25 June 2009 - Lenzen technology study confirms nuclear a key option for low-carbon baseload electricity

The growth opportunity for Australian uranium exports has been confirmed on technology grounds with a new review of electricity generation establishing nuclear energy as the world’s only currently available clean base-load electricity generation technology.

The study, by Professor Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis, establishes nuclear energy as a low-carbon source of electricity with the potential to avoid 180 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions up to 2100.

The Australian Uranium Association, which commissioned the research, said the results show that Australia’s uranium exports are a secure and stable alternative fuel for large-scale electricity generation.

The Lenzen study complements last year’s AUA-commissioned Deloitte study which showed the economic potential for expansion of Australian uranium exports on the back of growth in world nuclear power demand. Professor Lenzen’s work demonstrates the same potential from the perspective of nuclear energy’s technology.

“The evidence of the capacity and potential of generating technologies has often been unclear or ignored in the discussion about different electricity technologies,” the AUA’s Executive Director, Mr Michael Angwin said.

“To get a clear picture of the world’s electricity generation portfolio and to put the role of nuclear power and Australia’s uranium exports into perspective, we commissioned Professor Lenzen to review the latest scientific literature on the development paths of the various electricity technologies and on carbon capture and storage,” he said.

“This study debunks many of the myths put forward in the energy debate, such as the claims that nuclear power is a highly subsidised, high-cost energy technology with a limited future. This study establishes the opposite is true, and that’s good news for Australia’s uranium exports”.

Professor Lenzen’s analysis of the scientific literature shows:

  • The generating technologies currently available to provide base-load electricity are either fossil fuel-based or nuclear power or, in some cases, hydro-power
  • Nuclear power and power from renewables are the most effective technologies for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions; they have significant mitigation potential and low energy requirements
  • The mature technologies are the fossil fuel technologies, nuclear, hydro and wind
  • The technologies still in development are coal with carbon capture and storage, geothermal and solar (photovoltaic and solar thermal)
  • Wind power requires the least energy input per unit of electricity output, followed closely by large hydro and nuclear, then solar and fossil fuels
  • Hydro is the least subsidised technology, followed by nuclear and geothermal, wind, coal, biomass and solar
  • The fossil fuel-based technologies cost least, followed by nuclear and wind, then hydro and then solar
  • All the technologies face barriers to their development and deployment, which reinforces the need for countries to consider a full portfolio of technologies.

Mr Angwin said the Lenzen study shows that all generating technologies have their drawbacks. “We are well aware that there is still a public acceptance issue with nuclear power and uranium mining,” he said.

However, the Lenzen study shows that all technologies have their strengths and weaknesses.

The renewables all have specific strengths but their drawbacks make them unavailable today as sources of base-load electricity.

Solar panels are costly and have relatively high greenhouse gas emissions across their lifecycle. Large-scale solar-thermal is unlikely to be cost-competitive before 2020 and then only with large Government subsidies.

The intermittent nature of wind power makes it difficult to integrate into an electricity system beyond about 20% of the total electricity generated. “The main issue for future deep penetrations of wind on a global scale is hence how wind plants can be integrated across very large geographical scales and with other variable power sources,” the Lenzen report says.

Large-scale hydroelectricity and geothermal energy can potentially provide electricity for whole societies but are hampered by the lack of available undammed watercourses and by the uncertainty and remote location of geothermal resource fields.

Carbon capture and storage faces the challenge of the effects of the capture process on generating plant efficiency. “This is seen as one of the main barriers for large-scale development of the technology, because it requires the deployment of a significant fraction of total electricity just for the capture of CO2,” the Lenzen report says.

 “An important conclusion to draw from the Lenzen study is that prudent policymakers will maximise the security of electricity supplies by building the broadest energy portfolio they can,” Mr Angwin said.