Can Emerging Economies Continue Their Development Without Nuclear Power? - Part 1
This paper develops arguments to answer the question formulated in the heading. It will be presented in 3 parts.
In this Part 1 we assess the amount of electricity that would need to be generated in emerging countries to reach a level of economic development and living standards close to those enjoyed by citizens of developed countries in a context of climate change and increasingly difficult access to decreasing resources of fossil fuels, i.e. assuming that the challenge of growth has to be met using only low-carbon sources of electricity. We argue that nuclear power has to play an essential role as the only available dispatchable low-carbon source that is scalable, with the exception of a few countries particularly endowed by certain renewable resources. We make an overview of advantages of nuclear power compared to other low-carbon sources of electricity.
In Part 2 we will analyse the all-important economic aspect – the cost of nuclear power compared to other low-carbon sources.
Part 3 will then look at the available nuclear technologies and how they may fit the economic development needs of emerging countries.
In this paper we look at the challenges that emerging countries around the world are facing in their strive for further economic and human development, in a context of a looming climate crisis, when reduction of consumption of fossil fuels increasingly becomes an absolute imperative. Emerging economies across South and South-East Asia, Africa and South & Central America are all characterised by rapidly growing populations and high levels of current and expected future growth of energy consumption. With a focus on the electricity sector, in most countries the number one source of CO2 emissions, we argue that embarking on the use of nuclear power is indispensable to allow sustained economic development of these regions. Obviously, solutions will differ depending on the size, population, geography, endowment in natural and renewable resources of individual countries. In the electricity sector, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and an in-depth assessment is necessary for each country. Nevertheless, a macro-view trying to match the required amounts of electricity to be generated in the coming decades with the need to improve the wellbeing of the growing populations of these regions, clearly shows that nuclear power must play an essential role to enable sustainable development of these regions.
Economic development needs electricity: how much and where will it come from?
Continued economic development of emerging countries is impossible without further growth in the consumption of energy. The per capita consumption of primary energy in emerging countries is still low: from just about 5 GJ/capita (1) in the poorest countries of Africa up to 80-90 GJ/capita in countries like Chile or Thailand (134 GJ/capita in the European Union in 2019). In terms of electricity consumption, per capita consumption spans from less than 200 kWh/capita in the poorest countries to more than 5,000 kWh/capita in Malaysia (6,527 kWh/capita in the European Union). However, the population of the emerging regions is almost four and half billion and growing. Their contribution to global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions is currently about 21% of the world total but rapidly increasing. In order to pursue their economic development, emerging economies are facing the unprecedented challenge of combining continued growth in energy consumption with the necessity to progressively limit and reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and associated carbon emissions in face of the dual menace climate emergency and dwindling resources of fossil fuels. The share of electricity in the overall energy consumption is expected to grow faster than overall energy consumption with the electrification of transport and other industrial sectors and, importantly, with the rapid growth of electricity demand for air conditioning, in particular in emerging countries. The electricity demand for air conditioning could rise from 2,000 TWh in 2020 beyond 6,000 TWh in 2050 unless much more efficient cooling systems are developed. In countries like India or Indonesia, the share of air conditioning could exceed 40% of the electricity system peak loads (2). This growth of electricity demand makes rapid decarbonisation of the electricity sector all the more important.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that electricity generation will more than double in India (183%), Southeast Asia (124%), and Africa (120%) by 2040. Strong growth is also forecast in the Middle East, China, and Central and South America. Doubling electricity consumption in the countries of South and South-East Asia, Africa and South & Central America by 2040 would require more than 6,000 TWh of additional electricity to be produced.
While this expected demand growth appears quite spectacular and represents a tremendous challenge, the numbers dwarf when compared with the amount of electricity that would have to be produced in the emerging countries to achieve per capita electricity consumption that would guarantee living standards comparable to those enjoyed by citizens in the developed world. Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), developing nations have been promised an end to poverty and hunger, access to high quality health and education services, affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, decent work and economic growth, industrialisation, reduced inequality (3).
It is not straightforward to define what is the level of electricity consumption capable to ensure the achievement of such development goals. The developed countries, North America in particular, but also the EU and some oil-exporting countries, can – and will have to – make significant improvements in energy efficiency and sobriety. The current world average in per capita electricity consumption is 3,500 kWh. It reaches 13,400 kWh/capita in the US but is only around 200 kWh/capita in Western and Eastern Africa. For the purpose of our estimate, we assume that per capita consumption of 5,000 kWh can guarantee a prosperous national economy, modern agriculture, adequate level of education, health care and other social services and decent middle-class living standards compatible with the UN SDGs.
