Nuclear energy has been much maligned in the wake of recent events in Japan. But with the potential to produce large-scale, clean fuel, is it time to reassess its ability to feed a power-hungry world in desperate need of a viable alternative to fossil fuels? Zoe Crookes reports.
The Game Changer
Following Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March this year, Germany reversed its nuclear policy and is phasing out its nuclear power plants by 2022. In Italy, over 94 per cent of the country’s voters opposed Berlusconi’s plans to restart a nuclear programme abandoned in the 1980s. Yet many, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, still believe nuclear could be the answer.
The question is: who is right? The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high last year, further diminishing prospects for limiting global warming to just 2C, as agreed by world leaders at UN climate change talks held in Cancún, Mexico, last year.
‘The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emission that should not have been reached until 2020 if the 2C target is to be attained,’ said IEA chief economist Fatih Birol. According to scientists, breaching this threshold sharply increases the risk of severe climate impacts, including flooding, storms, rising sea levels and species extinction. Christiania Figueres, head of the UN’s Climate Change Secretariat, called the figures a ‘stark warning to governments to make rapid climate progress’.
Nuclear power is regarded as one of the cleanest and most reliable energy technologies and could enable much needed rapid climate progress. In a 2009 report, the Nuclear Energy Institute stated: ‘In 2008, US nuclear plants prevented the emissions of almost 689 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is nearly as much carbon dioxide as is released from all US passenger cars.’
The swift rise of nuclear power in the decades following World War II seemed to indicate as much, but the nuclear trend now shows little of its former momentum. Following the serious incidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, major international misgivings have resulted in reactor numbers levelling off and, in some countries, even falling. Fukushima has only compounded the situation, though a handful of countries are bucking the trend, including China, India and South Korea.
Nuclear Power Leader
France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity from nuclear sources, with 58 nuclear reactors (from a total of 143 in the whole EU) which supply 74 per cent of its electricity. Despite growing worldwide concern about the safety of nuclear plants, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the moratorium on new nuclear reactors adopted by certain countries since the Japanese nuclear crisis in March ‘makes no sense’, adding, ‘There is no alternative to nuclear energy today’. He has backed up this statement by pledging
€1 billion (£622m) of investment in nuclear power.
In the UK, support has returned. For a few years in the 1960s, the UK was the world leader in nuclear power and operated as many reactors as the whole world put together. This number fell from its height of 38 in 1985 to the 19 reactors remaining today, generating about 18 per cent of the UK’s electricity. All but one of these reactors will be retired by 2023 to be replaced by eight new generation nuclear power plants by 2025.
The US has also announced plans to move forward with the development of nuclear power plants. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has provided preliminary approval for the planned expansion of the Vogtle power plant in Georgia, which would allow the first construction of a new nuclear power plant in the US since Three Mile Island. The project received support from President Barack Obama who has pledged an $8.3 billion (£5.1 billion) federal loan guarantee.
Nuclear inextricably forms part of the equation to enable us to meet the 2020 target of no more than 32 gigatonnes of annual energy-related emissions and avoid the 2C rise in temperatures. Phasing out reactors, as Germany is doing, is going to leave a gaping hole that will need to be filled by other sources of clean energy. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel correctly pointed out: ‘If you want to exit something, you also have to prove how the change will work and how we can enter into a durable and sustainable energy provision.’
Switzerland, like Germany, has also recently announced that it will phase out nuclear power and not replace the country’s five ageing plants after they reach the end of their lifetimes between 2019 and 2034. Switzerland currently produces about 40 per cent of its energy from nuclear power.
Before the Fukushima incident, many developing countries were talking about entering the nuclear field for the first time to meet their energy targets. There is some doubt they now will. In South Africa, already the operator of two nuclear reactors, there is talk of increasing the current 4 per cent nuclear energy production to 23 per cent by 2030, but only after further consultation. At a recent dinner hosted at South Africa House, the message from South Africa’s Energy Minister was that nuclear energy should not be sidelined because of recent events – instead the word community needed to learn from the Three Mile, Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters and ensure the same mistakes did not happen again.
But can these mistakes be learnt from? While nuclear power plants offer a substantial source of clean power, there is no debate that there are a wide variety of dangers associated with their use. These dangers have created a general fear of nuclear power plants across much of the world, not least due to the association made between enriching uranium for power and doing it to make nuclear weapons.
The dangers of nuclear power are present from the initial mining operations to gathering the fissionable fuel, uranium. Like fossil fuel mining operations, the process is environmentally destructive and reserves of uranium are finite, meaning prices, like those of oil and natural gas, are highly volatile. Furthermore, safely disposing of the radioactive by-products is problematic.
One of the biggest expenses of the nuclear power industry could eventually be the storage of nuclear waste. Currently there are several temporary ways in which this after-product is kept, but a viable long-term solution has yet to be found. This is in large part due to the time period for storage: thousands of years.
Nuclear meltdowns generate the greatest concern and are caused by a problem in the reactor which causes the reactor core to malfunction. This usually occurs when the sealed nuclear fuel assemblies that house the radioactive materials begin to overheat and melt. If the meltdown becomes severe, the radioactive elements within the core can be released into the atmosphere. These radioactive materials are highly toxic, as demonstrated following the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.
Another obvious consideration is the threat of attempted sabotage. If a power plant were detonated, the radioactive output could impact on every living thing within a two to eight mile radius.
There are other arguments against nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants cost billions of dollars to design and build, not to mention the years it takes for a reactor to meet regulatory approval. In addition, construction delays constitute a major risk, as do cost overruns and the uncertainty of long-term future electricity prices. Risk will have to be mitigated to justify the relative moderate upside with large balance sheets and government guarantees.
As Bill Gates has said, we need an energy miracle, something of a great scale and reliability. Unfortunately, the range of renewable energy options currently available does not – as yet – provide either.
Innovation in the nuclear arena stopped a long time ago, not least because of the phase of doubt ushered in by past nuclear disasters and the low cost of fossil fuel over several decades. But with the desperate need for rapid climate progress, innovation is again on the rise and cutting-edge technology that had previously been cast aside is being picked up again.
Bill Gates is backing TerraPower, a company innovating around cleaner, safer reactors that use a small amount of enriched uranium to kick off a chain reaction that moves slowly through a core of depleted uranium (waste from today’s nuclear plants), converting that spent fuel into plutonium that then sustains the reaction. The technology is promising, but it’s going to take enormous funding – not to mention time – to research further, and the cost of the first reactor is expected to be in the billions.
We have no option but to keep researching until we solve this problem. In the words of Bill Gates: ‘If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years – I could pick who is president, I could pick a vaccine (which is something I love), or I could pick that this thing that’s half the cost [of coal-based electrical production], with no CO2, gets invented – this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact.’ We owe it to ourselves to make sure it becomes a reality.