The replacement of fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear fission at a pace which could limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible, but whether this will happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance, researchers say.
In a paper published today, Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden, and Barry Brook, a professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania, analyse the rate of nuclear power development in two of the countries which have been most successful: Sweden and France.
They conclude that if nuclear power stations are built at no more than the per capita rate of Sweden and France during their national expansion, then coal- and gas-fired electricity could be replaced worldwide “in less than a decade”.
Under more conservative projections that take into account constraints and uncertainties such as differing economic output across regions, unit construction time and costs, future electricity demand growth forecasts, and the retiring of existing aging nuclear plants, estimates show that the global share of fossil-fuel-derived electricity could be replaced within 25–34 years.
“This would allow the world to meet the most stringent greenhouse-gas mitigation targets,” the report says.
Qvist and Brook used historical data from the Swedish nuclear programme to model the feasibility of “a massive expansion” of nuclear power at a rate sufficient to largely replace current electricity production from fossil fuel sources by mid-century.
In supporting analysis they modelled France as a case study. France provides “an excellent example” of a significantly larger nation pursuing an electricity production policy for a prolonged period based almost entirely on nuclear energy, they said.
Their paper says operation of a nuclear reactor does not emit greenhouse gases or other forms of particulate air pollution, and it is one of few baseload alternatives to fossil energy sources that has been “proven by historical experience” to be able to be significantly expanded and scaled up.
Between 1960 and 1990 Sweden more than doubled its inflation-adjusted gross domestic product per capita while reducing its per capita CO2 emissions through a rapid expansion of nuclear power production, the paper says.
The reduction in CO2 emissions was not an objective, but rather “a fortunate by-product”, since the effect on the climate by greenhouse-gas emissions was not a factor in political discourse until much more recently.
Nuclear power was introduced to reduce dependence on imported oil and to protect four major Swedish rivers from hydropower installations.
Based on data from the World Bank, The case of Sweden appears to be the most rapid installation of low-CO2 electricity capacity on a per capita basis of any nation, the paper says. France and the US installed more total nuclear capacity in the 1960 to 1980s, but less than Sweden on a per capita basis. Sweden provides a historical benchmark ‘best-case scenario’ on which to judge the potential for future nuclear expansion.