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Recent nuclear emergencies, whilst aiming for a sustainable energy future

Recent events in Japan, with our heartfelt thoughts and prayers going to the people of that country, have highlighted that nation’s energy creation preference, to avoid oil dependency: nuclear energy. We have also been made aware of the risks of this alternative form of energy production, specially in plants of an older generation. The events have sparked an interesting sharing of ideas amongst ebbf members on ebbf’s LinkedIn group and we decided to call in one of ebbf’s experts in the field of alternative energy, Larry Staudt (see his interview – principally blown by the wind – on ebbf’s e-magazine here) and here follow a few thoughts of his.

There are two main areas of concern surrounding the debate about the world’s energy future:  supply security and climate change.  We will discuss these first, and then consider our inevitable transition to a sustainable energy future.

Fossil Fuel Supply Security

Events in the Middle East, northern Africa, and Japan, have added further impetus to concerns about energy supply security.  Supply security concerns can be best summed up by Figure 1 below.  At some point within the next two decades world oil production will reach its peak and begin to decline, with obvious implications for the world’s oil-fuelled economy.  This is very serious, because as frankly stated by the Society of Danish Engineers and the Danish Board of Technology, “The trouble is that no realistic technological, economic and political strategies for the warding off of the impacts of a decline in conventional oil supply are in sight.”1

Figure 1 – World Oil Production predictions (in millions of barrels per day, taken from Wikipedia)

In 1970 oil production in the continental United States reached a peak and began to decline.  This peak was exactly predicted by eminent Shell oil geologist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, and few believed him.  The peak indicated that about half of the oil in the continental USA was consumed.  Since then, in spite of advances in exploration and extraction technology, oil production in the USA has declined.  This same reality applies on a world level, as suggested in Figure 1.

Hubbert also made a prediction for the world oil production curve (Figure 2), but could not anticipate the restriction in oil production by OPEC (see the dip in Figure 2 at 1980), and so his peak in conventional oil occurs earlier than the predictions in Figure 1.  It is clear that oil production will peak and decline permanently.  Oil price volatility also has a negative impact on the economy, generally due to market movements and geopolitical events.  We can expect to continue to see variable and generally rising oil prices.

Figure 2 – World oil production vs. time forecast by Hubbert

The other two fossil fuel resources are natural gas and coal, which also eventually be depleted.  Gas will decline on a similar time scale to oil, while coal’s decline is less imminent.  Both will certainly be (along with oil) an important part of the energy mix moving forward.

Coal is abundant and available from a number of reasonably stable locations around the world.  However coal is not sustainable, is greenhouse gas intensive, and large-scale sequestering of CO2 is not proving to be a practical proposition.  Therefore we conclude that coal will only be a transition fuel (along with oil and gas) on our path toward energy sustainability.

In summary, we are facing a precarious energy supply security situation.  In addition to the unavoidable oil production peak in the coming years, geopolitical events could cause a large increase in oil prices tomorrow.

Climate Change

Climate change is the other factor that makes a transition away from fossil fuels non-optional.  Figures 3, 4, and 5 show 2009 data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The Stern report

on global warming indicated that an economic case can be made for combating climate change.  However, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unabated (Figure 6).

Figure 3 – Temperature and CO2 vs time (IPCC)

Figure 4 – World sea level rise vs time (IPCC)

Figure 5 – Arctic ice volume vs time (IPCC)

Figure 6 – Atmospheric CO2 concentration vs. time (IPCC)

A Sustainable Energy Future

The international community has been slow in responding to this threat to civilisation, or indeed to the clear threat to energy supply security.  This is partially due to the fact that we lack consensus on what our energy future might look like.  I would like make the case that renewable energy is the end-game in our energy future, providing a solution to supply security and greenhouse gas emissions, with all present sources of energy playing an important role in the transition.  I will use the country of Ireland as a case study to help demonstrate the practicality of this proposal.

But first we should mention the role of nuclear power.  Nuclear power produces about 7% of the world’s energy, and has been generally thought of as a potential solution to long-term energy needs.  We are all aware of concerns about waste disposal, life-cycle cost, and security.

Accidents are unlikely but possible, as once again made clear by the problems with the Fukushima reactors following the tragic earthquake and tsunami.  However, a fact that often escapes the debate is:  uranium reserves are finite, in the same way and in the same time frame as fossil fuels.