The following figure shows per capita electricity consumption in 2019 in the key regions of the world against the population. The regions shown represent almost 94% of the global population. The light blue area demonstrates the “electricity gap”, i.e. the additional amount of electricity that would need to be produced by all the countries and regions, having current per capita electricity consumption lower than the targeted 5,000 kWh, to reach this target. It amounts to a staggering 17,000 TWh, or 63% of the electricity produced globally in 2019 – by a system developed over more than a century. And almost 65% of this global generation was produced by burning fossil fuels. In Asia and Africa, fossil sources represent close to 80% of the current electricity generation mix, in South & Central America the average share of fossils is much lower, about 40%, mainly thanks to the availability of large hydro resources.
These will also have to be replaced by low-carbon sources in the coming decades.
Hence the doubling electricity production in the emerging countries by 2040, a tremendous challenge on its own, would take these regions a little more than one third of the path to the targeted per capita consumption and associated living standards.
The obvious question is how to produce these huge amounts of electricity in a world facing an urgent climate crisis. And if someone still believes that climate breakdown is not the most urgent issue, continued and rapidly growing burning of fossil fuels will inevitably hit the wall of dwindling resources of these fuels in the decades to come.The world is facing a dual conundrum with only one solution – reduce and progressively eliminate the use of fossil fuels. If we make the bold assumption that for the above reasons fossil fuels are no longer an option in the future, the only development options left are renewable energies (hydro, geothermal, biomass, wind and solar) and nuclear power.
Without any doubt, all of them will be needed. We make the argument that nuclear power is the only long-term solution available to support the economic development of these regions, offering the necessary flexibility to adapt to the specific economic, social and geographic conditions of each country. Nuclear power is the only baseload low-carbon electricity source that could support economic development in a way potentially compatible with the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets made by the signatory countries with the objective to avoid climate breakdown. In other words, if fossil generation (and coal-fired as a top priority) is to be banned in the future because of its excessive carbon emissions, large-scale development of nuclear power in combination with renewables is the only option. However, the important characteristic that differentiates these two categories of carbon-free electricity is that certain renewable energies, wind and solar especially, are intermittent, i.e. their production depends on the weather and the time of day while nuclear is a dispatchable source. This means that the intermittence of these renewables must be compensated without resorting to carbon sources. Electricity storage using pumped storage hydro plants is the only large-scale storage solution available today (96% of global storage capacity), its investment costs are high and available locations are limited, generally far from large cities. The demonstration of battery storage at the required scale does not exist today and will not exist in foreseeable future. The energy density of the best Li-ion batteries is 260 Wh/kg and may go up to 500 Wh/kg in the decades to come. For comparison, one kilogram of diesel contains 12,600 Wh, or 50 times more than the best current batteries. Batteries require huge quantities of materials, including rare metals. In January 2021, AES Corporation commissioned one of the world's largest battery storage systems at Long Beach, California. It will provide up to 400 MWh of electricity, i.e. 100 MW for 4 hours. But that amount of electricity is still two orders of magnitude lower than what a large Asian city would need if deprived of its intermittent supply. For example, a city like New Delhi has a power demand often exceeding 3 GW, or 72 GWh in one day: 180 battery storage systems like the one at Long Beach would be required to cover just one day of power consumption of New Delhi.
To minimise the recourse to fossil fuels, a combination of all low-carbon sources, supported by pumped storage and some electro-chemical storage in batteries, with a substantial share of dispatchable nuclear power, will be necessary in future electricity systems.
At the same time, developing nuclear power remains a complex and long-term endeavour and has to be implemented in a progressive manner to build the necessary infrastructure and capabilities. This further underpins the urgency of a systemic long-term view of the electricity demand and, where relevant, of the decision for a country to embark on nuclear power.
It is interesting to note that the electricity generated in 2019 by 56 nuclear reactors (total installed capacity 61.4 GW) in France was 380 TWh, representing 71% of total generation. In Germany, a leader in the development of renewables over the last 20 years, in the same year, the installed capacity of 50 GW of PV solar, 53 GW of on-shore wind and 7.5 GW of off-shore wind produced a total of 111 TWh of electricity, or 34% of total generation of the country. These numbers provide a good measure of the challenge that emerging economies are facing in their endeavour to develop an electricity sector that could satisfy the expected demand of additional 6,000 TWh in 2040 and three times as much to reach the targeted level of per capita consumption of 5,000 kWh (and likely more than that since the population in these regions is growing rapidly).
Raising up to the challenge requires clear and bold decisions of the governments today, in order to have a chance to reduce significantly carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2040 while having a highly reliable generation mix that would boost economic development and provide tens of thousands of highly qualified jobs.
