In just two decades Sweden went from burning oil for generating electricity to fissioning uranium. And if the world as a whole were to follow that example, all fossil fuel–fired power plants could be replaced with nuclear facilities in a little over 30 years.
And if you did this?
Such a switch would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nearly achieving much-ballyhooed global goals to combat climate change. Even swelling electricity demands, concentrated in developing nations, could be met.
The Scientific American article says that this would be a heavy lift. Would it? The interesting thing is that someone worked out the numbers and figured it all out – well, at least the industrial and manufacturing parts. That someone would be Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
Sweden gets about 50 percent of its electricity generation from hydro power and 30 percent from nuclear energy. Midnight Sun Land has had mixed feelings about nuclear, passing a bill to phase it out, then reversing course and deciding that new reactors can be built at existing facilities but only to replace end-of-life reactors. This torturous approach is a bit eye rolling – just split the atom, don’t split the difference. It’s as though Sweden has learned that nuclear energy has benefits it wants to leverage yet doesn’t want to seem too enthusiastic about it.
Scientific America’s write-up is good, though we wondered if we could get a look at Qvist’s study. And indeed, it is online and in English to boot. The title is (deep breath) “Potential for Worldwide Displacement of Fossil-Fuel Electricity by Nuclear Energy in Three Decades Based on Extrapolation of Regional Deployment Data.” The regions considered are Sweden and France.
Some features of the report seem obvious, but are not often stated in this context and can easily be overlooked as useful factors. Some of this reflects the growth of the industry over the last 50 years and what that means to countries who now want to implement nuclear energy now:
Countries adopting or expanding their nuclear production capacity today have comparatively little need to develop indigenous designs and supply chains in the way Sweden did, since turn-key products are available from a number of vendors on an open competitive market. It is considerably easier to buy plants and nuclear fuel internationally today than it was in the early days of the Swedish nuclear program, with a larger number of mature, internationally marketed commercial designs on offer today compared to the situation of the mid 1960s.
Nine of Sweden’s current fleet are home-grown boiling water reactors while three are American-sourced pressurized reactors. So Sweden did design and build most of its plants itself.
A lot of the paper is, as you’d expect, fairly dense, comparing coal to nuclear to determine their relative output. It all supports a conclusion that is loud and clear.
No renewable energy technology or energy efficiency approach has ever been implemented on a scale or pace which has resulted in the magnitude of reductions in CO2-emissions that is strictly required and implied in any climate change mitigation study—neither locally nor globally, normalized by population or GDP or any other normalization parameter.
The results indicate that a replacement of current fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear fission at a pace which might limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible—whether this will in fact happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance.
I can’t imagine this being said any plainer.