Monday, March 20, 2006

Nuclear confusion: help or hindrance?

Ethical Corporation: Columnists - Climate change - Nuclear confusion: help or hindrance?

In this second article on climate change, Janus pleads for an open and fact-based debate on whether or not nuclear power has a future role to play
“Desperate times call for desperate measures”, an old saying goes. The world needs more energy for development – the International Energy Agency sees demand rising by 52% between now and 2030. But if governments want to combat climate change, fossil fuel use – which provides by far the largest (and rising) share of primary energy – will have to be reduced. So what, if any, is nuclear’s role, and how should it be assessed?After decades without new build in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development area, it is no secret that nuclear power is back on the agenda. The main drivers are rising concern about climate change, oil and gas prices, and energy security. But already the debate has become stereotyped. Depending on whom you listen to, we should either be building many more reactors, or phasing them out over the next decades.Here is a set of questions that the nuclear industry should answer if it is to make a convincing case.

Uranium?Uranium, like oil, is a non-renewable resource. By some accounts, there are less than 50 years of relatively cheap uranium left at current rates of use. One German institute puts the figure as low as 20 years. Uranium prices have risen sharply in the past years. The World Nuclear Association expects that demand will exceed supply in the period to 2015, meaning further price rises. If nuclear power is scaled up, energy planning will need to be explicit about fuel prices and reserves. Reprocessing, and other fuels such as thorium, offer possibilities. However, as the experience with nuclear fusion research has shown – where billions have been invested over decades without lighting a single bulb – caution is needed.Time?Being the most complex piece of energy kit yet invented, construction of a nuclear power station takes time. Finland’s decision to proceed with a fifth nuclear plant is illustrative. First proposed in 2000, the 1600 MW Olkiluoto plant was approved in 2002. Construction started in early 2005 and it is expected to go into commercial operation in 2009, with a 50 to 60 year lifetime. In other words, it can be nearly a decade before nuclear power is displacing coal. Is this fast enough to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, and still meet energy needs? And that is not taking into account the fact that most existing reactors are 25 to 40 years old and will need to be shut down and decommissioned in the coming decades. Money?In the 1950s and 1960s, the full economic costs of nuclear power were largely hidden, being partly covered by defence budgets and other government investment. With decommissioning, insurance underwriting, waste storage and disposal, spent fuel shipment and the like, nuclear’s costs have never been fully built into energy costs. With reactors costing several billions of dollars apiece, the opportunity/cost arguments become vital. Given that much of the capital investment will be public money or guaranteed – private investors will not step up without some form of subsidies – is it too much to ask what other energy services a fully-costed nuclear reactor would buy? What, for example, could energy efficiency or renewables deliver for the same money? The work in this area of energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins deserves a close review. Security?Ever since the September 11 attacks on the US, the potential risk of nuclear power plants has had to be reassessed. Apart from releases of radioactive materials as a result of a terrorist attack, the nuclear cycle offers the determined and disaffected various options, including “dirty” bombs and potentially even a nuclear weapon. While International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards have done basically a good job in tracking nuclear use, the current confrontation with Iran highlights the dilemmas. If it were decided to expand nuclear power, a serious strengthening of the international safeguards regime – from mine to long-term disposal – would seem to be essential. Public support?It is a long time since large-scale public demonstrations against nuclear power. But it has been a long time since there was a proposal to build new nuclear capacity in the OECD region, Finland aside. While the public appears to let by-gones be by-gones as far as existing reactors are concerned, no one really knows what the response will be to a proposal to build new plants.CO2 budget?Nuclear is being sold as part of the answer to climate change. However the mining, processing and enrichment of uranium require fossil fuels. Nuclear reactors and long-term containment sites need huge quantities of steel and concrete, production of which is also greenhouse gas intensive. If the “nuclear is good for the climate” argument is to be convincing, a sound greenhouse gas life-cycle analysis will be needed to show how nuclear stacks up against other energy sources and systems. Nuclear has a carbon footprint: let’s see it and let’s see how the carbon cost avoided stacks up against the other options.Technology?Ever since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear industry has pinned its hopes on “inherently safe” next generation reactors. The problem is that there is limited experience of these. China has built a 10 MW high-temperature gas-cooled pebble bed reactor (HTR-10), which is claimed to be “passively safe”. It is reported to have plans to put a full-scale 200 MW version on line this decade, at an estimated cost of US$300 million. China’s nuclear industry has not disguised its hope to sell the 200 MW reactors throughout China, and to world markets. If the technology proves cost-effective and safe, low-cost competition from China seems likely to add a new element to the economics of the debate. For the time being, nuclear power is a part of the energy mix. If nuclear is genuinely a contribution to efforts to deal with climate change, as ecologists like James Lovelock contend, it should be considered. The case, however, is yet to be made and the unseemly rush in this direction at present brings to mind the old adage that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”


