by Judith Curry
THE LIGHTS ARE not going off all over Japan, but the nuclear power plants are. Of the 54 reactors in those plants, with a combined capacity of 47.5 gigawatts (GW, a thousand megawatts), only two are operating today. A good dozen are unlikely ever to reopen . . . (from the Economist)
The one year anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown has stimulated a number of analyses of the future of nuclear power.
The Economist has an post entitled The Dream That Failed, with subtitle “A year after Fukushima, the future for nuclear power is not bright – for reasons of cost as much as safety.” This is from a longer report with the same title.
Looking at nuclear power 26 years ago, this newspaper observed that the way forward for a somewhat moribund nuclear industry was “to get plenty of nuclear plants built, and then to accumulate, year after year, a record of no deaths, no serious accidents—and no dispute that the result is cheaper energy.” It was a fair assessment; but our conclusion that the industry was “safe as a chocolate factory” proved something of a hostage to fortune. Less than a month later one of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine ran out of control and exploded, killing the workers there at the time and some of those sent in to clean up afterwards, spreading contamination far and wide, leaving a swathe of countryside uninhabitable and tens of thousands banished from their homes. The harm done by radiation remains unknown to this day; the stress and anguish of the displaced has been plain to see.
Then, 25 years later, when enough time had passed for some to be talking of a “nuclear renaissance”, it happened again (see article). The bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists of what has been called Japan’s “nuclear village” were not unaccountable apparatchiks in a decaying authoritarian state like those that bore the guilt of Chernobyl; they had responsibilities to voters, to shareholders, to society. And still they allowed their enthusiasm for nuclear power to shelter weak regulation, safety systems that failed to work and a culpable ignorance of the tectonic risks the reactors faced, all the while blithely promulgating a myth of nuclear safety.
Not all democracies do things so poorly. But nuclear power is about to become less and less a creature of democracies. The biggest investment in it on the horizon is in China—not because China is taking a great bet on nuclear, but because even a modest level of interest in such a huge economy is big by the standards of almost everyone else. China’s regulatory system is likely to be overhauled in response to Fukushima. Some of its new plants are of the most modern, and purportedly safest, design. But safety requires more than good engineering. It takes independent regulation, and a meticulous, self-critical safety culture that endlessly searches for risks it might have missed. These are not things that China (or Russia, which also plans to build a fair few plants) has yet shown it can provide.
In any country independent regulation is harder when the industry being regulated exists largely by government fiat. Yet, as our special report this week explains, without governments private companies would simply not choose to build nuclear-power plants. This is in part because of the risks they face from local opposition and changes in government policy (seeing Germany’s nuclear-power stations, which the government had until then seen as safe, shut down after Fukushima sent a chilling message to the industry). But it is mostly because reactors are very expensive indeed. Lower capital costs once claimed for modern post-Chernobyl designs have not materialised. The few new reactors being built in Europe are far over their already big budgets. And in America, home to the world’s largest nuclear fleet, shale gas has slashed the costs of one of the alternatives; new nuclear plants are likely only in still-regulated electricity markets such as those of the south-east.
Brave New Climate
Brave New Climate takes issue with Economist article in a post entitled How realistic is The Economist’s cool view of nuclear power? Some excerpts:
An economic victory for nuclear will have to come (if it does come within the next 50 years) from an ever increasing focus on standardised designs and their accompanying construction and operating licences, modular components or fully modular units with integrated passive safety systems, some considerable learning experience from building multiple reactors of the same design, and cooperative government-commercial financing, among other factors. This is starting to become a reality in Asian countries like China and South Korea (based on AP1000, APR-1400 and related Generation III+ designs), although the end result remains far from clear. At present, in most countries, however, fossil fuels still rule.
In 2010 the world’s installed renewable electricity capacity outstripped its nuclear capacity for the first time. That does not mean that the world got as much energy from renewables as from nuclear; reactors run at up to 93% of their stated capacity whereas wind and solar tend to be closer to 20%. Renewables are intermittent and take up a lot of space: generating a gigawatt of electricity with wind takes hundreds of square kilometres, whereas a nuclear reactor with the same capacity will fit into a large industrial building. That may limit the contribution renewables can ultimately make to energy supply. Unsubsidised renewables can currently displace fossil fuels only in special circumstances. But nuclear energy, which has received large subsidies in the past, has not displaced much in the way of fossil fuels either. And nuclear is getting more expensive whereas renewables are getting cheaper.
In this statement, Morton correctly identifies some of the key limitations facing large-scale non-hydro renewables — intermittency and unsubsidised cost. But he wholly fails to explain what the implications of the variability problem is (the need for overbuild of generation capacity and expensive/unfeasible large-scale energy storage), nor whether, if an effort is made to deal practically with these problems in real national electricity grids, the ‘increasingly cheaper’ renewables will ever become cheap enough (when all relevant real-world factors are considered) and reliable enough (without natural gas ‘backup’), to actually substitute for and displace fossil fuels (or nuclear) at the scale required.