Nuclear power - the only scalable low-carbon dispatchable electricity generation source capable to form the backbone of future electricity systems
Nuclear energy is the only large scale source of low carbon electricity compatible with the objective of adding substantial amounts of dispatchable, reliable, safe and environmentally friendly electricity. If the objective is to decarbonize the economy to limit climate change while ensuring economic development and improved living standards of the citizens, nuclear energy is necessary and probably indispensable.
Nuclear energy is safe
If safety is measured by the number of deaths per TWh produced, nuclear energy is the safest source of electricity production. Multiple studies have been carried out on the subject: the exact numbers may differ somewhat from one study to another but the conclusion remains the same. Some studies looked only at deaths induced by air pollution (by this metric the number of deaths per TWh for nuclear power is 0.07, compared to 28 for coal , 17 for oil and 3 for natural gas). Other studies included deaths caused to accidents in mines, ruptures of dams, falls off wind turbines or roofs during installation and maintenance of wind turbines or rooftop solar panels. The results of several studies compiled by Forbes in 2012 are presented in the following figure. For nuclear power, the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents as well as uranium mining deaths are estimated using the Linear No-Threshold dose hypothesis. To make the low numbers for non-fossil sources visible, we present the results in two ways: one with a linear scale on the y-axis and one with a log-scale on the y-axis. The figures represent global averages.
Nuclear energy has very low emissions of greenhouse gases and generates no air pollution
The greenhouse gases emissions in electricity production facilities are either direct, from burning of fossil fuels, or indirect, from the use of fossil fuels in the process of materials extraction, processing, equipment manufacturing, dismantling and disposal. For nuclear energy, as for hydro, wind or solar, there are no direct emissions.
The global average of carbon emissions throughout the nuclear energy lifecycle (including uranium mining, fuel fabrication, plant construction, operation, decommissioning and waste treatment) is 12 grams of CO2 per kWh produced. That is about the same amount of emissions as from wind farms, 4 times less than PV solar, 40 times less than gas and almost 70 times less than coal. Furthermore, nuclear power does not produce any air pollution.
Nuclear energy, being extremely dense, has a very small land footprint
Wind farms require up to 360 times as much land area to produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear energy facility, solar photovoltaic (PV) facilities require up to 75 times the land area (4). For many densely populated countries, where land is scarce, the small footprint of Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs), a consequence of the very high energy density of nuclear fuel, is an important advantage. The following comparison illustrates the impact of power density: to generate the required 17,000 TWh of electricity in emerging countries to reach of the targeted per capita consumption of 5,000 kWh, would require some 2,280 GW of nuclear capacity (assuming a capacity factor of 85%), or 5,540 GW of wind capacity (capacity factor 35%) or 7,760 GW of PV capacity (capacity factor 25%). In terms of land requirements, the nuclear power plants would require about 6,850 km2, the PV plants 1,746,000 km2 (more than half of the territory of India) and the wind farms would cover an area of almost 5 million km2, or one sixth of the total land area of Africa. Considering that 71% of the total land surface of the Earth is habitable, and that 50% of habitable land is used for agriculture and 37% is covered by forests, important carbon sinks, one immediately realises that such vast demand of land for electricity production would enter into direct competition with other land uses, food production being the most important.
Nuclear power plants require much less material per unit of energy produced
In a world of finite material resource, the resource intensity of different energy sources is an extremely important factor to consider in the long term perspective. Massive scaling up of intermittent renewables with the objective to take over a significant part of electricity generation currently produced by fossil fuels would imply a 10 to 100-fold increase in the requirements for essential materials like cement, steel and copper compared to the same scaling up relying on nuclear power. The associated energy demand in obtaining these materials (mining, processing, transportation), almost entirely relying on fossil sources, would increase in the same proportion.
Nuclear energy has demonstrated its capability to decarbonize the electricity sector
We often hear the argument that nuclear projects take too much time to develop to make a real difference in the urgent need to decarbonize quickly the electricity sector, and that solar and wind projects can be developed much faster. While there is no doubt that solar and wind projects can be developed faster and new solar PV and wind capacities have indeed been growing at a very high pace in recent years, the historical facts show that nuclear power is the only low carbon electricity source that has demonstrated its ability to decarbonize electricity generation of a country within a decade (examples of Sweden, France, Belgium and others), something solar and wind have so far failed to demonstrate, as shown in the following figure (5). This is to a large extent explained by the relatively low load factors of solar and wind in certain regions. Impressive capacity addition do not always translate into high amounts of electricity generation. Furthermore, the growth rate, for wind in particular, has been slowing down in the recent years in many countries due to growing opposition of the local population and lengthy permitting processes.
