Shankar Sharma: Environmentalists to support the development of safer nuclear power as one way to cut fossil fuel pollution? Some serious concerns

At a time when the true relevance of nuclear power is being questioned increasingly around the world due to the concerns on safety, security and economics, a news item from the Associated Press indicates that four scientists who have played a key role in alerting the public to the dangers of climate change have asked environmentalists to support the development of safer nuclear power as one way to cut fossil fuel pollution. Such a letter is signed by Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James E. Hansen of Columbia University and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Adelaide (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/to-those-influencing-environmental-policy-but-opposed-to-nuclear-power/?_r=0#more-50930)

 Two major fallacies seem to have been associated with nuclear power’s projected role in containing the global warming phenomenon. One such fallacy is that the huge number of nuclear power reactors required in place of the fossil fuel power plants to have considerable impact on global warming phenomenon can be commissioned in the short time frame identified to contain the GHG emissions. The other fallacy is that addressing the energy sector’s GHG contribution alone will be able to mitigate the impacts of global warming.

 The first fallacy

In an article with the title “TOO HOT TO HANDLE? THE FUTURE OF CIVIL NUCLEAR POWER” by Frank Barnaby and James Kemp of Oxford Research Group, such relevance has been discussed. This article states that on the assumption that about 33% of the total electricity production capacity at the global level by Year 2075 (for a population of 10 Billion) needs to be from nuclear power (in order to really have an impact on global warming) about 3,000 reactors (assuming average capacity of 1,000 MW) may be required. The article estimates that such a scenario would mean over 48 new reactor builds a year from now on, compared to 3.4 per year which is the highest historic rate (in France between 1977 to 1993). It would require even those countries, which have no nuclear power as of now, to construct nuclear reactors. The same authors have also said: “Many of the risks associated with civil nuclear power are well known and have, to some extent, been managed… just: recall Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Iraq, Dr. A Q Khan and reports of al Qaida’s plans. For the nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism risks to be worth taking, nuclear must be able to achieve energy security and a reduction in global CO2 emissions more effectively, efficiently, economically and quickly than any other energy source. There is little evidence to support the claim that it can, whereas the evidence for doubting nuclear power’s efficacy is clear. Society should consider whether or not the risk that terrorists will acquire plutonium and make and detonate a nuclear weapon is unacceptably high”.

Since Uranium reserve is available to only few countries, it would need a massive transfer of nuclear fuel and nuclear power technology across the globe to be able to provide an important role for nuclear power in the global electricity basket. Under such a scenario it is not difficult to imagine the massive financial benefits accruing to very few countries and corporations from such gigantic transactions, while the huge costs and risks will have to be borne by the communities.

 The latest experience at Fukushima, Japan has indicated that the real cost to the global community of a nuclear accident can be horrendous, inevitably leading to questions on the net benefit to the society from such reactors if the costs of compensation, radiation containment measures, loss of revenue from the lands around, safe decommissioning etc. are objectively taken into account. Whatever may be the technology and fuel deployed in producing the nuclear power, the risk associated (where ‘RISK’ = ‘Probability of a nuclear accident’ X ‘Consequences of such an accident’) is generally acknowledged as very high so as to dissuade the communities to accept the location of nuclear reactors in their backyard.

 In the Indian context the prospect of a much higher percentage of nuclear power looks highly improbable. A Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) document of 2008 has projected a nuclear power capacity of 275,000 MW by 2050. Assuming an average power capacity of 500 MW each this means about 550 reactors. In view of the need for a large quantity of water to run these plants, it is natural to expect that they are located close to the coast. With the main land coast line of about 6,000 kM this works out to approximately 11 kM between two reactors. Even assuming that 2 or 4 reactors are placed in a straight line perpendicular to the coast, the distance between two nuclear power projects can only between 22 to 44 kM. Assuming a circular safe zone with a radius of 2 km around each reactor, 550 reactors would require a total of approximately 7,000 Sq. kM. Can such a situation be feasible in a densely populated country? The very projection of nuclear power capacity of 275,000 MW for India is unrealistic, given the fact that the Integrated Energy Policy of the Planning Commission of India has estimated that the Uranium reserve in the country can support only 10,000 MW of nuclear power. Import of nuclear fuel and technology to support 275,000 MW of projected capacity is fraught with unacceptable levels of economic cost and energy security risks.

