Mark Lynas, whose Six Degrees (Amazon UK | US) has been a great success, had a piece in the New Statesman last week about nuclear power. It was a pretty standard, pretty well executed I’m-a-green-who’s-much-more-freaked-out-about-climate-than-about-nukes piece, much in the long travelled Lovelock vein, not that unlike some things George Monbiot has recently been writing. As such it obviously got up the noses of some greens. I thought it was pretty sensible, myself; but there’s a depressing kicker.
Encouraging our optimism, Mark writes:
It is worth remembering the contribution that nuclear power has already made to offsetting global warming: the world’s 442 operating nuclear reactors, which produce 16 per cent of global electricity, save 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year compared to coal, according to the IPCC. Blees [Tom Blees, author of Prescription for the Planet (Amazon UK | US)] agrees that “the most pressing issue is to shut down all coal-fired power plants” and urges a “Manhattan Project-like” effort to convert the world’s non-renewable power to IFRs by the thousand. This sounds daunting but it is not unprecedented: France converted its power supply to 80 per cent nuclear in the space of just 25 years by building about six reactors a year.
That French expansion was indeed spectacular. France makes almost all its electricity with nukes, when a generation and a bit ago it made almost none. If you go back a little before the graph on the right starts, you’ll find that growth in French nuclear power from 1977 to 2003 was an extraordinary 4000%. France now exports nuclear power to other parts of Europe; its generating industry has an excellent safety record, and it has made EDF a very big powerful company capable of buying up the UK’s nuclear industry (by weird coincidence, I was just interrupted by one of its meter readers as I wrote this). It has, that said, cost a great deal, especially in its sometime commitment to MOX fuels. But it’s the most impressive remaking of a nations generating infrastructure I know of. (I’m happy, as always, to learn better.)
So what did that extraordinary national rebuilding actually achieve? According to the Stern review fossil fuel emissions in France during the 25 years of that 4000% increase fell, on average, by less than 1% a year. Emissions from the generating sector dropped 6% a year, which is about 80% over the 25 years, which is great — but the rest of the economy kept growing and burning fossil fules in cars and heating systems and factories and all that. So the carbon saving overall was 0.6% a year, which I make to be 14% over 25 years. Best anyone’s ever done and it was pathetically small.
In fairness, things could be different if people were going nuclear as part of an economy-wide thrust for carbon reduction, with more and more nuclear electricity replacing fossil fuels for cars and so on. But something which was only as good as the great French nuclear leap forward — a remarkable achievement — would be nowhere near good enough.