Can nuclear power reduce carbon emissions -- without causing weapons proliferation?

A new study casts doubt on the hope that greenhouse-gas emissions can be significantly reduced by construction of more nuclear power plants.

Now, the Oxford Research Group was founded in 1982 to advocate nuclear disarmament, so we might suspect some bias at work here. But can anyone flatly contradict the facts and figures they present?

Looks like the people impeding reactor construction are using the slow rate of construction as evidence they’re a bad idea.

Are they impeding reactor construction? News to me.

Once again, Brain, your thread title doesn’t match the question you ask in the body of your OP.

That said, it took me about 18 seconds to detect a rather obvious error in logic. The ORG claims the highest rate of build is “3.4 reactors per year.” According to the article there are 429 nuclear power reactors in use. Unless they’ve been building nuclear reactors since the Ulysses S. Grant administration, those numbers don’t match at all. Clearly, it’s possible to build more than 3.4 nuclear reactors a year, because they’ve been doing it for decades.

And yes, the ORG openly opposes nuclear reactor construction.

The highest rate of reactor construction was between 1983 and 1985 when installed capacity jumped from 1000TWh to 1500 in 2 years. It is difficult to say how many reactors produced that power, and it is pretty irrelevant to know how many, the important thing is installed capacity.

In 2004 we were at a global installed capacity of 2738 TWh (which is 357GW)
So if we go back to 1983 construction rates and add 250 TWh per year, in 25 years we will have added 6250Twh.
So our installed capacity would stand at 8988TWh.

in 2004 Nuclear power accounted for 6.5% of global TPES (total primary energy supply) - 718 mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent), out of a global TPES of 11059 mtoe

If we grow nuclear by the above 5250twh we add 1639mtoe to the TPES, which would account for a 15% growth in the TPES
Now the TPES is all energy, transport, electricity, BBQ over wood etc etc I cant find any numbers looking directly at electricity supply right now. Also the numbers for adding nuclear capacity do not account for plant retirement, which probably was no a major issue back in 83.

in short, the dire predictions in the report about being unable to build plants fats enough doesn’t seam to gel with what has happened in the past.

All numbers from the IEA

Opposes =! impedes. They’re just a think-tank.

According to the IAEA, peak world reactor construction appears to have taken place in 1983 or 1984, when 33 reactors came online totalling 31,812 MW. In the 10 years starting 17 years ago to 27 years ago, 227 reactors came online around the world. 227 reactors would be enough to supply the energy required by the entire U.S. transportation system, and then some.

So I’d say your cite was completely full of it. I suspect they chose to use data from the past few years, because reactor construction slowed heavily after 1990, due to higher costs (mostly due to intense litigation from environmental groups and constant regulatory changes which forced plants under construction to redesign repeatedly). Also oil crashed in price to a low of 14 dollars a barrel, which made nuclear non-competitive. So plant construction ground to a virtual standstill.

Now they seem to be claiming that it’s impossible to build them faster, so we shouldn’t even look to nuclear as a solution. But of course we can build them pretty much as quickly as we want to. There’s no fundamental limit. There’s plenty of fuel, plenty of know-how, and plenty of raw materials of the type needed for reactor construction. If we built an average of 23 reactors a year in the 1980’s, we can easily build many more than that today, with newer more advanced reactor designs and economies that are much bigger now than they were then.

No, they are saying it would be dangerous to build them faster. Not for the usual reasons cited by anti-nuke environmentalists – the potential of meltdowns and the nuclear-waste-disposal problem – but because construction of a number of nuclear reactors sufficient to seriously reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would necessarily lead to massive and widespread production of weapons-grade plutonium.

I guess I must be confused by this quote then:

That last is a flat-out lie. And they don’t say it would be dangerous, they say it’s a ‘pipe dream’ and ‘completely unfeasible’.

Having read the article, they’re also making misleading claims about proliferation. They don’t mention the many nuclear fuel cycles that don’t produce anything near weapons-grade materials. They don’t back up their assertions in any way. They say there is only 25 years worth of high-grade uranium - The IAEA doesn’t agree. Here are their estimates:

Proven reserves: 65 years at current consumption
Estimated reserves easily attainable: More than 100 additional years.
Uranium available through unconventional means, such as extraction from phosphates and seawater: 3,000 years.

With that much uranium available, the Oxford’s group entire premise - that the only way we can have nuclear power is with breeder reactors - is in shambles. And they don’t make the case at all that a breeder reactor necessarily increases the risk of proliferation at all.

They also ignore thorium, which can be burned as nuclear fuel, and there’s more thorium easily obtainable than there is uranium.