Considering long gestation period of about 10 years and the cost and time over run as experienced in recent years {at Flamanville in France (4 year late) and at Olkiluoto in Finland (4 years late), and Kudankulam in India (5 years late?) } one may clearly see the improbability of such hectic construction activities for next few decades, as would be needed if nuclear power is to make a considerable contribution to the global electricity basket.

 In view of the additional safety measures considered essential after the Fukushima accident, the capital cost of nuclear power plants will be much higher as compared to coal based or dam based or even the solar/wind based power installations. A high level estimate of the proposed nuclear power park at Jaitapura, India indicates that per MW capital cost can be as high as Rs. 21 Crore per MW as against Rs. 8 – 10 Crore per MW of other sources.

 The second fallacy

The other fallacy, that addressing the energy sector’s GHG contribution alone will be able to mitigate the impacts of global warming, will become glaring in the context that energy sector is contributing to only about 35% of the total GHG emissions. So, even if it is possible to bring down the GHG emissions associated with energy sector considerably by shifting the reliance from fossil fuels to nuclear power, the remaining 70 to 80% of GHG emissions due to other sectors, if not managed adequately, has the potential to negate such an effort. Hence it is being increasingly acknowledged as impossible to contain the global warming unless the energy and material consumption at global level is be brought down considerably. Even if we are able to replace all the fossil fuels by nuclear and renewable energy sources by 2050, the embedded energy in the processes and materials employed in doing so would be so great that GHG emission can still go beyond the limits. Also, the total energy consumed in the entire life cycle of a nuclear power plant involving the nuclear fuel mining, transportation, processing, using, storing and safe disposal of spent fuel after hundreds of years is also estimated to be huge, and is estimated to be more than the total electricity generated by a nuclear power plant in its economic life time.

Pro-nuclear advocates have started arguing that nuclear power is a good option against Global Warming since they do not contribute much to GHGs during the operation of a reactor. Observers (such as Dr. MV Ramana) are of the view that floundering nuclear establishments around the world have grabbed this second opportunity (of arguments w.r.t Global Warming), and have made claims for massive state investments in the hope of resurrecting an industry that has largely collapsed due to its inability to provide clean, safe or cheap electricity. It is generally considered to be impossible to contain Global Warming, through a particular power generation technology alone, without significantly reducing the overall energy consumption levels at the global scale. The assumption that adoption of nuclear power can make sense as a strategy to lower aggregate carbon emissions can also be termed as flawed. In this regard an example of Japan, a pro-nuclear energy country till the Fukushima accident can be cited. Jinzaburo Takagi, a Japanese nuclear Chemist, has showed that between 1965 and 1995 Japan’s nuclear power plant capacity went from zero to over 40,000 MW. During the same period its CO2 emissions increased from about 400 million tons to about 1,200 million tons. Increased use of nuclear power did not really reduce Japan’s emission levels.

Peter Bradford, Former Commissioner, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists many concerns as below in a presentation with the title “Why a Future for the Nuclear Industry Is Risky”.

