Top 10 myths about nuclear powerPublished Tuesday, 26th June 2012
Despite its 50-plus-year history, nuclear power still struggles to squirm free of its reputation of danger, expense and unsustainability, remaining as contentious a topic as ever.
However, as concern over climate change outstrips fears over nuclear safety, grudging support for nuclear power and its contribution to lower greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow.
So what are the top 10 myths holding back the development of nuclear power to date? Following are the leading objections:
- Nuclear reactors are unsafe, as exemplified by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters — A 2001 study by the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland revealed that nuclear had the best safety record of all energy sources, causing 31 deaths, compared with 4,000 deaths caused by hydropower. During the nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, the highest level of radiation that workers were exposed to was 250 mSv (millisieverts), which increases the risk of cancer by just 4-5%.
- Nuclear energy makes only a minor contribution to world energy needs — It in fact accounts for 14% of world electricity.
- Uranium tailings (radioactive decay from uranium mining) can be harmful if exposed to and can increase the risk of cancer — According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), “the level of radioactivity is very low and with normal engineering they pose no threat to anyone.” The typical amount of radiation the average human is exposed to is 2 mSv per year and there is no evidence of any harm below about 100 mSv per year.
- Nuclear power plants are sitting ducks for terrorists — There have been attacks attempted in the past — for example, by Basque separatists in 1977 — but no attack has caused widespread damage. Most nuclear plants have substantial and robust containment structures that would be difficult to breach. A terrorist attack could spark a nuclear meltdown similar to that seen at Fukushima, but replicating a force equivalent to an earthquake would be difficult. However, the water pools in which reactors store used fuel outside containment structures are more vulnerable and could cause real damage if attacked.
- Nuclear power is far from emissions-free, and the energy inputs from fossil fuels required in the generation of nuclear energy negate any advantage in the reduction of direct carbon dioxide emissions. However, according to the WNA, “Energy inputs into the nuclear fuel cycle produce only a few (eg, 1-3) percent of the CO2 emissions saved.”
- Dangerous weapons programs in countries such as Iran and North Korea are linked to their nuclear reactor programs –The WNA notes that Iran has failed to convince anyone that its secretive enrichment program is connected to its nuclear reactor program, and North Korea has no civil reactor program.
- Nuclear energy makes only a minuscule contribution to reducing carbon emissions — According to the WNA, “For every 22 tons of uranium used, one million tons of CO2 emissions is averted. Doubling the world’s nuclear output would reduce CO2 emissions from power generation by about one quarter.”
- As the price of fossil fuels continues to rise, nuclear energy offers a cheaper alternative source of energy — In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that, between 2002 and 2008, costs for new nuclear plant construction rose from between $2 billion and $4 billion per unit to $9 billion per unit. In addition to this, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that the cost of producing nuclear energy is about 30% higher than for oil or gas.
- Transportation of uranium and other radioactive material is hazardous — Uranium is transported in the form of UOC, a weakly radioactive uranium oxide concentrate. According to a WNA brochure titled “Safe and Effective Transportation of Uranium,” “UOC is harmful only if inhaled or ingested. Provided sensible precautions are taken to avoid inhalation or ingestion, it will not present a health hazard to people handling it.” The publication notes that the uranium is packaged in steel drums with a tight-fitting lid secured by a steel locking ring, stowed inside a sea freight container and secured using a webbed, Kevlar-based strapping system.
- Insurance companies will not insure nuclear reactors because they pose too much of a risk — All reactors in the West are insured. In fact, the WNA points out that nuclear installations are a highly sought-after business because of their high engineering and risk management standards, which have resulted in a very good claims record. However, Chernobyl was not insured, because it was considered to have a high-risk design due to its lack of containment structure. According to the WNA, “Operators of nuclear power plants are liable for any damage caused by them, regardless of fault. They therefore normally take out insurance for third-party liability, and in most countries they are required to do so.” Direct damage and third-party liability insurance is typically placed with a national insurance pool, or one of the mutual insurance associations such as Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited (NEIL).
Nuclear is key to energy securityPublished Wednesday, 15th December 2010
By Tara McGeehan, Logica
Nuclear currently generates roughly 25 per cent of the UK’s power, providing a significant, reliable proportion of Britain’s base energy load. Despite this fact, a stigma remains around the nuclear industry: a hangover of misconceptions around nuclear from the 1970s and 80s. If Britain is to continue to enjoy the unrivalled security of energy supply to which we have become accustomed, however, we must embrace nuclear generation.
The recent cold snap across the country has brought into sharp focus the extent to which our energy supply is currently hanging in a delicate balance. One recent Wednesday morning, for instance, Europe’s sub-zero conditions put a considerable strain on the pipelines which supply gas across national boundaries. Reports suggested that the UK’s gas imports from our main interconnector in Belgium ended at 6 o’clock in the morning, with only a well-timed arrival of supplies from Norway preventing a shortage. If we are to avoid these kinds of shortages in the mid-term, the country must re-evaluate the role which nuclear can play as part of a balanced portfolio of energy generation means.
Nuclear has been a cornerstone of the UK energy generation portfolio for many years, yet it has been a long time since the UK thought seriously about creating new nuclear power stations. All but one of the 19 nuclear reactors in the UK are due to be retired by 2023 and their closure will severely damage our energy-generating capability if a replacement plan is not put in place. This fast-approaching energy gap is by no means unknown. The growing demand for electricity and the simultaneous reduction of the nuclear fleet and UK gas fields has brought nuclear to the fore as a viable alternative and after years of negativity towards nuclear generation there is now a big push to replace UK plants.
