World Energy Needs and Nuclear Power

Published October 12th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Nuclear power provides over 16 percent of the world's electricity and almost 24 percent of electricity in OECD countries. Its use is increasing.  


Without nuclear power most of the world would have to rely almost entirely on fossil fuels for base-load electricity production.  


Nuclear power is the most environmentally benign way of producing electricity on a large scale. If nuclear were replaced by coal-fired generation, carbon dioxide emissions would increase by over two billion tonnes per year.  


Renewable energy sources other than hydro have high generating costs but are suitable for small intermittent-load electricity demand.  


Nuclear power generation is an established part of the world's electricity mix providing over 16 percent of world electricity (cf. coal 39 percent, oil 10 percent, natural gas 15 percent and hydro & other 20 percent). It is especially suitable for large-scale, base-load electricity demand.  

During the 1980s total world energy use grew by nearly 20 percent. This growth was more modest in the OECD at only 9 percent, but most dramatic in developing countries at almost 60 percent.  

With the United Nations predicting world population growth from 6 billion to 8.5 billion by 2025, demand for energy must increase over the next two decades. Coupled with increasing standards of living for many of those in developing countries, the demand growth will be substantial.  

Electricity demand is increasing much more rapidly than overall energy use, growing by 35% over the decade 1985-95. OECD "business as usual" projections have world electricity generation more than doubling from 1995 to 2020. World Energy Council projections (reference scenario) suggest a doubling from 1990 to 2020 assuming much increased energy conservation and no increase in average primary energy per capita.  



The renewable energy sources for electricity constitute a diverse group, from solar, tidal and wave energy to hydro, geothermal and biomass-based power generation. Apart from hydro power in the few places where it is very lentiful, none of these is suitable, intrinsically or economically, for large-scale base-load power generation.  


Growing use will however be made of the renewable energy sources in the years ahead, although the scale of their contribution and economic attractiveness is still being debated. Renewables will have most appeal where demand is for small-scale, intermittent supply of electricity. In the OECD about 2 percent of electricity is supplied by renewables other than hydro.  


Forecasts indicate that OECD countries will continue to require 18 percent of their electricity to be supplied from nuclear power, which means a 20 percent increase on current output in the next two decades.  



Without nuclear power the world would have to rely almost entirely on fossil fuels, especially coal, to meet electricity demands for base-load electricity production. There is as much electricity generated by nuclear power today as from all sources worldwide in 1960. Several environmental issues need to be considered when comparing fossil fuels with nuclear power.  


Greenhouse Gases  

On a global scale nuclear power currently reduces carbon dioxide emissions by some 2.3 billion tonnes per year (relative to the main alternative of coal-fired generation, - natural gas would directly produce about half as much). Carbon dioxide currently accounts for half of the human-contributed portion of the global warming effect of the atmosphere.  


The UN Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change has comprehensively reviewed global warming and has reached a consensus that the phenomenon is real and does pose a significant environmental threat during the next century if fossil fuel use continues even at present global levels.  


According to the Panel, to stabilise the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at present levels, a 50-80 per cent reduction in all emissions would be required. Nuclear power has a role to play in reducing greenhouse gases.  

Every 25 tones of uranium (30 t U3O8) used saves one million tones of carbon dioxide relative to coal.  


Use of Natural Resources  

Coal and other fossil fuels are required in a much larger quantities than uranium to produce the equivalent amount of electricity. Nuclear power already has substantially reduced the use of fossil fuels. There are particular questions of ethics and opportunity cost in the use of gas to generate base-load power. 

Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 11  

November 1999 

Source: Uranium Information Centre 

© 2000 Mena Report (

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