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The Place of Nuclear Power in an Energy Portfolio
Ian Fells
“Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they the shadows ofthings that May be only?”Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol In the heady days of the 1960s the residents of Seaton Carew in CountyDurham, UK demanded to know why they were to have a new coal-firedpower station built close to their small town; “Why can’t we have one of thenew, clean nuclear stations?”. Confidence in technology was high, theAmericans were on their way to putting a man on the moon, the wishes of theresidents of Seaton Carew were granted and an Advanced Gas CooledNuclear reactor was built on the site and is performing well to this day. Buttimes changed and “events” intervened to undermine confidence in newtechnology and particularly nuclear power. Accidents at Windscale, Threemile Island, Chernobyl and, more recently, Tokaimura were highlighted in themedia. All these accidents, incidentally, were the result of operator error withthe exception of Windscale which was due to inadequate instrumentation.
Environmental pressure groups made emotional appeals to close down allnuclear stations, stop reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and leave it aboveground in dry stores in, presumably, politically stable countries(sic), untilsomething could, eventually, be done about it. Politicians, realising that therewere only negative votes in nuclear power, either espoused the anti- nuclearcause or kept quiet about it. The nuclear industry, not noted for an articulate,pro-active stance, also kept quiet. But nuclear generating capacity continuedto be built through the 70s, 80s and 90s, until today it provides 16 per cent ofworld electricity. During 2000 six new nuclear plants were connected tonational grids, one in Brazil, one in the Czech Republic, three in India and onein Pakistan. Generating costs are higher than for coal and gas, but not muchhigher. Security of supply is good and, a further bonus, nuclear power putsalmost no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere(1kWh of nuclear electricity puts5g of CO2 into the atmosphere, about the same as wind power; 1kWh of coal-fired electricity emits 1000g of CO2).
World wide, nuclear power has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by around 8 per cent, about the same as hydropower. This environmentally friendlyaspect of nuclear power has dumb founded the “green” anti-nuclear lobby,who find themselves unable to come to terms with the environmentalarithmetic. Not so the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its1999 report, where the call to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the UK by60 per cent by a 2050 was made. This was necessary to limit theconcentration of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere to 550 parts permillion, twice the pre- industrial figure. Nuclear power was expected to play alarge part in two of the four scenarios presented. The report assumes noincrease in energy demand over the 50 years in one scenario, a reduction of36% in two others and a 47% reduction in the final scenario. This contrastsstarkly with the doubling of energy demand anticipated in the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report on Nuclear Energy published inthe same year. The UK government is signed up to reducing carbon dioxideemissions by 20 per cent of 1990 values in 2010. Until recently it seemed ontrack to achieve this but recently carbon dioxide emissions have started to riseagain, the result of higher gas prices causing more coal burn. Increasedoutage of ageing nuclear stations and the inexorable rise in the number ofcars on the roads, have added to the problem. If the closure anddecommissioning of all but two of the UK Magnox stations goes according toplan and they are replaced by gas-fired stations, carbon dioxide emissions willrise by 15 million tonnes. This is just about the savings anticipated from theclimate change energy tax and associated measures introduced by thegovernment. As the Red Queen remarked to Alice in “Through the LookingGlass”, when they had been running very fast “Here, you see, it takes all therunning you can do to stay in the same place, if you want to get somewhereelse you have to run at least twice as fast as that”. The carbon dioxidereduction of 20% is beginning to look fragile despite the rhetoric ofgovernment ministers.
Energy is the lifeblood of civilisation; without it society soon spirals down into anarchy. This is particularly true of the information technology-dependentdeveloped countries of the West and Asia. A crash of the computer systemsin the stock exchanges of the world, or at a major airport, or in the bankingsystem shows just how vulnerable we all are. A power failure in theunderground in London or New York at rush hour swiftly becomes intolerable.
A foretaste of these dangers has arisen in California and Brazil, causingPresident Bush, in the US, to introduce a National Energy Plan. The Bush-Cheney plan strongly endorses nuclear power as part of a balancedgeneration portfolio. The thrust of the plan is to ensure “security of supply”rather than “protection of the environment”. The European Union has recentlypublished a Green Paper on security of energy supply with a plea that thenuclear option is not ignored. Nuclear power has also surfaced, albeit hedgedaround with caveats, in the UK. Prime Minister Blair announced, on the 25thof June, the setting up of an energy strategy review. “The aim of the reviewwill be to set out the objectives of energy policy and to develop a strategy thatensures current policy commitments are consistent with longer term goals”.