The two major motivators for this about-face are a greater understanding of the need for security of supply and, more recently, the requirement for carbon reduction. Nuclear power is now seen by many as a UK-controlled source of power which will reduce our reliance on others and help secure our supply. This has helped to win over public and professional opinion, and the acknowledgement that it is a cleaner alternative to many of the fuels currently used has been a key driver.
Indeed, recent surveys of those living near the current fleet of reactors have shown that these communities rely heavily on the industry for skilled jobs and economic stability. They are keen to keep the industry alive through the development of new sites in their area, and as a result tolerance is particularly strong when reactors are being replaced like for like. This acceptance is further fuelled by the fact that the new types of reactor used are generally seen to be more efficient and generate less waste than the current fleet.
However, UK public acceptance is only one challenge that we face in achieving sustainable power supply based on nuclear generation. The logistical issues are by far the greatest problem. From the initial planning to the waste disposal; nuclear generation is a complex solution for meeting energy demand. Across the UK planning permission is a slow process, and even more exaggerated when building power stations. The planning enquiries for the last nuclear station built in the UK — Sizewell B — lasted four years, despite industry anger at this time delay. However steps have been taken to improve this process.
In 2007 the UK Planning Review launched a whitepaper in conjunction with the government which made the approval process significantly less complex. This has greatly cheered the industry: Areva has said that it could build new nuclear plants by 2017 if planning procedures were improved and government decisions were made on waste. But this in itself uncovers another challenge as the industry and government debate what type of reactors should be built and where.
Reactor technology has moved on significantly since the UK last commissioned a nuclear power station. Four reactor types have been reviewed as possible options, and while all four were fit to proceed, two were subsequently withdrawn by the manufacturers. That said, the ultimate decision to build will be strongly linked to the cost and government pressures; another two elements that are both unsecure and likely to change.
The UK government has for a long time wanted the nuclear programme to be self-financing — a position which the coalition reiterated just last week. This is putting a great deal of pressure on the commercial sector to calculate the viability of a new build, and means that a sudden drop in the price of power or reductions in demand could make some new builds unattractive. Nevertheless, the economic model for new nuclear is currently attractive and a number of companies have stated their intension to build new plant, including RWE, EDF and E.ON, with the construction of new nuclear plants expected to commence in 2013 if the preparation goes to plan.
While the coalition’s ongoing support for nuclear is encouraging, the political backdrop remains sensitive — the government at any time only has a term of five years. Early in 2008 the new whitepaper on nuclear power put nuclear energy at the heart of the UK government’s response to the need for secure, safe, affordable, low-carbon energy supplies, and the Con-Dem government has continued this policy. However, this could yet change. With nuclear power plants taking at least 10 years to plan and build, there is a disconnect between the ability to secure energy sources and create healthy competition, and the government’s ongoing commitment to carbon reduction and its ability to react to the concerns of the electorate.
Finally the skills shortage continues to cause challenges in the nuclear industry. It has been many years since we built new nuclear plant in the UK and as a result, many of those involved the first time around are no longer part of the workforce. To overcome this, the UK has focused on encouraging investment from energy companies outside of the UK, particularly from those countries that have a nuclear tradition. EDF’s purchase of British Energy is a great example, but this in itself is not without challenges. While EDF has experience of building new nuclear plants in France with Areva, reliance on Areva does not build the British skill set and the drive to recruit graduates into the industry has had limited success. Many of whom have chosen to specialise in the more fashionable subject of renewable energy rather than nuclear power, restricting our future self-sufficiency.
Despite these challenges, the processes are in place for new build programme to start. Sites have been selected and agreed, companies have expressed interest in building, reactor types have been agreed upon and there is broad buy-in. As long as the economic pressures are controlled and the public takes a rational approach towards nuclear, we can expect to see new nuclear power stations in the UK in the 2020s.
Editor’s note: This was a guest post by Tara McGeehan, utilities director at Logica UK. Logica is a business and technology service company with offices around the globe,
How much uranium is left?Published Tuesday, 21st February 2012
As a natural resource on a finite planet, uranium is no more unlimited in supply than oil, coal or natural gas. Compared to the vast quantities of those last three fuels we use each year, though, global uranium consumption is relatively small … about 68,000 tons per year, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Based on present known resources, we have enough uranium available to keep reactors productive for about 80 years, the association says.
Following are some more facts and figures related to the world’s nuclear-energy picture:
- Proportion of world’s electricity supplied by nuclear power: 13 percent (Source: International Energy Agency (IEA) 2011World Energy Outlook)
- Number of countries using nuclear power: 29 (Source: World Nuclear Association)Total number of nuclear reactors around the world as of Feb. 2012: 434 (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Total generating capacity of world’s nuclear plants: 373 gigawatts (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Country with the largest share of electricity coming from nuclear power: France, with 74.1 percent (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Country producing the greatest amount of uranium in 2010: Kazakhstan, 17,803 tonnes (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Country with the greatest recoverable resources of uranium: Australia, with 1.67 million tonnes (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Average age of world’s nuclear power plants: 26 years (Source: IEA 2011 World Energy Outlook)
- Number of new reactors under construction: 61 (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Number of new reactors proposed to be built as of Feb. 2012: 335 (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Total generating capacity of all new reactors proposed to be built as of Feb. 2012: 380 megawatts (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- Percentage of the world’s new reactors under construction being built in China: 63 percent (Source: IEA 2011 World Energy Outlook)
- Percentage of the world’s new under construction being built in Russia: 13 percent (Source: IEA 2011 World Energy Outlook)
- Uranium required for global nuclear power in 2012: 67,990 tonnes (Source: World Nuclear Association)
- World Energy Outlook 2012 - (To be released on 12 November 2012)