Sustainable Development & Nuclear Power
Table of Contents Table of Contents
Introduction Introduction
The Energy Challenge The Energy Challenge
Nuclear Power Facts Nuclear Power Facts
Nuclear Power Advantages Nuclear Power Advantages

Conclusion Conclusion
The Salient Points The Salient Points
Annex I Annex I:   The DECADES Project
Annex II Annex II:  Nuclear Power Case Studies

| Agenda 21 and Energy | Environmental Releases | Energy Mix Strategies | The Nuclear Power Potential |


Environmental Releases

The five years since the Rio conference have solidified the international consensus that the persistent heavy global dependence on fossil sources with their environmental releases - noxious gases, toxic substances and greenhouse gas emissions - is having serious local and global consequences. Globally, fossil fuels provide 87% of commercial primary energy. Nuclear power and hydroelectric - sources with limited environmental releases - each contribute some 6%. The non-hydroelectric renewables - solar, wind, geothermal and biomass - that are subsequently referred to simply as renewables, constitute less than 1% of the energy supply.

One third of commercial primary energy is consumed in electricity generation, with fossil fuels also having a dominating 63% share [Fig.: Fossil Dominance in Energy and Electricity Supply. The nuclear power and hydroelectric shares are 17% and 19% respectively, with renewable systems again less than 1%.

Environmental pollutants

There has been progress in the ability to reduce environmental pollutants - the noxious gases and toxic substances emitted particularly from coal and oil plants - through costly pollution abatement technologies such as desulphurizers, nitrous oxide reducers and precipitators. But globally there remain serious environmental and health impacts through persistent releases. In developed countries the general picture is one of decreasing noxious gas and toxic substance releases while in developing countries, as a result particularly of increasing energy use and the high up-front cost of abatement techniques, the picture is one of increasing releases.

Urban pollution in today's developing countries, with their heavy reliance on fossil fuels and rapidly increasing transport emissions, is reaching harmful levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) in its 1997 report on Health and Environment in Sustainable Development estimates that suspended particulate matter alone from energy generation and use is responsible for more than 500 000 premature deaths per year from ambient urban air pollution. The health effects of the environmental pollutants are examined further in Section 2.

Globally, the large quantities of fossil fuel waste containing toxic substances, particularly from coal combustion, pose a long term problem in relation to water quality and food chain contamination. It is becoming increasingly common to categorize this waste as hazardous. A single 1000 MW(e) coal plant produces large quantities of waste, annually around 320 000 tonnes of ash containing 400 tonnes of toxic heavy metals. Pollution abatement techniques for sulphur alone can produce an additional 500 000 tonnes of wastes containing toxic substances.

Greenhouse gas emissions

There has been little progress in reducing the fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions that are forecast to lead to atmospheric warming with global and regional climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxides (NOx) are the principal greenhouse gases arising from human activities, mainly from fossil fuel burning, changes in land use and agriculture. Carbon dioxide is the single most important greenhouse gas, with fossil fuels responsible for some 75% of human-made emissions. There is no economically viable technology on the horizon to abate or segregate the enormous quantities of global CO2 emissions - nearing 25 billion tonnes annually.

While CO2 emissions have stabilized or marginally decreased over the past few years in some developed countries, as a result partly of sluggish economies and a shift from coal to gas, the overwhelming majority of signatories to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) who are committed to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 will not meet their goal. In its 1997 Report No. 6 on Climate Change Negotiations, the WEC states that by 2000 about half of the developed countries could exceed their 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10%. In its recent Statement to the Third Conference of the Parties to the FCCC it reports that they are currently in aggregate about 8% above their 1990 levels.

The WEC projects in a September 1997 Ten Point Statement that the European Union (EU), where emissions in 1996 had actually fallen slightly from their 1990 level, will probably exceed that level in 2000 by at least 6%. Of equal importance, the present developing countries account for a rapidly rising share of world emissions, from 29% in 1990 to over 36% today, evolving to about 50% by 2020 and rising further through the next century.

The 1997 DOE energy outlook similarly forecasts high global CO2 emissions that in 2015 will be 61% above 1990 levels, with two thirds of the increase from the developing countries as they use fossil fuels to provide for expanding energy needs [Fig.: Global CO2 Emissions]. Against this forecast, it is evident that reductions in global emissions would require major efforts in both developed and developing countries.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body jointly established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to deal with climate change, reported in their 1995 Second Assessment Report that with a continuation of current global levels of greenhouse emissions the atmospheric CO2 concentration - which in pre-industrial times had a level of 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) - has risen to a current 360 ppmv and would reach about 500 ppmv by 2100. The 30% increase to-date of 80 ppmv from the pre-industrial level is believed to be a major contributor to the measured global mean surface temperature increase of between 0.3 °C and 0.6 ºC.

The IPCC mid-range emission scenario IS92a, which assumes rising levels of energy demand and greenhouse emissions, projects a 700 ppmv CO2 concentration by 2100 [Fig.: CO2 Concentrations to 2100 (IS92a Scenario)] and an additional increase in surface temperature between 1 °C and 3.5 °C. Such an increase would have significant environmental consequences, including effects on ocean sea levels and regional precipitation, resulting in a wide range of social and economic impacts. According to the IPCC, over the past 100 years the global sea level is estimated to have risen between 10 and 25 cm, with a projected further rise between 15 and 95 cm for an additional 1 °C to 3.5 °C surface temperature increase.

Carbon dioxide, with a residence time of some 100 years, is removed from the atmosphere only slowly through natural processes. As a result, projections by the IPCC show that stabilization at the current concentration of 360 ppmv could only be achieved through an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions by some 50 to 70%, with further reductions to follow - an entirely unrealistic scenario. The difficulty in stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations was underlined by the Chairman of the IPCC, who has pointed out that the 1997 IPCC Technical Paper No. 4 on Implications of Proposed CO2 Emission Limitations demonstrates that even with continuous reductions as high as 2% annually in the developed countries from 1990 onwards, global CO2 concentrations would not stabilize during the next century for their mid-range IS92a emission scenario.

This recent technical paper emphasizes that all currently proposed protocols for CO2 mitigation would not lead to even approaching global stabilization except for some scenarios which assume a very low economic growth of somewhat over 1% and little global population increase during the next century. Achieving stabilization is not likely in the decades to come. All that can be realistically accomplished is a slowing of the rate of increase of global atmospheric CO2 concentration to allow ecosystem adaptation to climate change. Today's continuing high emissions are likely to cause more rapid climate change that could require more dramatic emission reductions in the future to reach stabilization.