The European Nuclear Society advocates nuclear energy. In their website glossary under “uranium reserves” they state that “all world-wide operated nuclear power plants can be supplied for several decades” with world uranium reserves.  This is not impressive, suggesting that a major nuclear development programme using existing commercial nuclear technology will rapidly deplete uranium reserves. A major nuclear programme will in any case take decades to implement, and while it may make some sense to do this (nuclear fission emits no greenhouse gases), we have a problem that demands immediate, long-term action.  Therefore we conclude that nuclear technology will continue to have a significant but small role to play in the transition to energy sustainability.  Although other nuclear energy possibilities exist (e.g. fusion technology), they are a long way from being commercially and technically proven.  Therefore we cannot presently base a sustainable energy future on nuclear energy.

It will also prove difficult to base our energy future on renewable energy, however at the present time it seems to be our only option.  The potential benefits of such an energy future make its pursuit well-worth the effort:  an endless supply of pollution-free energy with stable prices, with little susceptibility to geopolitical events.

Every region of the world has access to renewable energy resources, whether sun, wind, wave or other types.  The “problem” is that our present energy habits require vast amounts of cheap energy, and renewable energy generally cannot compete with fossil fuels on the present uneven economic playing field.  If we do not take the undoubted environmental and social costs of fossil fuels (and even if we do), fossil energy is very good value.  However as discussed above, it is becoming depleted, and so we can expect energy prices to rise.

Unfortunately economics is not a far-sighted science, and by the time energy prices rise such that renewable energy can “compete” it may be too late.  Some economic models (e.g. the ECCO model – can be used to show that we should be investing our fossil fuel resources now, while the price is relatively low, in a sustainable energy future. However, in some parts of the world renewable energy is competitive in the crude sense of the term presently used.

Ireland and Renewable Energy

Ireland presently has about 16% of its electrical energy provided by the wind, and it is on track to meet its goal of 40% by 2020.  In parallel with this, Ireland has a major electrical vehicle initiative.  Ireland has huge supplies of renewable energy (primarily wind and wave energy) which come in the form of electricity, so electric vehicles clearly will be important.  Ireland is able to supply its own present energy needs many time over from renewables.

Many in authority in Ireland see the country providing a great deal of energy for Europe.  Ireland’s territorial waters in the Atlantic have the potential provide much more than Ireland’s energy needs.  Indeed it is easy to conceive that Europe’s energy future will have a great deal to do with offshore wind and wave technology in the Atlantic Ocean.  A European offshore “supergrid” is envisaged by many, to collect and distribute this energy (see  The grid is also envisioned to access solar energy plants in northern Africa.

These types of initiatives, combined with energy conservation (incentivised by somewhat higher energy prices), have the capability to provide for Europe’s energy future.  We can assume that similar initiatives in less energy-intensive parts of the world will similarly prove feasible.

Figure 7 – the Fossil Fuel Era


We are at the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel economy, which has brought many benefits to the human race.  Whereas the transition to the industrial age and fossil fuels was not planned (i.e. it was developed largely by market forces), in this case we cannot avoid the need to plan our way forward into a sustainable society, of which energy sustainability is only a part.

Fossil fuel prices are volatile and increasing.  Besides renewable energy, there is presently no other commercial technology that can take over from fossil fuels and nuclear energy as they decline.  Therefore we can only conclude that it is a prudent and conservative policy to embark on a substantial renewable energy development programme.  It seems socially irresponsible to leave our energy future in the hands of market forces, which function primarily in the short term.

To quote from the Society of Danish Engineers study:  “If the time horizon for the impending peak in the production of cheap conventional oil is as short as one or two decades or less, the problems involved in handling the situation are of a specific, practical nature.  Therefore, economic policies should not rely on general, theoretical assumptions that technological progress will ensure sufficient supplies of oil or substitutes for oil.”

This paper is a contribution to what will be an increasingly urgent debate on the planet’s energy future.  It identifies the central supply security problem we face, and proposes a direction to look for solutions.

We live in a time that is unique in many ways.  One thing our distant descendants will wonder about is what it was like to live during that brief period of human history when fossil fuels were available (Figure 7 below).  Prior to this time energy was produced and utilised in a sustainable manner, and this will be the case afterwards, but we must make it so.

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