I also had a look at the 'Oxford Group’s list of analysts and researchers, and I’m not impressed. There’s one old scientist who last worked in the nuclear field in 1957 and who now makes a living writing books and being a peace activist. There’s a ‘Professor of Peace Studies’, a woman who’s only qualifications seem to be that she hosts peace roundtables and ‘Liddite conversations’, whatever those are. I’m not sure I want to know.

Their lone economist seems to be a ‘Palestinian Political Counselor’ with a B.A in economics and who wrote a Ph.D thesis on ‘international peacebuilding’, but who doesn’t appear to actually have a Ph.D. Maybe his thesis was supported about as well as their ‘report’. Mr. Zomlot also chairs the ‘Boycott Israel’ campaign

This has to be one of the lamest ‘think tanks’ I’ve ever seen.

Full of crap. I’ll address the proliferation argument. Right now the following countries either have the bomb, or have had the necessary technology to build one but have chosen not too (by population):

China 1.3 billion
India 1.13 billion
EU 490 million
US 301 million
Brazil 190 million
Pakistan 164 million
Russia 141 million
Japan 127 million
Mexico 108 million

Those countries represent almost 2/3s of the world’s population, and I’d imagine nearly all of the energy use. Even if we limited nuclear power to these regions we would drastically cut back emissions from power plants.

Another problem with resorting to nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is even if you started building 100 or 1,000 plants today, none are going to come on line for at least 10 years. Anthropogenic climate change is happening right now and we need to start reducing emissions right now, not start doing it in a decade when the situation will be that much worse.

Not to mention the spike in CO2 emissions that vast construction project would cause, which would put off the payback time from those plants even further.

Rather than building more generating capacity it would be hugely cheaper, quicker and easier to simply stop using so much power. We do use far more than we need to ensure a comfortable modern lifestyle.

I think you fail to take into account the decommissioning of old reactors. Perhaps that 3.4/year is the net gain possible.

And while we’re at it, people need to stop being so mean to each other.

It would be really neato for us to stop using so much power…but it ain’t gonna happen. So, in the real world we need to start working on anything and everything that produce more power cleanly. Even if it takes 10 years (which I doubt)

Doesn’t Chernobyl give anyone pause?


As I understand it, currently available power-plant technology is much safer, at least as far as the risk of meltdowns is concerned.

Not really. Doesn’t bear much resemblance to modern nuke plants.

Chernobyl was largely a product of poor reactor design and poor control over the people running it.
The current heavy water and Pressurized water reactors are significantly safer, no doubt there are ways to make them go pop, but much less than the older graphite core reactors.
The big issue I would say is the lack of people trained in the nuclear industry. It has been a dying industry that has not attracted many people, particularly at the engineer level. This lack of people combined with a large ramp up in planned reactors may be the biggest safety risk, rather than poor design or weapons grade material proliferation. The lack of people may be the controlling factor over how fast new reactors can be built and operated.

It is worth noting that one can have a nuclear power plant without ever using plutonium, or even highly-enriched uranium. Plants can operate using natural uranium, for example. Canada has done so successfully for many years.

I assume the OP has been settled at this point on both the question asked in the title and the one asked in the OP.

This should be in the Is Global Warming being Overhyped thread. Or to put it another way, if we don’t have 10 years to build up our nuclear capacity and start eliminating CO2 in our power generation industry by building clean nuclear reactors…well, its already too late for us then. Just put your head between your knees and kiss your ass good bye…

(fortunately, the sane GW/AGW organization feel we DO have those 10 years…and more so. Not to say we shouldn’t get started popping out nuclear plants asap…but taking that 10 years isn’t going to kill us).

While this sounds nice (to the faithful), its not realistic. Even if you could get Europe AND the US on board with their ordinary citizens cutting back on power usage (something about as likely to happen as GW Bush being listed in a completely serious and sober way as the greatest American President of all times on the Daily Show) there is simply no way you are going to halt China and India. So, instead of continueing to push forward unrealistic and pie in the sky, environmentalists and environmentally oriented people should be looking for PRACTICAL solutions to the problem they perceive coming from GW. And, on the scales we are talking about, the ONLY practical solution in the short term is nuclear.

To put this another way, its sort of like those stupid commercials from Reagans time concerning drugs. ‘Just say NO!’ they would say…and how did that work out? Or how about the thought to use abstinence to control teen age pregnancy and STD? Just explain to the kids and others that if they only give up sex they won’t have all those problems? Hows that working out?


I think the bigger issue is waste. One of the primary reasons we stopped building nuclear power plants in this country was because we haven’t found a place to dispose of the waste. Yucca mountain, if it happens at all, won’t happen for another decade at best. More likely, the project will be sunk by Nevada’s increasing political power.

As it stands, there’s nothing else. We can’t even properly dispose of the waste we’re producing now. It seems very unlikely that the NRC is going to license the construction of new plants when the feds are already paying millions in damages to the existing plants because of a lack of a promised federal repository.