Nuclear power – an unlikely prospect

Primary energy

Our perceptions of energy trends are not what they actually are - so when considering whether we need to return to nuclear power, a study of actual trends from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2011 is a good start. 

In 2010 the world’s primary energy consumption was 88 billion barrels of oil equivalent a year (Gb/a), or 504 exajoules (EJ). Oil provided 33.6% of it, natural gas 23.8%, coal 30.5%, hydro 6.5%, nuclear 5.2% and renewables 1.3%. 

The BP review shows that since 2005 global “all-oils” production has “plateaued” around 30 billion barrels a year (30 Gb/a) and may well be on its peak. A global peak is the aggregate of the national peaks, the most significant of which is that of Saudi Arabia, which was passed in 2005, while the UK’s oil peak occurred in 1999. 

The  year 2005 was also significant for the UK. Since 2005 our crude oil consumption has fallen by 12%, since 2004 our gas consumption has fallen by 3.7%, since 2006 our coal consumption has fallen by an extraordinary 23.7% and in 2005 our electricity generation was 397.3 TWh, while in 2010 it was 381.2 TWh, a fall of 4%. 

Overall the UK’s primary energy consumption has fallen by 8.4% since 2005, from 1.67 Gb/a to 1.53 Gb/a oil equivalent in 2010. The common perception is that our energy needs are growing, while the reality is that our actual consumption is falling.


With the exception of part of rail motive power, the mobility of people and goods depends on petrol, diesel and jet fuel derived from oil and a negligible amount of biomass. These liquid fuels can be synthesised from natural gas, but with a penalty of a 50% loss of its heating value. They can also be synthesised from coal, but with a penalty of a 60% loss of its heating value. 

Gas is indispensable for heat and generation as is coal for ironmaking and generation, so their contribution to fuel for transport is limited, specifically as the gas- and coal- to liquids processes (GTL and CTL) are so inefficient. GTL processes are mainly deployed for stranded gas, otherwise flared. 

If global oil production has merely “plateaued” then mobility will only increase by gains in efficiency. If a post-peak decline is about to transpire, movement of people and goods will be severely curtailed.

Electricity for transport

The perception is that increasingly transport will be driven by electricity. This may be viable for personal, local transport in small battery-powered vehicles. But for goods transport by road the battery load would catastrophically reduce the payload. For air transport electricity is inappropriate, even though small nuclear plants or hydrogen have been considered. 

The overall efficiency of electricity for fuelling transport is poor. If electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, or is subsequently used to produce hydrogen by way of electrolysis and liquefaction, the energy available for traction is only around 5% of the primary energy. It is at best 30% for electrified rail, probably more like 20%. 

There is a huge inventory of diesel driven trucks, so the best use of electricity would be to complete the electrification of the railways, freeing up the diesel used for rail traction for road use. 

Road traffic has started to decline, a decline due to accelerate as feeder transport to declining air traffic also declines. The inter-city routes for rail will be provided by the emptying motorways and there is no need for HS2. 

Electricity market 

Far from growing, the UK’s overall demand for electricity will decline due to the loss of the demand from the reducing road and air traffic, signalled by the marked reduction in crude oil consumption. Local authorities are turning off unwarranted street lighting and there will be less electricity needed for fuel refining and pumping, and for motor manufacturing. Airports are massive users of electricity for 24-hour working and runway illumination and reduction in air traffic will reduce demand. 

Increased insulation and deployment of heat pumps and tri-generation will reduce the demand for electricity for heating and air conditioning. Also the progressive deployment of solar power on domestic, industrial and agricultural buildings and land will reduce the market for centralised generation. 

Local generation by wind and biomass also reduces the need for more centralised power. With the reduced demand and more localised sources, making use of existing networks, the need to strengthen the National Grid reduces to that needed for off-shore wind. 

Nuclear power 

There are two strands of policy in regard to nuclear power, viz., provision of low carbon energy and security of supply. 

Climate change is a global phenomenon (if it is a problem), so as nuclear’s current contribution to the world’s primary energy is only 5%, and that this is reducing as fleets age, nuclear power offers little relief, if relief is needed. 

It offers little security of supply to the UK as its fuel and technology is wholly imported. 

Uranium mining in the West’s usual supplier countries of Canada and Australia is in decline. Recourse to Niger and Kazakhstan is not recommended and in any case China has secured some uranium supplies by forward contracts and in mining project investment. 

Only two types of reactor are being processed for generic design assessment by ONR of which Westinghouse has “paused” its involvement, possibly because its design in Imperial units is unacceptable to European utilities. The Areva EPRs in Finland and France are overspent and will not be connected until 2014 and 2016. Due to their teething problems it appears that they, with the two under construction in China will be the last and the smaller Areva/MHI ATMEA-1 will be substituted. 

EdF purchased British Energy to gain access to coastal sites, so if it fails to raise the ever growing investment needed, it will request its re-nationalisation. This is a reasonable prospect as the state has already taken over its nuclear liabilities.  If the state then wants to proceed with new build it will have to finish the false starts itself. 

So nuclear new build in the UK is unlikely, because the post-Fukushima additions will add to its capital costs, while the shrinking market will deter investment. 

In any case - we can’t afford to lose Somerset. 

Climate change 

If the engine of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels and if the concern is the earth’s temperature at the end of the century, then as by the end of the century there will be virtually no oil or gas and but a modicum of coal, the situation is self correcting. 

My solution for the UK would be to take advantage of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and warming by increasing irrigation with a national water grid, also useful for flood control. Carbon dioxide concentrations are increased in greenhouses to accelerate photo-synthesis for plant growth. Rather than load the economy with carbon taxes and spending on nuclear power, let’s take advantage of atmospheric carbon increase and climate change to boost agriculture and reduce food imports. 


We have to tailor our energy consumption to that provided by renewables, which are unlikely to exceed 25% of our current use. 

The lack of movement is somewhat compensated by the Internet and the use of ever smaller personal computers and communication devices reduces their electricity consumption. 

It means localisation instead of globalisation, reverting to local manufacture and food production. 

Communities are already coming together in local initiatives and currencies. 

Families will be closer and parents will see more of their children. It could all be better than now. 

John Busby 10 November 2011