dard of living, using 125 kWh per day derived from fossil sources, from
nuclear power, or from mined geothermal power. The area of the earth
per person would be 51 000 m2. Dividing the power per person by the area
per person, we find that the extra power contributed by human energy use
would be 0.1 W/m2. That’s one fortieth of the 4 W/m2 that we’re currently
fretting about, and a little smaller than the 0.25 W/m2 effect of solar vari-
ations. So yes, under these assumptions, human power production would
just show up as a contributor to global climate change.

I heard that nuclear power can’t be built at a sufficient rate to
make a useful contribution.

The difficulty of building nuclear power fast has been exaggerated with
the help of a misleading presentation technique I call “the magic playing
field.” In this technique, two things appear to be compared, but the basis of
the comparison is switched halfway through. The Guardian’s environment
editor, summarizing a report from the Oxford Research Group, wrote “For
nuclear power to make any significant contribution to a reduction in global
carbon emissions in the next two generations, the industry would have to
construct nearly 3000 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 is 3.4 new
reactors a year.” 3000 sounds much bigger than 3.4, doesn’t it! In this
application of the “magic playing field” technique, there is a switch not
only of timescale but also of region. While the first figure (3000 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

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, 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

How reasonable is my assertion that the world’s maximum historical
construction rate must have been about 34 new nuclear reactors per year?
Let’s look at the data. Figure 24.14 shows the power of the world’s nuclear
fleet as a function of time, showing only the power stations still operational
in 2007. The rate of new build was biggest in 1984, and had a value of
(drum-roll please...) about 30 GW per year – about 30 1-GW reactors. So

Figure 24.14. 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.