Non-nuclear future

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There are many energy policy analysts who envision a non-nuclear future, which is a future without nuclear power contributing significantly to the energy supply mix. These analysts include Lester Brown, Mark Diesendorf, Christopher Flavin, Amory Lovins, Ian Lowe, Ron Pernick, Joseph Romm, and Clint Wilder.

Amory Lovins wrote the seminal work in this area, entitled Non-Nuclear Futures: The Case for an Ethical Energy Strategy[1] and subsequent publications (by other authors) which are of interest include Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, Plan B 2.0, Reaction Time, State of the World 2008, and The Clean Tech Revolution.


More than 300 nuclear plants currently provide 15 percent of the world’s electricity. But nuclear power has had a range of problems, including high cost and limited public acceptance, which has restricted development in most of Europe and North America for more than 20 years.[2] Major efforts are now under way to revive the nuclear industry—driven by a combination of high natural gas prices, concern about global warming, and many new government subsidies. However, it is too early to tell whether this will result in a new wave of construction.[2]

Many energy policy analysts are not counting on a buildup in nuclear power and are looking more towards energy efficiency and renewable energy commercialization to shape our energy futures.[3][2] Perhaps the most well-known of these analysts is Amory B. Lovins, who has won many awards and is a prolific writer.

Amory Lovins

In 1976 Amory Lovins coined the term "soft energy path" to describe the route to an alternative future where efficiency and appropriate renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.[4]

In 1988, Lovins explained that improving energy efficiency can simultaneously ameliorate greenhouse warming, reduce acid rain and air pollution, save money, and avoid the problems of nuclear power. Given the urgency of abating global warming, Lovins argued that we cannot afford to invest in nuclear power when those same dollars put into efficiency would displace far more carbon dioxide.[5]

In his 2005 book Winning the Oil Endgame, Lovins praises nuclear power engineers, but is critical of the nuclear industry:

No vendor has made money selling power reactors. This is the greatest failure of any enterprise in the industrial history of the world. We don’t mean that as a criticism of nuclear power’s practitioners, on whose skill and devotion we all continue to depend; the impressive operational improvements in U.S. power reactors in recent years deserve great credit. It is simply how technologies and markets evolved, despite the best intentions and immense effort. In nuclear power’s heydey, its proponents saw no competitors but central coal-fired power stations. Then, in quick succession, came end-use efficiency, combined-cycle plants, distributed generation (including versions that recovered valuable heat previously wasted), and competitive windpower. The range of competitors will only continue to expand more and their costs to fall faster than any nuclear technology can match.[6]

Lester Brown

Lester Brown, and many other commentators, argue that nuclear power is simply not economical, and that installed nuclear capacity will probably remain much the same for the foreseeable future:

Our assumption is that new openings of nuclear power plants worldwide will simply offset the closing of aging plants, with no overall growth in capacity. If we use full-cost pricing—requiring utilities to absorb the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, of decommissioning the plant when it is worn out, and of insuring the reactors against possible accidents and terrorist attacks—building nuclear plants in a competitive electricity market is simply not economical.[3]

Brown states that simple measures, such as changing to more efficient lighting, can lead to significant reductions in energy consumption:

Perhaps the quickest, easiest, and most profitable way to reduce electricity use worldwide—thus cutting carbon emissions—is simply to change light bulbs. Replacing the inefficient incandescent light bulbs that are still widely used today with new compact fluorescents (CFLs) can reduce electricity use by three fourths. The energy saved by replacing a 100-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent CFL over its lifetime is sufficient to drive a Toyota Prius hybrid car from New York to San Francisco.[7]

Mark Diesendorf

Mark Diesendorf explains that we must take the whole nuclear fuel cycle into account when considering carbon dioxide reductions associated with nuclear power:

The recent push for a revival of nuclear energy has been based on its claimed reduction in CO2 emissions where it substitutes for coal-fired power stations. In reality, only reactor operation is CO2-free. All other stages of the nuclear fuel chain -- mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction, decommissioning, and waste management -- use fossil fuels and hence emit CO2...[8]

Diesendorf is an advocate of the further commercialization of wind power:

