Do We Need Nuclear Power?

This post was inspired by a tweet by Chris Nelder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (paraphrasing) “at this point we’re not even sure if we need nuclear power”. Lets examine this comment.

This graph below was taken from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (reviews 2015 data).

BP world energy 2015

We can see that energy use steadily increases over the years and oil is the top supplier of energy.

Keep track of world energy production right up to the minute.

The following shows CO2 emissions per energy sector (International Energy Agency data) .


IEA shows energy sectors from 1971 to 2014 (note percent of total is electricity)


If we focus on electricity, we see it is fossil fuel dominated and oil contributes minimally to global electricity production. (IEA data).


IEA shows how global electricity production has changed from 1973 to 2014


More up-to-date IEA data shows in 2015, 24,345 Terawatt-hours was produced globally, with the following breakdown.

IEA world electricity production 2015

The table below shows how much electricity some countries produced in 2014 and how many grams of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere per unit of electricity produced.

2014 electricity prod and CO2

A detailed breakdown of BP 2016 World Energy report shows on pages 130 – 132, we see of global electricity generated in 2015 1.05% – solar, 2.15% – geothermal & biomass, 3.5% – wind, 10.69% – nuclear, 16.4% – hydro and 66.2% – fossil fuels. These same pages also show which countries are the leaders in each of these electricity generation types.

The following chart shows build rates of low carbon electricity generation by country per kilowatt-hour per capita


When reporting on electricity generation capacity additions, it is critical to report actual electricity produced by these capacity additions. The picture below is statics for global capacity and generation of wind, solar and nuclear, taken from this article.


As of this writing, human population is at approximately 7.4 billion and the United Nations expects it to be 9.7 billion by mid century. The graph below shows a breakdown of populations and energy use of regions of the globe.

world energy use

The above picture is taken from this article. The Center for Global Development has a post “More than a Lightbulb” that goes into more detail on the above graph and energy poverty.

Another factor to consider is the amount of raw materials required per unit of energy produced, the chart below is from chapter 10, page 390 of USA’s Department of Energy 2015 “Quadrennial Technology Review

quad raw materials

Some other factors to consider in energy generation are energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI), lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and levelized cost of energy. The International Energy Agency also recommends to account for System Value (SV).

The following chart is from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in conjunction with United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that shows grams of CO2 emitted for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced for various generation technologies. However, It is important to keep in mind some sources need backup and flexible generation sources in order to keep the electricity grid stable and reliable. With regards to electric grid stability and reliability, the Energy Policy Institute of Australia wrote a short, to the point paper entitled “The ‘Pressure Cooker’ Effect of Intermittent Renewable Generation in Power Systems“.



lifecycle CO2 emissions according to IPCC

In December 2015,the Paris Climate Conference COP21 occurred. It was decided that a target was to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Almost all countries signed it and agreed to their own individual targets to  reduce CO2 emissions by X% by Y year. It is clear that these targets are not nearly aggressive enough to achieve the 1.5 degree Celsius target, and negative emissions seem necessary, as the following sites outline and by Kevin Anderson. Also this 12 minute video by Glen Peters of CICERO (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo) is worth viewing.

The following chart was created by USA’s Energy Information Administration (screen capture from this TED Talk) and it shows projected CO2 emissions by the regions of the planet. The CO2 emissions would continue to increase if all the Paris COP21 targets are met.


The International Energy Agency also recognizes the limitations of the Paris COP21 agreements, as their tweet in November 2016 below indicates.


Due mainly to nuclear power’s relatively low land requirements per unit of energy produced, 75 conservation scientists signed this letter to environmentalists.

This one hour presentation by Dr. Geraldine Thomas entitled “Radiation Health Risks from Nuclear Accidents – Facts and Fantasy” is required viewing on this matter. International Youth Nuclear Congress released this report “Understanding the Anti-nuclear Environmental Movement” which is required reading for this subject matter. A five minute read well worth the time “Nuclear expert and author Professor Wade Allison talks radiation and reality“. There is serious questioning of the methodology behind the linear no threshold assumption that is currently used worldwide for radiation protection standards “Radiation is Safe Within Limits“.

In conclusion, referring to the information provided above, some questions that could be asked with regard to whether or not we need nuclear power are: Globally, should we be using more energy than we are today? Will we be using more energy in 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?, etc. Do we need to reduce our CO2 emissions and if so, how fast and by how much?

Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012


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