  • For global warming there are much better solutions

  • Nuclear power plants are clearly stated terrorist targets: a successful attack could halt new construction even after significant expenditure, as in the case of Germany and Japan

  • Spent nuclear fuel storage remains unresolved

Is it not prudent to see the overall cost to the global community from the nuclear power, than considering it just from the context of global warming? Shall we not heed to Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, who has said in an article, ‘Chernobyl 25 years later: Many lessons learned’: “ … First of all, it is vitally important to prevent any possibility of a repetition of the Chernobyl accident. This was a horrendous disaster because of the direct human cost, the large tracts of land poisoned, the scale of population displacement, the great loss of livelihoods..”? Such a cost can be gigantic in the case of India which is a densely populated society. Are the humongous costs of a nuclear accident, as in the case of Fukushima (where estimates range from $75 Billion to 250 Billion), acceptable to any country? (http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/2/77.full)

While the potential consequences of a major nuclear accident, as experienced in the case of Chernobyl and Fukushima, alone have resulted in Germany and Japan taking conscious decision to move away from nuclear power, the costs and risks associated with long term storage of nuclear waste are also turning out to be major deterrents. US, which has over 100 nuclear reactors and which depends upon nuclear power for about 20% of its electricity generation capacity, has not found a satisfactory answer to this problem. The U.S. government is reported to have invested $9 billion developing a storage site for nuclear spent fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada province. Despite this enormous investment in building an underground, secure storage site, Nevada’s residents have refused to endorse the project as a result of safety and environmental concerns. It is unlikely that any community around the world will agree for such a storage site or a nuclear reactor site in their backyard under an informed decision making process. So, most of the nuclear facilities have to be forced on the communities against their opinion, which will lead to huge social unrest, as seen in Kudankulam nuclear project site in India.

 While establishing a long term repository for the huge quantities of spent nuclear fuel (as can be expected in the case of 33% nuclear power capacity in few decades) will itself be a huge challenge, keeping such fuel safe for hundreds of years if not for thousands of years, which will also be associated with huge energy demand, will be even more challenging. The vast quantities of electricity required to effectively dissipate the radiation heat from the spent fuel will result in enormous burden on any society, and may even defeat the very purpose of a major share for nuclear power.

 The Precautionary Principle

While the contentious issues on safety, security, sustainability and economics of nuclear power may not be settled in the near future there is an urgent need to look at nuclear power from the perspective of Precautionary Principle as adopted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (1992). The Precautionary Principle is an approach to uncertainty, and provides for action to avoid serious or irreversible environmental harm in advance of scientific certainty of such harm. According to this principle, those activities which are likely to pose significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that the expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed. Since the economic costs and risks associated with nuclear power to our society is not negligible, since many implications/consequences of a nuclear accident are not known yet, and since the total cost to the society of safeguarding the spent nuclear fuel for hundreds of years is not known, the very need for additional nuclear power capacity can be and must be analysed objectively.

 It would be unwise not to take cognizance of the advice by world leaders who have had credible knowledge of the costs of nuclear accidents. Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, a year after he oversaw his government’s widely criticized handling of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, is reported to have said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: “I would like to tell the world that we should aim for a society that can function without nuclear energy”. Mikhail Gorbachev’s caution of wisdom also included: “To end the vicious cycle of ‘poverty versus safe environment,’ the world must quickly transition to efficient, safe, and renewable energy, which will bring enormous economic, social, and environmental benefits. As the global population continues to expand, and the demand for energy production grows, we must invest in alternative and more sustainable sources of energy—wind, solar, geothermal, hydro—and widespread conservation and energy efficiency initiatives as safer, more efficient, and more affordable avenues for meeting both energy demands and conserving our fragile planet.”

 The alternatives

Taking all these facts into objective account it is impossible to heed to the appeal by the four scientists to the environmentalists, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, to support the development of safer nuclear power as one way to cut fossil fuel pollution. To their credit the four scientists have exhibited the pragmatism by stating that the nuclear power is only one option to cut fossil fuel pollution. A better understanding of the energy sector as a whole, and the context of global warming phenomenon will indicate that there are much better, cheaper and safer options.

In an article titled “A path to Sustainable energy by 2030”, in Scientific American in November 2009, the authors have illustrated a plan as to how wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels and nuclear power. It has quoted a 2009 Stanford University study which ranked energy systems according to their impacts on global warming, pollution, water supply, land use, wildlife and other concerns. The very best options were wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric power— all of which are driven by wind, water or sunlight.