The Economist concludes with the following:
In the energy world, nuclear has found its place nourishing technophile establishments like the “nuclear village” of vendors, bureaucrats, regulators and utilities in Japan whose lack of transparency and accountability did much to pave the way for Fukushima and the distrust that has followed in its wake. These political settings govern and limit what nuclear power can achieve.
There is truth in this statement. But equally, there is much missing from it. Political and social settings of the future will be governed by a mix of energy-price, energy-security and climate-change-mitigation realities that MUST be faced. Fossil fuels have to be replaced. Energy costs from fossil fuels will rise as demand continues to increase, and supply — especially from conventional sources — declines and becomes increasingly regionally concentrated.
WSJ has two relevant articles:
Fukushima and the future of nuclear power, subtitle There’s no evidence that low doses of radiation are harmful and no reason to paralyze our economy out of fear of nuclear power.
So far there have been zero fatalities or adverse health effects from radiation exposure at Fukushima. All the damage has been from depression, despair and even suicide among the 100,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes within a 12-mile radius.
Some of these people are even being shunned in their new locales under the bizarre supposition that they constitute a radioactive danger. Yet as Ted Rockwell, one of the most notable veterans of the Manhattan Project, points out, people around the world live with radiation levels much higher than is present in the evacuation zone without showing any ill effects.
The etiology of radiation-related disease is well-known. Radiation can cause DNA damage but the body has repair mechanisms to deal with it. Last December scientists at Berkeley made microscopic videotapes of these cellular repair sites in action. “Our data show that at lower doses of ionizing radiation, DNA repair mechanisms work much better than at higher doses,” wrote Mina Bissell, a world-renowned breast cancer researcher who co-authored the report. “This non-linear DNA damage response casts doubt on the general assumption that any amount of ionizing radiation is harmful and additive.”
Other researchers speculate that low radiation doses may immunize the body against cancer and birth defects by stimulating these repair mechanisms into greater responsiveness, just as vaccines stimulate the immune system. That would explain the low cancer rates in Taiwan.
As long as government agencies around the world continue to operate under the premise that even the smallest exposures to ionizing radiation can be harmful, Germany and Japan will go on dismembering their economies while countries such as the U.S. attempt to straddle the widening gap between outlawed coal and a renewables future whose promise now appears greatly exaggerated.
Taking a clear-eyed look at the actual dangers of nuclear energy seems like a much more sensible course.
From the article Cheap natural gas unplugs U.S. nuclear power revival:
The U.S. nuclear industry seemed to be staging a comeback several years ago, with 15 power companies proposing as many as 29 new reactors. Today, only two projects are moving off the drawing board.
What killed the revival wasn’t last year’s nuclear accident in Japan, nor was it a soft economy that dented demand for electricity. Rather, a shale-gas boom flooded the U.S. market with cheap natural gas, offering utilities a cheaper, less risky alternative to nuclear technology.
“It’s killed off new coal and now it’s killing off new nuclear,” says David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc.
Power has an article on actions being undertaken by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement 7 safety regulations based upon lessons learned from Fukushima:
- The NRC require licensees to reevaluate and upgrade as necessary design-basis seismic and flooding protection of structure, systems and components for each reactor in operation
- The NRC require licencees to perform seismic and flood protection walkdowns to identify and address plant-specific vulnerabilities and adequacy of monitoring and maintenance for protection features.
- The NRC order licensees to provide reasonable protection of equipment fro effects of design-basis external events.
- The NRC strengthen station blackout mitigation capability at all operating and new reactors for design-basis and beyond-design-basis external events
- The NRC strengthen and integrate onsite emergence response capabilities such as emergency operating procedures and severe accident managemetn guidelines
- The NRC require facility emergency plans to address prolonged station blackout and multiunit events
Michael Lemonick has an article at Climate Central entitled No Nukes? Only if You Believe in Magic. Some excerpts:
Nuclear power involves big risks, as Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have all demonstrated. Anyone who touts it as yet another magic answer to climate change is kidding himself or herself. It’s not cheap and it’s not perfectly safe. But then, neither is coal, which has killed uncounted numbers of people through respiratory disease and mine disasters, and which hasravaged the environment in Appalachia. “Clean coal,” in which carbon has beenstripped from plant exhaust and pumped underground only solves part of that problem — and it, like many other magic solutions, is only in the earliest stages of development.
So while nukes have plenty of issues, it might be premature, albeit understandable, to rule them out as part of the climate solution. They have plenty of safety issues, and they’re hellishly expensive to build, but engineers are working on safer, cheaper nuclear plants.
I wish we didn’t have to think about nuclear power as a viable option for the future. Magic would be much nicer.
But I don’t believe in magic.