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Fission back in fashion

Worries about climate change and energy security are leading a revival for nuclear energy. But is it the panacea governments are seeking? Derek Brower reports

ASK A native of Kiev about his country's plans to raise the use of nuclear power and the response might seem, to Western ears at least, surprisingly blasé. If it helps Ukraine develop energy independence from Russia, is the subtext, it is a good thing.

That is a result of the way the wind was blowing on 26 April 1986. When an accident at reactor four of the Chernobyl power plant triggered a nuclear meltdown, Kiev was saved by a northerly wind that blew the plume of radioactive fallout from the plant up, up and away.

Ask a Belarusian the same question and the answer might be different. Minsk has announced plans to build, by 2014, its first nuclear power plant, a 1 gigawatt (GW) facility with two reactors. The proposal is unpopular. According to Soviet data, some 60% of the Chernobyl fallout dumped on Belarus.

Ukraine plans to build 11 new reactors by 2030. It already has 15 operating at four different plants in the country. Capacity in 2005 was 13.168 GW – 26.3% of the country's total installed power generating capacity, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry body.

Kiev wants to build more reactors to consolidate the country's energy independence. Its own hydrocarbons shortcomings mean that to rely on oil and gas is also to rely on imports from its neighbours, such as Russia. And, after the so-called gas war of 2006 between Russia and Ukraine, Kiev's ambition to meet as much of its own electricity needs as possible has become more pressing.

That same motivation dominates much of the thinking of other countries around the world where energy security is on the agenda. From Europe to the US, major energy consumers are looking to nuclear power as an answer to the paranoia about who supplies their hydrocarbons, and what might happen if they decide to turn off the taps.

The argument for

Add to that the growing awareness of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and their link to climate change and the argument for nuclear power becomes even more compelling. Supporters say that because the reactors emit next to no GHGs (see Table 1), nuclear is an established and realistic way to fight global warming.

There is another factor driving nuclear's resurgence: the ambition of oil and gas exporting countries to increase their domestic nuclear capacity so that they can export more of their natural resources and receive hard currency in exchange. Russia, Canada and several Middle Eastern states want either to ramp up existing capacity or to go nuclear for the first time.

So what can stand in the way of nuclear? Public opinion, for one. Try as the nuclear industry has, spending millions of dollars on sophisticated public-relations campaigns, it is yet to shake off the spectre of its two biggest disasters: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the US.

Industry groups say that is a result of ignorance – or scaremongering from journalists who write about Chernobyl when they write about nuclear, as this article does. Western nuclear executives blame Chernobyl on cowboy Soviets. And, anyway, the new reactors are two or three generations removed from the Soviet kind that went bust in Ukraine, they point out.

Nonetheless, people do not want nuclear reactors in their back yard. They might be happy enough to have electricity to switch on the toaster, but they do not like a smoke stack (actually a steam stack) the size of a small mountain peering over their hedges. And they do not want their children exposed to the array of dodgy gasses that opponents of nuclear say the typical plant spews out. Furthermore, who wants to live next door to a 500-acre terrorist target, ask the worst of the scaremongers among nuclear's die-hard opponents.

But perhaps such nimbyism is an illusion. Claude Mandil, executive director of the International Energy Agency, points out that in France, where nuclear supplies some 75% of the country's electricity, opposition to new nuclear reactors is especially fierce in the areas where they will be built. Until, that is, they come on line and the locals see that the fish still look normal and there are new jobs available. Strange as it seems, in the end, the nuclear plants are popular, says Mandil.

There are other problems with nuclear. The biggest is what happens to the waste. Another is what happens to the plants when they reach the end of their life span. Decommissioning of all energy infrastructure is a tricky task, But with nuclear, it is difficult, expensive and potentially dangerous.

And is nuclear power really all that clean? According to Helen Caldicott, an anti-nuclear campaigner (see p48), when the entire nuclear development chain – including mining the uranium, building the plants, and decommissioning them – is accounted for, the GHG advantage of nuclear is negligible. When you add in the other gases nuclear plants routinely let out, she claims, the plants become very costly to the environment.

An economic problem

The other main problem is an economic one. The history of the nuclear business is not the history of a business in any true sense of the term, say critics. Nuclear's market share has never been the result of market stimuli. Instead, it is the outcome of heavy subsidies from taxpayers (and electricity consumers). Wall Street has never backed nuclear in the way it has endorsed other forms of energy. The large sums needed to finance an increase in nuclear capacity have been, and will remain, the responsibility of governments keen to subsidise the industry.

The challenge

  • Kyoto protocol commitment to reduce CO2 emissions between 2008 and 2012 by 21% compared with 1990 levels.
  • The government has set a more difficult target of a 40% reduction compared with 1990 by 2020 (rising to 80% by 2050).
  • The phase-out plans of 2000 give the country's plants a life-span of 32 years – below the standard 40 years expected of pressurised-water and boiling-water reactors; and well below the 60 years additional upgrades and capital expenditure could allow.
  • Phase-out has brought the closure of three plants and output restrictions for the remaining 17 that will close by 2020.
  • Nuclear generation since 2000 has almost halved to 150 TWh/y.
  • By 2020, nuclear phase-out, closure of fossil-fuel plants and organic growth in demand could require up to 56.4 GW of new generating capacity.
  • Forecast new capacity by 2020: gas, 27.6 GW; coal, 10.6 GW; renewables, 4.2 GW; total, 42.4 GW.
  • Estimated 16% growth in CO2 emissions from power generation, assuming nuclear phase-out: 250m tonnes in 2010 to 296m tonnes in 2020.
  • Forecast rise in gas demand as a result of phase-out: 996 TWh (140 TWh for power generation) in 2005 to 1,496 TWh in 2020 (503 TWh for power generation). Deutsche Bank estimates that Russian gas could account for up to 750 TWh of that demand in 2020, compared with 350 TWh now.
Nuclear debate rumbles on

IN GERMANY, the debate about nuclear power rumbles on. In 2000, the previous Social Democrat government of Gerhard Schröder committed the country to phase out its 17 nuclear plants by 2022.