 The IPCC report ‘Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources (SRREN)’, has projected a very critical role for renewable energy sources in future, and hence deserves greater attention for enabling a paradigm shift in our energy policy to cut fossil fuel pollution and to eliminate the chances of nuclear accidents. This report has projected that the renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades. The report has said that if the full range of renewable technologies were deployed, the world could keep greenhouse gas concentrations to less than 450 parts per million, the level scientists have predicted will be the limit of safety.

A report published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Renewable Electricity Futures Study (RE Futures), is an initial investigation of the extent to which renewable energy supply can meet the electricity demands of the continental United States over the next several decades. This study has explored the implications and challenges of very high renewable electricity generation levels—from 30% up to 90%, focusing on 80%, of all U.S. electricity generation from renewable technologies—in 2050. The study has found out that the renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.

Journal of Power Sources, Volume 225, March 2013 has published an article with the title “Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time”. The study discussed in this article has indicated that it evaluated over millions of combinations of renewables and storage; each tested over 35,040 hours (four years) of load and weather data. It was found that the least cost solutions yield seemingly-excessive generation capacity—at times, almost three times the electricity needed to meet electrical load. This is because diverse renewable generation and the excess capacity together meet electric load with less storage, lowering total system cost. At 2030 technology costs and with excess renewable electricity displacing natural gas, the study has found that the electric system can be powered 90%–99.9% of hours entirely on renewable electricity, at costs comparable to today’s—but only if we optimize the mix of generation and storage technologies.

The conscious decision by highly industrialised countries such as Germany and Japan to move away from nuclear power while determined to keep the GHG emissions to a manageable level should be of high relevance in the global context. In the Indian context the potential for obtaining virtual additional power capacity through measures such as efficiency improvement, demand side management, conservation, and wide spread use of renewable energy sources is so vast that the very need for nuclear power should come under serious examination.

A paradigm shift

In the case of a complex technology such as nuclear power technology the true value and the credible risks to the entire society, including the flora, fauna, general environment and the future generations should be determined objectively. The true relevance of nuclear power in the Indian context or in the context of global warming needs to be determined through objective consideration of economic, social, environmental and intergenerational issues, and also should be effectively compared with all the alternatives available through exhaustive examination of all the costs and benefits for each alternative. Only a holistic view of all-round welfare of the global community can lead us to sustainable solutions.

 In view of the multifarious problems associated with nuclear power plants and its small contribution to overall power scenario in India, and in view of credible concerns by very responsible leaders, our society should thoroughly review whether the resources made available for nuclear power sector is well spent on developing the new & renewable energy sources, which can eliminate all the thorny issues associated with nuclear power sector.

 In a global context it can be said to be a futile exercise to aim to address the global warming concerns by replacing one polluting electricity generation technology by another risky technology, without reducing the overall consumption of energy and materials. Such reduced consumption will be feasible only if adequate life style changes are adopted by the global community; certainly by the industrialised countries. It is very unfortunate that the efforts by the developed world seem to be aimed only at finding an engineering/technological solution to perpetuate the high energy consumption life style, which will benefit few big companies at the cost of global billions, as compared to the real need of minimising the exploitation of the nature.

 With due regards to the four renowned scientists one may wonder whether all the issues concerning the nuclear power cycle have been objectively considered by them from the perspective of true welfare of all sections of the global community. Because, a holistic view of all the direct and indirect costs and benefits of nuclear power to the global community even strictly in the context of global warming throws up many issues. The suggestion to replace the reliance on hugely polluting fossil fuels with vastly risky nuclear power can at best be compared to the choice between devil and the deep sea.

 A growing number of credible studies are advocating a paradigm shift to the way we look at the relationship of the human beings with the nature as the critical need to contain the global warming. The ability of global community to be able to correctly define and adapt this relationship will determine whether global warming can be contained on a sustainable basis; not just an electricity generation technology.

Shankar Sharma

Power Policy Analyst
e-mail: shankar.sharma2005@gmail.com

 

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