'The magic playing-field of nuclear energy'

A debunking brought to you by the Debunking-silly-things-people-say-about-energy site.

Executive summary

The Guardian said (I paraphrase) "Building reactors at a rate of 50 GW per year, worldwide, is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible. The highest historic rate of build is 3.4 GW a year."

This last statement was untrue. 3.4 GW per year was the highest rate of build in France. The highest historic rate of build worldwide was 30 GW per year.

The full story

The 'magic playing field' is a trick used by spin-doctors who want to compare two things and make one sound bigger or smaller than it really is. The key to a magic-playing-field argument is to switch the standards of comparison half-way through the discussion.

Let's start with the quote from the Guardian's article 'Nuclear expansion is a pipe dream, says report', summarising a report from the Oxford Research Group, whose aim is to knock nuclear power:

For nuclear power to make any significant contribution to a reduction in global carbon emissions in the next two generations, the paper says, the industry would have to construct nearly 3,000 new reactors - or about one a week for 60 years. "A civil nuclear construction and supply programme on this scale is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible. The highest historic rate [of build] is 3.4 new reactors a year," says the report.

3,000 sounds much bigger than 3.4, doesn't it! But this is a doubly-magic playing field, involving a switch not only of timescale but also of region. The timescale issue is not a big deal; but the issue of the region is. While the first figure (3,000 new reactors over 60 years) is the number required for the whole planet, the second figure (3.4 new reactors per year) is the maximum rate of building by a single country (France)!

The Guardian's reporter and the report's original authors should share the blame for this misleading comparison.[1]

What should they have said?

A more honest presentation would have kept the comparison on a per-planet basis. France has 59 of the world's 429 operating nuclear reactors, so it's plausible that the highest rate of reactor-building for the whole planet was something like ten times France's, that is, roughly 34 new reactors per year. And the required rate (3000 new reactors over 60 years) is 50 new reactors per year. So the assertion that `civil nuclear construction on this scale is a pipe dream , and completely unfeasible' is poppycock. Yes, it's a big construction rate, but it's in the same ballpark as historical construction rates. I'd put it this way: 'the world-wide rate of building of nuclear reactors would have to be about 50 reactors per year, which is nearly twice the fastest rate at which the world has built nuclear reactors in the past (30 per year)'.

But that wouldn't be such a sensational statement, would it?

World Nuclear Power
Figure 1.

Graph of the total nuclear power in the world that was built since 1967 and that is still operational today. The world construction rate peaked at 30 GW of nuclear power per year in 1984.

Are you not happy with my bold assertion that the world's maximum historical construction rate must have been about 34 new nuclear reactors per year? No problem. Let's look at the data.[2]

Figure 1 shows the power of the world's nuclear fleet as a function of time, showing only the power stations still operational in 2007 (and thus focussing on the rate of building of power stations that had a long life, and ignoring any that got shut down or blew up in the interim). The rate of new build was biggest in 1984, and had a value of (drum-roll please...) about 30 GW per year (as shown by the blue line). So the rough guess was roughly right!


Thanks to Stephen Stretton and Adam Kalinowski for drawing my attention to the Guardian article and the original Oxford Research Group article.


[0] The two sources are:

Why do I say 'the reporter and the original authors should share the blame'?

Here is a quote from the report's own summary page: `It is probable that by 2075 the world population will reach about 10 billion people. Assuming that countries generate one kilowatt of electricity per capita (probably an underestimation), and that they generate a third of their electricity by nuclear power (twice today's world share) to mitigate CO2 emissions, the world would need to generate 3 TW of electricity by nuclear power-reactors, or 3000 reactors (assuming average capacity of 1 GW) - that's over four new builds a month from now on, compared to 3.4 per year which is the highest historic rate (France, 1977 to 1993).'

The original authors committed the magic-playing-field crime by encouraging the reader to compare `four new builds a month' (the whole-planet figure) with `3.4 per year' (the France-only figure).

The reporter compounded the crime by (a) slavishly copying out whatever the boffins said, (b) failing to blow the whistle on this bogus comparison, and (c) cutting all mention of `France' from the quote, so that there is no chance of the reader's detecting the bogosity.

As figure 1 shows, the highest historic rate was not 3.4 per year, it was 30 per year, which means over two new builds a month.

[2] Data for figure 1 are from IAEA

David MacKay - Professor, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge
Last modified: Thu Jul 5 00:59:13 2007