And saving the planet
On an episode of Freakonomics Radio entitled Nuclear Power Isn’t Perfect. Is It Good Enough?, Stephen Dubner talks to guests about the unfortunate fate of nuclear energy that could have brought us much closer to a greener climate today. You can check out the episode here.
Looking at 2018 numbers, coal used for power generation accounted for 10.5 Gt of CO2 equivalent release in that year. That’s about 33% of CO2 equivalent emissions for the year.
Thought experiment, anyone?
If we switched over all coal to nuclear power generation, how much capacity would we need to increase, how long would it take, and what would it cost?
First, let’s look at a few numbers and get our figures in place.
10.5 Gt of CO2 equivalent
How much power is generated? If we assume 1 t CO2 equivalent per MWh of coal (number taken from here), we get about a lot 10,500 TWh of power generated for that year. Another number reported more precisely is 10,098 TWh.
That’s Doc Brown’s bolt of lightning striking the clock town roughly every four seconds for a year.
Looking at 2017 numbers, global nuclear energy output was 2,506 TWh. We’d need to increase that fivefold to offset coal. So what’s the cost of addition an additional 10,098 TWh of nuclear output?
Well, first let’s look at what would need to be the minimum output. 10,098 TWh / 8760 hours in a year gives us 1,153 GW of output… that’s at 100% use. Assuming a 80% load, we’d need 1,441 GW capacity. That’s in addition to the ~400 GW capacity around 2017.
So how much with that cost? One estimate for US construction would be $6,041 / kW capacity added for the “overnight cost” (e.g. just building cost, no financing). Let’s take that at it’s high, that would give us $6B / GW capacity.
Back of envelope magic… $8.7 Trillion.
That would call for over a thousand nuclear plants. If everything was permitted and ready to go, that would take on average eight years to get there.
What if we were to find a way to use electricity to power agriculture, mining, transportation, construction, or carbon removal? Well, just multiply that by five to get about $43.5 Trillion to Net 0. That’s have of the worlds economy today.
Lots of assumptions and generalizations at play but hopefully, this is within an order of magnitude. There are also operating costs and expected or unpredictable environmental impacts of nuclear (mining and meltdowns, for example).
That cost still little compared to the $23 Trillion that’s predicted to be lost annually by 2050 due to climate change. It does mean becoming comfortable with a technology that scares most people and has the possibility of abuse.