In the run-up to the most recent election, in 2005, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats promised to scrap the phase-out, saying a precipitous end to Germany's nuclear sector would leave the country unable to meet its climate change commitments and too reliant on imported energy. Although Merkel is now Germany's leader, her government is a coalition and the phase-out remains policy.

That is because of the power of the country's environmental movement, which, as anyone who has flown over thousands of wind turbines in northern Germany can report, has had great success in pushing the country in the direction of renewable energy. But given the forecast for rising electricity demand, many argue that phasing out nuclear could hamper the country's attempts to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels.

The only option

A recent report on the German energy sector by Deutsche Bank claims: "The only way for Germany to achieve its policy objections on carbon emissions and security of supply is to extend the lifetime of its nuclear plants and subsidise [clean coal and sequestration] plants with windfall taxes on these extensions." The report claims Germany's energy policy contains "unsustainable contradictions".

Phasing out existing nuclear plants, says Deutsche Bank, would remove some 20 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. In turn, that would double the amount of new capacity that will probably be needed by 2020. Most of this new capacity (some 28 GW out of 42 GW), says the bank, would have to be gas-fired – a disaster for the country's climate-change goals. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2020 from power generation would be around 300m tonnes – or roughly equivalent to the emissions of 2005. And GHG emissions in 2020 would be 16% higher than in 2010.

Imports into overdrive

Additionally, Germany's dependence on foreign energy imports – already high – would go into overdrive if the phase-out goes ahead. The report says gas demand for power generation would increase by 260% from 2005 to 2020 – with generation rising from 140 terawatt hours (TWh) to 503 TWh – "dramatically increasing Germany's dependence on foreign energy supplies".

Conspiracy theorists point out that Schröder, the country's leader when the phase-out was signed, now works for Gazprom, the company that will benefit most from Germany's ever-rising dependence on Russian gas.

Meanwhile, scrapping the phase-out could also be a way to finance alternative energy. Deutsche Bank says extending the lifetime of the plants would raise some €0.8bn a year (rising to €2.2bn a year) for the government to invest in clean-coal and other technologies.

Nuclear Europe: who is doing what?

Baltic states – In December, Lithuania confirms construction of new plant, near Ignalina, to supply its itself and its Baltic neighbours – Latvia and Estonia. It is due on line in 2013.
Belgium – Final conclusions on study into the long-term energy needs of the country are due in April 2007. Could recommend a reconsideration of the nuclear phase-out programme.
Bulgaria – In November, Russia's Atomstroyexport won a €3.99bn contract to build a 2 GW plant at Belene. In December units 3 and 4 of the Kozloduy plant are closed down. Units 1 and 2 have also been closed; units 5 and 6 are safer and remain open.
Czech Republic – Considering building more nuclear plants.
Finland – Framatome ANP and Siemens are building a new plant for state-owned TVO; due on line in 2009.
France – New reactor due on line near Flamanville, Normandy in 2012. In 2005, inter-governmental partners selected Cadarache, in the south of France, for the site of an Iter nuclear-fusion reactor. Supporters claim fusion will create just a fraction of the nuclear waste created in fission
A new law on radioactive waste-management was passed last summer.
Germany – Still debating whether to abandon phase-out of nuclear plants agreed under previous government.
Hungary – In 2005, the government extended the lifetime of country's only nuclear power plant, Paksi Atomeromu, by 20 years.
Italy – A national referendum in 1987 backed nuclear phase-out. In 2005, state-owned Enel joined nuclear projects abroad.
Poland – In 2005, the government endorsed a white paper that proposes building new plant by 2021.
Romania – The Cernavoda unit 2 is due on line in 2007, with unit 3 to follow in 2011.
Slovakia – Bohunice unit 1 was shut down in December. The government wants to finish third and fourth reactors at Mochovce to replace the lost capacity.
Slovenia – The government is considering extending the lifetime of Krsko plant, due to be shut down by 2023.
Spain – In May, the government reaffirmed its commitment to phase out nuclear power. As yet there is no firm schedule.
Sweden – A 1980 referendum backed the phase-out of all nuclear capacity. In May 2005, the Barseback unit 2 closed down. In October 2005, the government approved upgrades for units 1 and 2 of the Ringhals plant. Last year, the government unveils plans to make the country "carbon-free" by 2020.
Switzerland – Several companies are involved in discussions about plans to build a new plant next to existing Beznau facility, to be on line by 2025.
The Netherlands – Last year, the government extended, by 20 years, the lifetime of country's only plant, at Borssele, to 2033. In September, the environment minister announced plans to encourage firms to build new plants; government says it will decide on a waste-management policy before any new plants become operational in 2016.
Turkey – In March 2006, the energy ministry said building up to five new plants was the "utmost priority"; the first is due on line in 2012.
United Kingdom – In July, a government energy review signalled the building of new generation of nuclear plants (see box p16).

 

 

 

 


 

 

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