It could turn out to be one of the major industrial leaps forward of the 21st century. Without question, fears surrounding global warming have compelled the major economies to view nuclear power as perhaps the best solution for lessening our carbon footprint, reducing dependence on oil and ultimately slashing the cost of electricity.
In almost every corner of the globe the trend towards a more nuclear future has become pervasive in the quest for cheaper power. After years spent being pinpointed as the absolute evil and as the poster child for unacceptable risk, the nuclear option has begun to occupy center stage in a growing number of countries. Public opinion has evolved and bears little resemblance to its low ebb following the disaster at Three Mile Island (1979) and its absolute nadir in the devastating aftermath of Chernobyl (1986). Traditional opponents of atomic energy are finding their voices increasingly drowned out by the clamor of a rising tide of nuclear supporters, some of whom previously formed the ranks of the most militant anti-nuclear protesters from the 70s. Among these is Stephen Tindale the ex-Greenpeace Director who made a very public volte-face in an explosive editorial published by the Independent of London in 2009.
As of 2010 there were 438 nuclear reactors operating in 31 countries with an additional 44 under construction. Brazil, home to a mere two facilities in 2008 has projected this total to rise to over 40 by the year 2060 and a possible 330 in the year 2100. China has ambitiously declared its intent to house over 500 reactors by the year 2100, a dramatic increase from its base of only eight in the year 2008. France, which trails only the US in terms of nuclear reactors, could see its current base of 63 nuclear reactors (in 19 nuclear power stations) rise by up to a dozen of reactors by the year 2030 if the political actors involved deem it an economic necessity and a sound financial investment. André Pineau, founder of the Nuclear Materials Faculty at Mines Paris Tech reminds us of the stakes involved by stating, “The future path for France in the energy domain depends entirely on our vision of the future: do we want to reverse the current trend and reignite the role of industry in the economy? (In Germany, industry makes up 32% of GDP compared to 16% in France). If so, an increase in nuclear power generating capacity is essential. All the more so if there is to be any hope of increasing the numbers of electrically powered vehicles on the road. Energy policy is clearly an expression of political will. The question is whether political will exists, and if it doesn’t, than why build new plants ?”
Among industrialized nations, Italy and Great Britain provide ample illustration of the way in which nuclear energy has returned to the forefront of the policy agenda. As of 2010, Italy was the only country in the G8 in which nuclear capacity was entirely absent, the lingering result of a referendum that arose in the wake of the Chernobyl tragedy. The Berlusconi government has made provisions to construct eight facilities before 2030 with projections to supply 25% of the country’s power needs upon project completion. Presently, 54% of Italy’s power needs are being met through natural gas, relying primarily Russian and Libyan imports, and one Italian minister has estimated that the absence of a nuclear policy has cost Italy more than 50 billion Euros.
In Great Britain, policy is evolving rapidly and in August 2010, the Cameron government revealed plans to open the country’s first nuclear facility in decades by the year 2018. The fact that the announcement was made by Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat energy and climate secretary and vocal defender of environmental causes, reveals a radical change in the mindset of policymakers.
Across the EU as a whole, the revitalization of the nuclear platform has followed a more patchwork approach, largely as a result of the shadow cast by history. The six founding members of the Common Market had hoped to do for nuclear energy what they had successfully accomplished by combining their resources in matters relating to steel and coal production. The resulting Euratom Treaty (1957) has largely failed to live up to the expectations of its original founders due to expansion in EU membership. The entry of Ireland (1973) and Austria (1997) brought into the club two countries fundamentally opposed to the idea of any nuclear development. Indeed, Vienna’s diplomatic policy has been based almost entirely on its staunch opposition to the development of nuclear power. Successive waves of EU expansion, most notably with the entry of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 2004 have allowed the pendulum to start swinging in the other direction. These countries were not only favorable to nuclear development but were actively encouraging it as evidenced by a recent Czech initiative to announce bidding on the construction of two supplementary reactors at Temelin. Moreover, the polite culture of consensus in Brussels was effectively overturned in 2002 by the publication of a Green Paper by the then Energy commissioner, the late Loyola de Palacio. This helped ignite the debate over the nuclear option and its relation to energy independence, competitiveness and the environment.