Blogger Joffan said...

Yet another anti-nuclear piece posing as an "open discussion".

Thanks for crossposting here on News Nuclear where discussion is actually possible, rather than the original subscriber location.

So, a lot of anti-nuke points to answer as usual, quantity trying to drown out quality. "Desparate measures" - there's an nice sloping playing field to start off with. Here goes:

Uranium. Uranium stocks and discoveries are currently low for a couple of reasons; the lull in bulding new nuclear facilities, and the use of nuclear weapons material for power production (which hopefully everyone can agree is a great piece of news). this has kept U prices low, discouraging new developments. Now that the price is going up, activity in this area is huge and new uranium locations will be developed quickly. The most pessimistic asuption is that there will be 200 years supply for a much-increased nuclear sector on once-through fuel use. Reprocessing is getting started properly now and will easily increase this by a factor of ten. Another doubling of uranium price - which still has little impact on nuclear electricity price, maybe +0.5c/kWh - would sart to make seawater extraction look econmic, which gives another 5000 years or so of supply on once-through.

Time. Only fossil fuel capacity can currently be built more quickly than nuclear. Actual construction time for nuclear is around 4-5 years. Low-intensity sources like wind and solar require more space, equipment and permitting.

Money. Nuclear costs less than other non-fossil sources for delivered electricity. It is an amazing piece of chutzpah to suggest that nuclear does not account for all costs in its prices; this is simply not true. Fossil fuels are wildly guilty in this respect. Efficiency gains should be pushed for in parallel, but are not enough on their own - Lovins is OK on this topic but clueless on nuclear.

Security. Terrorism has been around a lot longer than 6 years. Nuclear power plants are well-defended, phtysical tough facilities and the most radioactive materials are "self-defending". Acting against such a facility is a lot more difficult than other "softer" targets. Iran is an example of hard the process of developing these materials really is.

Public support. Now pretty well in favour of expansion of nuclear power, according to current polls, but even if it wasn't, isn't this a circular argument in a discussion that should be informing public opinion?

CO2 budget. Plenty of very reliable work (eg Vatenfall) has been done that indicates that nuclear and wind are the two lowest energy-input technologies, with no really intrinsic CO2 emissions. Obviously wind takes a lot more of that steel and concrete though.

Technology. Chernobyl was an example of the wrong technology; an adapted weapons-production design that had none of the redundancy and defence layers used in the West. Three-Mile Island was the western equivalent, which failed due to over-safing and still harmed no-one. Meanwhile reactors since have operately safely for a great many accumulated years of production. So I'd disagree that we have no experience of safe technologies, and most of the proposed builds over the next ten years are natural developments of existing reactors, using the enormous leaps in computing power to allow reactor designs that can rely on physics rather than engineering for safety - natural convection in carefully-designed vessels, gravity, pressure, etc.

Finally, Lovelock does not argue that nuclear power should merely be "considered". It must be acted upon quickly - and thankfully at last it is gathering pace.

4:50 PM  

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