which they included bioenergy, including energy crops; forest, agricultural and livestock residues and second generation biofuels;solar energy, including photovoltaics and concentrating solar power, geothermal energy, hydropower; ocean energy, ranging from barrages to ocean currents and ones which harness temperature differences in the marine realm, and wind energy (15).*
The IPCC’s press release associated with the Special Report indeed put a normative spin on renewable energy choices, claiming “[t]his IPCC report has brought some much needed clarity to this debate in order to inform governments on the options and decisions that will needed if the world is to collectively realize a low carbon, far more resource efficient and equitable development path” and that “[m]ost of the reviewed scenarios estimate that renewables will contribute more to a low carbon energy supply by 2050 than nuclear power or fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage (CCS).” Thus, in 2011, the world seemed to be set on a distinctive course. Renewable energy could power the world, and countries need only make the policy choices to favor it, in a world in which it was dropping in price but was still not cheaper than fossil fuels.
At the same time, there was the Fukushima incident, in which three of its six nuclear reactors failed when the plant was hit by a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake. For countries like Germany in particular, Fukushima solidified the choice of renewable Eenergy. Germany had already made nuclear power phase-out a policy of its Energiewende or Energy transition policy of 2002, which included scheduling its 17 nuclear plants to be offline by 2036 alongside a transition to a 60% share of renewable energy by 2050. But on 29 May 2011, Merkel’s government announced that it would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, and immediately shut down half of them, claiming that doing so would allow Germany to hopefully escape from a similar disaster while giving it a competitive advantage in an era that looked like increasingly like it could, should, and would be powered by renewable energy.
Yet it’s interesting that by 2014, the IPCC was already becoming somewhat more modest in its boosterism of RE. It still believed “aggregated global technical potential for RE as a whole is significantly higher than global energy demands” (25) but it admitted that “reported RE technical potentials are not always comparable to those for nuclear energy,” which seemed to indicate that they saw the numbers were not all running as good as they had been in 2007. There was much discussion of the “difficulties” associated with RE– difficulties of spurring energy transitions through policy and difficulties with the integration of RE supplies with other low-carbon options and other policy goals (881). The IPCC’s tone was generally less decisive about favored approaches and more humble and open to dialogue among “multiple interest groups and wider institutional and social constituencies.” There was also a bit more interest in nuclear, with the possibility of “expansion” coming back on the table (5). The IPCC also indicated hopefully that “new fuel cycles and reactor technologies addressing some of the usual problems are under development and progress has been made concerning safety and waste disposal.” Maybe most importantly, the IPCC grouped nuclear now not with fossil fuels but with RE as one “low-carbon electricity supply” in a “low-carbon energy system” to which we must transition (Summary 21).
So one might wonder what happened between 2007 and 2014? Well one thing, Germany’s Energiewende, which was the most conspicuous climate change policy to put all its eggs in the RE basket, started to hit some obstacles. But I’ll leave that for another post.
Photo Credit: IPCC Shifts on Nuclear Energy/shutterstock