If the desire to reduce global CO2 emissions by half is to become a reality by the year 2050 then according to a the nuclear roadmap published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) global nuclear energy production will have to increase to 1200 GW by 2050. These findings were published and were part of a joint effort which also included the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), and were drafted following decisions taken at the 2008 G8 Summit in Japan (Aomori). If there is to be any chance of attaining these goals, the rhythm of new construction will have to double by the year 2020 to 20 new construction projects per year. If the recommendations are followed, then 24% of worldwide electrical production should be nuclear based by the year 2050. More optimistic estimations predict a higher ratio of 38% and 1900 GW operational by 2050. The most fervent believers in the future of nuclear energy are prepared to go many steps further and have banked on rapid development in China and India to take the world total to 3000 GW.
The massive investment that will be required to set off this wave of construction is going to require levels of imagination from governments, industrial groups and financial institutions that will stretch the limits of feasibility. In a joint study published in 2010 by Robert Grimes (Center for Nuclear Engineering, Imperial College, London) and William Nuttall (Judge Business School, Cambridge) the authors detail a number of possibilities that exist for the future of the nuclear industry. One possibility may be the construction of portable reactors which could be returned to the manufacturer at the end of their working life in complete security to be recycled. This would have the added benefit of sparing buyers the need to manage and control waste disposal. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine a type of ‘sealed’ reactor that would function without the need for any additional fuel for up to 40 years at which point it would be returned to the manufacturer. Not only would this greatly reduce the risk of radiation exposure but would also prevent the threat of nuclear proliferation as it would eliminate the need for massive transfers of technology.
Of course, countries already in possession of nuclear facilities have a vested interest in prolonging the life of their current infrastructure, which has led to the growth in manufacturing of spare parts that can extend the life of nuclear reactors from 40 or 50 years to up to 70. In September of 2010 Germany announced plans to extend the life of its reactors by 12 to 14 years (depending on the model) and France has made clear its intention to do the same. For countries only just embarking on the development of nuclear power Nuttall and Grimes have proposed the construction of offshore facilities that would require a fraction of the investment necessary for a traditional reactor. They have also proposed an increased investment in 4th generation fast reactors which could begin to replace the current network of light water reactors dominant in most countries. These newer reactors have the ability to exploit uranium in a manner 15 times more efficient than is currently possible. Increased efficiency would have the added benefit of prolonging the lifespan of current global uranium stockpiles.
The need for efficiency takes on added importance when we consider that for all the buzz surrounding the potential of nuclear power the one fact that tends to get overlooked is that nobody is really sure whether there is enough uranium to fuel it all. The debate over supplies of the primary material for nuclear power has ignited a number of disagreements over whether there is indeed enough fissile material to fuel the projected boom. Jan Slezak of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has such confidence in levels of world supplies that he is willing to confirm the existence of reserves capable of responding to demand for the next century. These predictions are given added credibility when we consider the opportunities that could be created by an acceleration of uranium extraction in Kazakhstan and the development of more efficient recycling technologies. Add to this the promise of thorium reactors, a mineral that exists in such abundance as to be considered a nuisance by miners (in and of itself thorium-232 is non-fissile but through capturing neutrons after being placed in a reactor becomes thorium-233 fissile), and the future looks very bright indeed.
The more pessimistic view holds that we have reached a tipping point and that uranium stocks are already being exhausted. Michael Dittmar of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has shown that of the 65,000 tons of uranium consumed annually by industry, 40,000 tons are mined while the rest comes from secondary sources that are at risk of drying up completely. According to Dittmar, who is also employed by CERN in Geneva, occidental western stocks of uranium could be depleted as soon as 2013. He has used his findings to discourage the very possibility of a nuclear renaissance as it would be over before it even had a chance to begin. It goes without saying that he is practically alone in defending such a grim hypothesis.
