Nuclear Has Scaled Far More Rapidly Than Renewables

The Clean Energy Transition Needs the Atom


Anyone interested in rapidly increasing the production of clean energy should look to nuclear. The most ambitious renewables plan — Germany's Energiewende — has brought far less zero-carbon energy far less quickly than similar efforts focused on nuclear. Being cool, profitable and popular is fine, but irrelevant. We need a reliable technology that delivers deep energy emission cuts and we need it fast.

June 20, 2013 | Geoff Russell,

Over the past couple of weeks there's been more than a little crowing about Australia's one millionth rooftop solar installation amid the long running genuflection at what has been called Germany's solar miracle.

Solar and renewable apostles should keep in mind that if Germany meets its targets and reaches 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, it will have taken about 50 years from the time it began its feed-in tariff in 2000.

Is this really a miracle or is it more like molasses on a frozen alpine morning?

Anybody with a solid understanding of the climate science understands the need for a rapid rollout of cleaner electricity as part of any effective response.

How do the rollout speeds of renewables and nuclear power compare?

Let's compare the speed of per capita electricity generation growth in a few countries for renewables and nuclear. I'm guessing nobody will object if we use the German wunderkind as a top performing renewables example. We'll plot the last 11 years of wind and solar growth, starting 12 months after the beginning of their feed-in-tariff scheme. We'll also throw in the last 11 years of Chinese per capita electricity growth from all sources. This is just to put their coal/wind/nuclear/solar/hydro build in proper per capita context.

All of our comparison cases, except one, are historical. They aren't plans, they are achievements. Anti-nuclear campaigners are fond of finding particular nuclear power stations with time or cost overruns to ‘prove’ how slow or expensive nuclear electricity is to roll out. Cherry picking examples is a time-honored strategy when objective argument fails.

The exception to my ‘runs on the board’ analysis is the United Arab Emirates. In 2009, the UAE notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it wanted to join various international conventions related to nuclear electricity. The UAE spent a few years with the help of the IAEA fast tracking the establishment of suitable regulatory authorities, calling tenders and educating people. In 2012 Hyundai and Samsung started work on 4 x 1.4 gigawatt nuclear reactors which should be operational in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. The South Koreans build on time and within budget.

For the most part, the chart shows "Added electrical energy" per capita, not total electricity. The Chinese, Belgians and Swedes all had substantial electricity at the first year on the chart, but I've started them all at zero and just considered added per capita energy. But I've made some exceptions. Germany in 2001 did have a little wind and solar already, so I start the line at the appropriate point above zero. Similarly, for France in 1970, with nuclear. France in 1979 is just the continuation with a little overlap, so I haven't restarted them at zero. 


The UAE shows what a country with no nuclear could achieve given the political will. By 2020, about 12 years after notifying the IAEA, the Emirates will be getting 44 terawatt hours of power annually from its South Korean reactors. This is a per capita addition of some 3400 kwh/yr of clean electricity. It's not enough, but as the chart shows, it's nearly three-and-a-half times faster than the German wind and solar rollout.


As you can also see from the chart, if all goes well, the UAE will have added electricity faster with nuclear alone than the Chinese have done using all sources, including coal, during the past 11 years.

In contrast, the Australian rollout of one million solar photovoltaic installations has added just 127 kwh/yr per person (based on these figures) since whenever you decide to date the beginning. If I'd bothered to add it to the chart it would be an almost horizontal line at the bottom.

The UAE rollout speed is no fluke. Nuclear has runs on the board.

The French nuclear growth during the 70s was similar to Germany's current wind and solar growth. By similar I mean only about twice as fast. But then during the 80s, they reaped the harvest of the nuclear projects begun in the 70s and added about 4700 kwh/yr per person between 1979 and 1990.

The Belgians did likewise. And the standout leader is Sweden, adding seven times the per capita electricity between 1976 and 1987 of the current German molasses miracle. Sweden is interesting for another reason. They use almost double the electricity per capita as the OECD average. A whopping 15,000 kwh/person/yr compared to the OECD average of about 8300 kwh/person/yr.

This is way more than we use in Australia (10,000 kwh/person/yr), but they only generate 25 gms of CO2 per kwh, so who gives a damn how much electricity they use? Swedish electricity is about 50:50 nuclear and hydro. Scale back their profligacy and they've got plenty to charge electric vehicles and so on.

With Germany, on the other hand, there is no plausible mechanism for solar or wind to achieve the steep nuclear growth levels seen in the chart. It is more likely that growth will slow as easy wind and solar sites are used and the government runs out of money. Wind power growth is already flattening and while solar is still growing strongly, there is no physical factor which could produce the huge rates of growth seen in the 1980s in France for nuclear electricity.

Germany's renewable hopes over the coming decade are pinned on €550 billion worth of offshore wind farms, slated to give about 10 gigawatts of wind power by 2020. Assuming a 50 percent capacity factor, this is just a per capita bump of 530 kwh/yr over more than a decade. Glacial. And if offshore wind delivers 25 GW by 2030, this is a per capita increase of 1330 kwh/yr over about two decades. Molasses. This is not even close to matching UAE's nuclear rollout and it comes at a massive cost.