Nuclear fuel resources: enough to last?
The world’s power reactors, with combined capacity of about 400 GWe, require every year some 67,500 tonnes of uranium from mines (about 85% of the total consumption) or secondary sources (commercial stockpiles, nuclear weapons stockpiles, recycled plutonium and uranium from reprocessing used fuel, and some from re-enrichment of depleted uranium tails, left over from original enrichment).
The recoverable resources depend of course on the uranium market prices and associated investment in innovative mining and processing techniques. The speed of their depletion in turn depends on the pace of growth of nuclear power plants capacity in the world. Depending on the combination of these factors, the estimates range from 50 to 100 years of currently identified recoverable resources.
However, long-term sustainable nuclear power of the future would require the development and deployment of fast neutron reactors. Natural uranium contains about 0.7% U-235 and 99.3% U-238. In any reactor some of the U-238 component is turned into several isotopes of plutonium during its operation. Two of these, Pu-239 and Pu-241, then undergo fission in the same way as U-235 to produce heat. In a fast neutron reactor this process can be optimised so that it 'breeds' fuel. Fast neutron reactors are capable of generating 100 to 150 times more energy from natural uranium than existing reactors and are capable to breed. This high utilization of fuel can extend nuclear power programmes for thousands of years and provide significant improvements in nuclear waste management, since fast reactors generate about four times less minor actinides than thermal neutron reactors, while producing the same amount of electricity. Above all, they can “burn” these elements to obtain fission products with much shorter half-lives. This being said, it should be kept in mind that large-scale deployment of fast reactors remains a considerable industrial and economic undertaking with many challenges all along the nuclear fuel cycle. It will occur only if installed nuclear capacity grows massively, resulting in high pressure on uranium resources and prices.
There are more than 400 reactor-years of accumulated operating experience with sodium-cooled fast neutron reactors worldwide. They were operating for many years in France and are currently in operation in Russia and under construction in China and India.
Nuclear waste: no need to panic
Like all industries, the generation of electricity produces waste. Whatever fuel is used, the waste produced in generating electricity must be managed in ways that safeguard human health and minimise the impact on the environment. Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology that takes full responsibility for all its waste. The costs of waste treatment, just like the costs of decommissioning and dismantling, are internalised and represent a small fraction of the cost of electricity produced.
Radioactive waste from nuclear power plants is either isolated or diluted so that the rate or concentration of any radionuclides returned to the biosphere is harmless. All radioactive waste is contained and managed, with some clearly needing deep and permanent disposal. From nuclear power generation, unlike all other forms of thermal electricity generation, all waste is regulated – none is allowed to cause pollution.
Nuclear power is characterised by the very large amount of energy produced from a very small amount of fuel, and the amount of waste produced during this process is very small compared to all other generation technologies. Used nuclear fuel may be retreated and re-used as a resource or considered as waste and managed as such.
There are 96 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. with a total installed capacity of about 100 GW. This fleet produces about 2,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel every year. For comparison, a single 1 GW coal plant will produce about 360,000 tons of ashes per year in addition to 8 million tons of CO2 and tens of thousands of tons of other airborne and liquid effluents. In fact, the U.S. has produced roughly 83,000 metric tons of used fuel since the 1950s - and all of it could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 9 meters.
Nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial waste and the relevant safe final disposal methods exist and are technically proven. The international consensus is that deep geological disposal is the best option.
The presented facts demonstrate the intrinsic advantages of nuclear power and the indispensable role it is called to play in developing a modern electricity sector without fossil fuels in the decades to come. This is of great importance to emerging countries where the electricity demand growth is expected to be significant.
Nuclear energy is, however, characterised by a high degree of technical, technological, industrial, institutional, legal and financial complexity. To be developed and mastered, it requires time and sustained concentrated effort. Public perception is of key importance for the adoption of nuclear energy. Close collaboration between government, industry, civil society, and other nations is indispensable to bring nuclear reactors to market to reduce global emissions, provide domestic jobs, and support national security. The role of international cooperation and support from countries experienced in the development and use of nuclear power to newcomer countries cannot be overestimated.
In the upcoming Part 2 we will analyse the cost competitiveness of nuclear power.
(1) Data presented in this paragraph are taken from BP Statistical Review 2020
(4) Nuclear Energy Institute https://www.nei.org/news/2015/land-needs-for-wind-solar-dwarf-nuclear-plants
(5) Source: Cao et al., Science, August 2016