The scoping note, which accompanies the announcement, emphasisessecurity of supply and also, amongst other things, reduction in carbon dioxideemissions with a recognition of the important role nuclear power plays inreducing UK figures. The very mention of nuclear power is a political turnaround for the Labour Party in the UK and a recognition, at last, of the realityof nuclear power’s role.
The two-pronged approach in the in the UK strategy study suggests apossible future role for nuclear power in reducing dependence on importedgas from Russia and the Middle East (as much as 80% of UK electricity couldbe generated using imported gas by 2040 if coal and nuclear stations areclosed) and keeping carbon dioxide emissions low. If this strategy is found tohave merit we could see a resurgence of nuclear power in the UK. Similarrealisations may develop in Germany, Sweden and other nuclear aversecountries. The US is driven by the awful prospect of lights going out elsewhere than in California; as for natural gas, supplies are running out asprices quadruple although demand is predicted to rise by 50% by 2020 and, intwenty years time, the US will be importing two out of every three barrels ofoil. So it’s coal and nuclear power to fuel the future, or is it? Renewable energy technology is still in its infancy, other than hydropower,
that is. A huge increase in renewable energy is strongly advocated by some
environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth who call for a doubling of
the 10% renewable electricity target for 2010 in the UK, for example. But
energy arithmetic reveals the difficulty , if not impossibility, of such proposals.
If all the wind farms currently operating in the world were all concentrated,
say, on the South Downs in the UK, they would only supply 10% of United
Kingdom electricity
. Or, to replace the two nuclear power stations that
supply 50% of Scotland’s electricity would require 10,000 of the newly
installed wave power generator on the island of Islay. The World Energy
Council’s most optimistic scenario for renewable energy suggests it could
provide just 20% of world energy by 2050.
By far the biggest renewable source, other than firewood, which is nowrunning out in Asia and Africa, is hydroelectric power, which provides around19% of world electricity, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by about 8%.
Expansion of this resource is possible, although environmental groups havepronounced large scale hydro as unsustainable. They object particularly to the18,000MW Three Gorges Dam now being built in China. There is an air ofunreality about some environmental groups’ plans for the future. How canrenewable energy replace nuclear power and dwindling fossil fuel resourcesand, at the same time, provide double the current energy demand in 2050? But if there is to be a resurgence in nuclear power, with life extension and newbuild and not just a “silly season” brief flowering of interest before the ideawithers on the vine, how will it be achieved? The industry has been developing a new generation of “inherently safe”designs, primarily light water reactors, building on the very successful currenttechnology. The Westinghouse AP600 (already licensed in the US) and thelarger AP1000 are ready to go; there is the EPR built by Siemens/Framatome,the ABB Boiling Water Reactor and a number of Japanese designs, some ofwhich will use mixed oxide fuel. Looking further ahead, the Pebble BedModular Reactor of Eskom/BNFL/Exelon and other high temperature reactorsusing helium as coolant will become available. In Russia there is the prospectof the BS800 Fast Reactor based on the long operating BS600.
It has to be appreciated by politicians eager for a “quick fix” that nuclearstations take, in general, 10 years to build and a medium length strategy hasto be adopted. The same is true of expansion of renewable power generation.
But that means starting new programmes in the next couple of years toachieve security of supply and carbon dioxide emission control post 2010.
As always, public perception of the acceptability of nuclear power, and , forthat matter, the real but limited role that renewable energy can play, must be appreciated. A universal carbon tax would make a profound difference hereand show real commitment to containing carbon dioxide emissions.
The Achilles heel of the nuclear industry is the problem of radioactive wastemanagement, widely perceived as being unsolved. Although the engineeringof both the reprocessing route and the dry store method is well understood,the identification of dry, geological structures, which can contain the waste, isstill not in place. In the US continuing arguments over the Yucca Mountain siteand in the UK the suggestion that there is no hurry and that waste can bestored safely for 50 years above ground whilst a suitable site is found, areunacceptable. Finland leads the way with the approval of the construction ofan underground rock facility at Olkiluoto and the near ordering of a newnuclear station.
The delicate, green shoots of “new build” will have to be carefully nurtured if
they are to grow into a healthy, second generation nuclear building
Ian Fells


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