Amidst all the press surrounding the nuclear ‘renaissance’ it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that other forms of energy are also vying for the right to power our future. Natural gas, in particular those resources which demand high levels of technology or investment (unconventional gas), have become increasingly attractive. The image of coal has been rehabilitated and is no longer a byword for pollution and waste. In the rapidly developing economies of China and India, home to seemingly inexhaustible coal resources, this makeover has been particularly robust. In the United States as well, President Obama has thrown his full weight behind the development of “clean coal” technologies such as CO2 capture and methanation.
One of the primary reasons for the recent rise in popularity of nuclear power amidst such a crowded field is no doubt its economic competitiveness. Although initial investment costs are substantial they can be repaid relatively quickly (around 15 years). Nevertheless, some questions remain: what is the real cost of nuclear power when compared to other sources of energy? Is the world truly prepared to realize the promise of this ‘renaissance’ and everything the word implies? On the first question the experts agree that by all accounts nuclear energy is extremely competitive when compared to other sources of energy with a low carbon footprint. To take one example among many, the Mesa Wind Project, which forms part of energy Guru T. Boone Picken’s grand plan to provide a bridge to the future of power production could cost 16 billion dollars to generate the same amount of electricity as could be produced by a nuclear reactor costing between six and ten billion dollars.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently calculated that based on the actual value of investment required to finance the construction and operation of nuclear reactors they represent better value than most other forms of low carbon emitting energy. Compared to on-shore wind farms they represent a savings of 20% quickly rising to 38% when compared to off-shore wind power facilities and a massive 70% in relation to solar generated power. Even when compared to hydroelectric power there is a non-negligible 1% savings. In France, the Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea has made clear its policy of promoting the nuclear option as the most competitive for fulfilling the basic energy needs of the future. Indeed, even in the event of cost over-runs of between 10% and 40%, nuclear remains the most competitive option for the foreseeable future.
Does nuclear represent a sort of miracle for all that ails the planet in terms of energy production? If we look more closely it becomes evident that the competitiveness of the nuclear option is not a foregone conclusion and in fact depends on a number of factors according to Jan Horst Keppler, a principle economist in the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. He reminds us that “the competitiveness of nuclear energy is impossible to define in a permanent and definitive way”. In fact we must view the nuclear option as playing a role in the much broader energy ecosystem. Where the environment contains low financing costs, high carbon prices and stable energy markets nuclear generated power represents a safe investment. On the other hand, if the system is altered in such a way as to produce higher interest rates, low or absent prices for carbon, and an unpredictable energy market (it goes without saying that when a gas powered plant is no longer economically viable it can be shut off but with a nuclear reactor no such option exists!), then all bets are off.
The two scenarios described above could just as easily apply to other forms of renewable energy where high fixed costs represent a challenge to promoters of low carbon emitting technologies. Keppler has calculated the impact variations in interest rates would have on the competitiveness of different sources of energy. Based on interest rates of between 5% to 10% the fixed investment costs vary between 11% and 17% of total lifetime costs for gas-fired power plants, between 26% and 40% for coal-fired plants, between 59% and 76% for nuclear power plants, and between 78% and 85% for wind power. The capital intensive nature of nuclear and renewable sources of energy therefore requires investment that is sensitive to the prevailing financial climate.
So far our discussion has failed to mention two cost factors that, while currently unknown, have the potential to weigh heavily on any future discussion of nuclear energy. The first is the cost to dismantle a nuclear reactor and the other is the cost associated with managing and safely disposing of nuclear waste. Under certain conditions, made ever more likely by the hardening of environmental policies across Europe, the cost of handling and disposing of nuclear materials could quickly become so expensive as to compromise completely the competitive future of the industry.
We should be under no illusions. This time, unlike the first wave of construction over half a century ago this construction wave will depend largely on the economic viability of nuclear power. The rapid growth of unregulated energy markets across the OECD has made commercial success a decisive factor when choosing any new technology. Moreover, energy policy is no longer dictated solely by the state and is now dependent as much on private investment as on government largesse. If the nuclear ‘renaissance’ has any hope of living up to expectations, it will have to seduce both.