Bet 841

Duration 9 years (02020-02029)

“Nuclear energy will decline as a proportion of global electricity generation over the 2020s.” Detailed Terms »

James B Kell


will go to Beyond Zero Emissions if Holmes à Court wins,
or Australian Conservation Foundation if Kell wins.

Holmes à Court's Argument

According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, nuclear energy provided 10.4% of global electricity generation in 2019. In 2009 the proportion was 13.3% and in 1999 it was 16.9%, having peaked at 17.5% in 1996. At the start of the 2020s nuclear energy is struggling to compete against other energy sources, especially renewable energy. While approximately 50 nuclear power units are under construction in early 2020, these capacity additions will be partially offset by closures as much of the global fleet approaches end of design life. Any net capacity increase over the decade, if achieved, will be modest, growing at a slower pace than global electricity demand. The specific prediction is that the proportion of global electricity generation provided by nuclear in 2029 will be below the level achieved in 2019, using data from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy or equivalent.

Kell's Argument

I am not in any way connected with the nuclear industry but have been surprised at some of the facts found out about this source of energy. Here goes my argument. It is a bit of a meander but does [eventually] get to the point.

Here are my points:

1) Demand is increasing: The growth in electricity demand is the equivalent of adding China’s energy demand to the world’s electricity system every eight years (IEA 2020 Energy Technology Perspectives p. 129).

2) Demand growth is concentrated on the developing world; advanced economy demand is pretty flat. The developing economies are faced with the huge problem of how to make a lot more electricity (IEA 2019 Fig 13, extrapolate).

3) Renewables alone (outside of Australia's situation) are not enough. The expansion of clean electricity would need to be faster than at present. Net Zero by 2050 (NZE2050) would require 85% of global electricity to come from clean sources by 2040, compared with just 36% today (IEA Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System p. 3)

4) Land constraints may provide an issue vis a vis renewables in developing countries. In a temperate climate, solar farms need about 40-100x more land than a conventional (Gen 3) nuclear plant for the same output (IEA 2019 Nuclear p. 69). Generation 4 nuclear is an order of magnitude better for land efficiency.

5) Although Gen 4 nuclear always seems 'just around the corner' and you rightly pointed out to keep it in the future tense rather than the present, it is worth mentioning:

5a) Using molten salt rather than water means operating at atmospheric pressure, which is far safer than pressure water reactors (ie. current technology - which is arguably still safer per TWh generated than solar - IAEA Bulletin Vol 21, No.1). It also allows higher temperatures which mean greater efficiency.

5b) Thorium as a fuel means much less waste than Uranium-235, and that waste is dangerous for 300 years rather than 100,000+ years (an unconscionable timeframe). Thorium turns into U-233 which is much better for fission than mining U-238 and extracting a tiny amount of U-235 from that.

6) Thorcon is looking to build a ship-based thorium reactor for Indonesia. They are in a hurry as they want to offer a faster, cheaper and safer option than Indo's alternative: fossils. It is only a relative baby, 250MW, but it may prove modularity and speed. They believe they can do it for $1/watt capital cost. Furthermore, for future reactors Wright's law will kick in, lowering the cost by x% for every doubling of production.

7) The rich countries are shutting down nuclear reactors, but the developing world is building them. China currently has 11 new reactors under construction and more than 40 in the planning stages.

8) The IAEA has made an each-way bet on whether nuclear will be more or less than today's level in 2030 (IAEA 2020 Nuclear Tech Review p. 21, Fig. A7).

You may actually be right about the 2020s (given nuclear's timeframes), but if I lose this on timeframe I nevertheless stand by my prediction of a nuclear resurgence and plan to quote Yogi Berra, 'I never lost a game, I just ran out of time'.

For the sake of the planet, I hope next-gen nuclear - with waste and safety issues substantially improved - finds its place in our emissions-free energy mix. :)

Detailed Terms

According to BP's "2020 Statistical Review of World Energy", in 2019, nuclear energy provided 10.35% of the world's electricity. If the BP's "2030 Statistical Review of World Energy" reports a lower proportion for nuclear energy in 2029, the predictor wins. Long Now will decide on the closest equivalent source that tracks global electricity generated if BP is no longer publishing "Statistical Review of World Energy".