But Germany's glacial renewable revolution may not even hit molasses pace with the offshore wind farms being years behind schedule and facing all manner of technical hurdles.

Comparing financial costs is difficult and largely irrelevant in the context of the cost of climate level catastrophes, but however you do it, the UAE is paying a smallish fraction per terawatt hour compared to what Germany is paying for wind and solar. The total UAE cost is about $20 billion for construction and another $20 billion for running costs over about 60 years for 44 TWh/yr.

In comparison, for the 19 TWh/yr of installed solar PV at the end of 2011, Germany is committed to paying feed-in tariffs amounting to about $130 billion. In very rough terms, the UAE will pay half the price for double the energy for three times the lifespan.

I'd attempt some comparison with Australia's renewable rollout, but we haven't actually done anything except fail proudly and boast about it.

Back in 1989, Professor Martin Green of the University of New South Wales predicted solar PV would replace coal in 10 or 15 years. But all we have had is a consistent history of glacial failure. So while Australia continues to produce electricity at 850g of CO2 per kwh, and boast about our dismal one million rooftop solar systems, the French have been producing electricity with nuclear reactors for less than 80g of CO2 per kwh for over 20 years. The Germans are stuck at 450g of CO2 and still building more coal power stations.

Being cool, profitable, and popular is fine, but irrelevant. We need a reliable technology that delivers deep energy emission cuts and we need it fast.

It's rapidly becoming crystal clear that the biggest enemy we face in preventing ongoing climate destabilistation is the anti-nuclear movement. They have cost the planet two decades which could otherwise have seen many more countries with clean electricity, and now they are running a distracting strategy promoting technologies which are intrinsically slow to roll out. They have, in effect, created an energy growth vacuum being filled by coal seam gas which is quick to build but which won't prevent further climate destabilisation. 

Geoff Russell is a mathematician and computer programmer, and a member of Animal Liberation SA. He has published a book on diet and science entitled CSIRO Perfidy. This post originally appeared at Business Spectator.


  • I know that you are correct, about nuclear energy. Unfortunately, virtually no one else does. To be openly pro-nuclear energy, one risks being treated as a pariah. I will continue to believe that nuclear energy is our best hope, despite Japan’s leaking reactor mess at the moment (and I do not for one moment imply any disrespect regarding their response to the tsunami in March 2011; they were not careless then, or now).

    As for Germany, you are correct. I’ll tell you another way of gauging how non-functional their green energy program is. Have a look at Germany’s energy futures market, the domestic exchange. There is zero volume on most days. That is because it is not economic, as green-generated electricity is so heavily subsidized by the government. There is a lot of activity in electricity futures markets in other parts of the world though.

    I don’t mean to sound unreasonably harsh. The U.S.A., my home, is guilty of much worse. All the initial research into solar energy and conversion panels was done here, in Arizona. Unfortunately, environmentalist, no, that isn’t correct, irrational misguided residents were so hostile to the idea of solar energy’s unsightly aspects that the world center for solar energy research relocated in Germany. Despite the climate, German citizens and energy researchers were much more receptive!

    Irrational fears about nuclear and other fossil fuel alternatives will be the end of us. We’re running out of time. Coal is not the answer.

    By Ellie Kesselman on 2013 09 09

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    • Think you will find Australia did a lot of the early work on solarPV and some on solarCST. Most of the panels being pumped out in China are using some kind of IP from UNSW which, thanks to short sightedness of academics and a very different academic culture in Australia to say USA went for a song. Furthermore Australian government refused to help get the prototyped work become commericalised in this country and we don’t have a very good angel investment scene here prepared to take a long term view.

      By Alastair on 2015 03 22

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  • Another point of view, current (2000-2011-2018) :

    If you do not read French, you can at least see tables and graphs.

    2000 : nuclear 2640 TWh / renewables 2860 TWh

    2011 : nuclear 2520 TWh / renewables 4540 TWh

    2018 : nuclear 2900 TWh / renewables 6850 TWh

    Source : IAEA and IEA

    By Caribou on 2013 11 14

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  • Scaled in France because of massive state funding which plants are not obliged to return as income back to taxpayer, let alone interest payments on the loans. At least wind pays it’s subsidised dues with very cheap wholesale power and ever falling cost curves. Plus nuclear power in France like most everywhere enjoyed all kinds of exemptions from insurance, waste treatment and decommissioning.

    With that kind of free investment money for twenty years watch RE smoke nuclear power into oblivion. Already solarPV as a distributed power source has undermined the upstream and downstream value of nuclear and coal power investments. And solarPV has not enjoyed anything like the subsidies the nuclear industry has enjoyed for decades. Stranded assets are now being recognised as an existential risk to these traditional long term stable industries.

    By Alastair on 2015 03 22

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  • All very interesting, but the real question is why the world is adding renewables faster than nuclear. Even China, the most ambitious nuclear builder, is adding renewable generation faster than nuclear. If it was just a few countries such as Germany then I could accept that the reason was anti-nuclear prejudice, but given the worldwide phenomenon a better explanation would be changes to the economics of nuclear since it’s heyday in the 1970s.

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