Global wind-power capacity continues to expand and, apart from the blip in 2006, its costs continue to decline steadily. Wind power is one of the few energy supply technologies that are ready for wide dissemination today, unlike coal with CO2 capture and sequestration and unlike nuclear power. Wind can deliver deep cuts in CO2, while providing a hedge against fluctuating fossil fuel prices and reducing energy import dependence.[9]

Christopher Flavin

Many advocates of nuclear power argue that, given the urgency of doing something about climate change quickly, it must be pursued. Christopher Flavin, however, points out that speedy implementation is not one of nuclear power’s strong points:[2]

Planning, licensing, and constructing even a single nuclear plant typically takes a decade or more, and plants frequently fail to meet completion deadlines. Due to the dearth of orders in recent decades, the world currently has very limited capacity to manufacture many of the critical components of nuclear plants. Rebuilding that capacity will take a decade or more.[2]

Given the urgency of the climate problem, Flavin emphasizes the rapid commercialization of renewable energy and efficient energy use:

Improved energy productivity and renewable energy are both available in abundance—and new policies and technologies are rapidly making them more economically competitive with fossil fuels. In combination, these energy options represent the most robust alternative to the current energy system, capable of providing the diverse array of energy services that a modern economy requires. Given the urgency of the climate problem, that is indeed convenient.[10]

Pernick & Wilder

Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder explain, in their 2007 book The Clean Tech Revolution, that nuclear power's lack of greenhouse gas emissions has brought it new supporters, but Pernick and Wilder are not among them:

There is a long list of reasons why we do not consider nuclear power clean with current technology: radioactive waste disposal and storage challenges; proliferation of nuclear material in a world that lived through the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001; and the security threat of nuclear power stations as inviting terrorist targets. In addition, nuclear plants use vast amounts of carbon-intensive energy and materials such as cement in their construction. They also require large amounts of water in their cooling operations, which can further constrain development and operation. France, long considered a model for the success of nuclear power, experienced brownouts in the drought-prone summer of 2005 because French nuclear plants couldn’t get enough water to run at peak capacity.[11]

Pernick and Wilder are advocates of solar photovoltaic technology, which they see as offering great business opportunities. They explain that "not only is the worldwide solar market growing by 30% to 50% per year, but the same technologies that enabled the semiconductor and computer revolution are now being leveraged in the solar market".[12]

Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm explains that nuclear power generates about 20 percent of all U.S. electricity, and because it is a low-carbon source of around-the-clock power, it has received renewed interest in recent years.[13] Yet, Romm argues, nuclear power’s "own myriad limitations will constrain its growth, especially in the near term". These limitations include:[13]

  • Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs.
  • Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants.
  • Very long construction times.
  • Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues.
  • Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage.
  • Large-scale water use amid shortages.
  • High electricity prices from new plants.

Sustainable energy futures

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are said to be the “twin pillars” of a sustainable energy policy for the future. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has explained that both resources must be developed in order to stabilize and reduce carbon dioxide emissions:[14]

Efficiency is essential to slowing the energy demand growth so that rising clean energy supplies can make deep cuts in fossil fuel use. If energy use grows too fast, renewable energy development will chase a receding target. Likewise, unless clean energy supplies come online rapidly, slowing demand growth will only begin to reduce total emissions; reducing the carbon content of energy sources is also needed.[14]

See also


  1. Lovins, Amory B. and Price, John H. (1975). Non-nuclear Futures: The Case for an Ethical Energy Strategy (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Building a Low-Carbon Economy p. 81.
  3. 3.0 3.1 PLAN B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization p. 214.
  4. Energy Strategy:The Road Not Taken?
  5. E88-31, Global Warming
  6. Winning the Oil Endgame p. 259.
  7. PLAN B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization p. 215.
  8. Diesendorf, Mark (2007). Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, p. 252.
  9. Diesendorf, Mark (2007). Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, p. 126.
  10. Building a Low-Carbon Economy p. 80.
  11. Pernick, Ron and Wilder, Clint (2007). The Clean Tech Revolution (PDF) p. 24.
  12. Pernick, Ron and Wilder, Clint (2007). The Clean Tech Revolution (PDF) p. 20.
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power p. 1.
  14. 14.0 14.1 American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (2007). The Twin Pillars of Sustainable Energy: Synergies between Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Technology and Policy Report E074.