When a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, causing the cores to melt, the disaster seemed to represent the death knell for the nuclear industry. Not only was the damage catastrophic, but the industry now resembled an also-ran, overtaken by advances in renewables and nimble smart grids. Big, clunky and fabulously expensive, nuclear was a dinosaur in a modern age of emerging alternatives.
The immediate response in the aftermath reinforced this perspective. Germany closed eight nuclear power plants permanently and put the remaining nine on notice to shut by 2022. All 50 of Japan’s nuclear plants, representing 30 per cent of the nation’s electricity generation, were closed or suspended.
Yet the latest data suggest nuclear power is as resilient as the radiation it unleashes. Construction of nuclear reactors is at a 25-year high and a further ten reactors came online in 2015, again, the highest number in a quarter of a century. Nuclear has never really gone away; and neither has the case being put forward, not just by industry advocates (who are vociferous and politically influential), that it will play an important role in meeting global pledges to reduce greenhouse gases for decades to come.
Sceptics abound, of course, and so it is unsurprising that Marco Baroni, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes – with deliberate understatement – that ‘nuclear probably has the most polarised emotions of any energy source. You get a different answer [as to its importance] depending on where you are in the world. Certain countries feel it is a very good option, others never wanted it, others have now decided they don’t want it.’
According to the IEA, in 2015 nuclear accounted for 11 per cent of electrical global power generation, the fourth largest source after coal, gas, and hydro. ‘That makes it significant but not dominant,’ says Baroni. Nuclear remains, perhaps contrary to popular perception, a much greater source of energy than wind and solar PV, which account for three per cent and one per cent of global power respectively. Nuclear’s place in the global scheme of all energy production is lower, representing just five per cent of all total primary energy supply.
Across the world, 447 nuclear power plants are in operation, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). The definitive source for energy use, World Energy Balances, published by the IEA, indicates that nuclear is slightly increasing its energy production, producing 2.3 per cent more energy in 2014 than in 2013.
In all, nuclear contributes to power production in 31 countries and is the key power source in several, including Ukraine (49.4 per cent); Sweden (41.5 per cent); Hungary (53.6 per cent), Belgium (46.75 per cent); and Slovakia (56.8 per cent). Nuclear only accounts for 2.4 per cent of China’s power production but this belies the actual quantity: 142.7TW in 2014, behind only the US (798.6TW), France (418TW), Russia (169.1TW) and South Korea (149.2TW).
Nuclear’s popularity waxes and wanes considerably depending on where you look in the world. ‘Nuclear is popular for a number of countries,’ says Baroni, because it is a reliable source of baseload, the ability to consistently generate the minimum electrical power needed to keep a nation’s lights on.
In the developed, or OECD band of nations nuclear accounts for 18 per cent of electrical power and is the third most important power source. Here, much of the nuclear production dates from the early deployment of the technology in the 1970s and 1980s. The only exception is South Korea which has a higher proportion of newly-built nuclear power plants.
By contrast, non-OECD countries have seen the biggest recent uptake and increase in nuclear power. In Asia, production of nuclear power increased by 18.7 per cent in 2014, with China the biggest player by far. ‘Where there is increased demand for electricity, you see growth in nuclear,’ says Dr Jonathan Cobb at the WNA, ‘China is increasing electricity generation overall and nuclear is part of that.’ Elsewhere, from South America to Africa there is barely any realistic interest except in South Africa which, says Cobb, ‘is looking to get away from its high dependency on coal.’
When it comes to nuclear power, however, almost every fact can be interpreted differently. China’s dominance in new nuclear, counters Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, illustrates just how little global appetite there is for it. A candid sceptic of the industry’s prospects, Froggatt says that China’s enthusiasm is not widely shared. ‘China is building 40 per cent of all the reactors currently under construction or planned,’ he says. ‘ Only a handful of countries have active programmes and for many of those it’s just a case of replacement. More solar and wind power has been generated [globally] since the Kyoto agreement than nuclear.’
clean and green?
Two factors have historically underpinned the case for nuclear: it provides energy security and baseload certainty of supply. One kilogram of uranium can provide two to three million times more power than 1kg of coal, says the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), the trade association for the civil nuclear industry in the UK. ‘One gigawatt of nuclear provides a lot of energy with a very high utilisation factor,’ says the IEA’s Baroni.
Nuclear power, like gas and coal-powered stations, provide baseload energy – a consistent supply which renewables such as wind, because they are intermittent, cannot meet. ‘They provide large-scale, constant supply,’ says the Dr Cobb. ‘Nuclear can meet the demand of the megacities we see in China.’
In recent years, more has also been made of nuclear’s low-carbon credentials. According to a UK Parliamentary Office 2011 report, nuclear power’s CO2 emissions are around five to seven gm per kW hour of energy, compared with 350 to 450gm per kW hour for gas and 900gm per kW/hour for coal. ‘It’s a low-carbon source of energy,’ says Baroni. ‘If you are looking to decarbonise your system then nuclear is one of the ways to do it.’
The WNA maintains that since nuclear power produces very few greenhouse gas emissions in its life cycle, it is much cleaner than fossil-fuel plants and can contribute towards long-term climate change targets. ‘Nuclear is relevant to the low carbon issue – the Paris agreement means countries have signed up to reducing greenhouse gases and one sector where you can do that is the electricity generation sector,’ says Cobb.
He argues that nuclear, in contrast to what critics say, can even play an ‘holistic’ role in society. He points to Germany’s move to shut down its nuclear plants, something that required an increase in power generation from fossil fuel plants to meet national energy demands. ‘If you don’t use nuclear then you use more fossil fuels and you cause more harm from dirty particulate matter,’ he says. ‘You only need to operate a fossil fuel plant for it to be harmful.’
Yet several observers feel strongly that such claims in favour of nuclear power are now outdated. ‘The way energy is produced is being revolutionised,’ says Kate Blagojevic a spokesperson for Greenpeace. ‘The UK government in particular needs to be part of this rather than seeing renewables and smart energy usage as pie in the sky technology. Instead it’s taking a rather old-school approach that we need baseload – that renewables are useless when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow – that’s no longer the case. Nuclear is a 20th century technology and we should be embracing 21st century technology. You need to be more flexible to decarbonise your energy system. Nuclear can’t respond that way.’ Blagojevic points to tidal power as an example which, she says, ‘can provide baseload if we need it. It’s ongoing, reliable, it’s guaranteed. Renewables will simply outgun nuclear. The UK could be a global leader for tidal and wave power.’
Off Grid Thinking
Cynics have long suspected there is also a virile power association at work and that governments are susceptible to glittery, large projects. Dr Ian Fairlie, a nuclear critic, discounts this accusation, doubting that anyone truly adheres to the concept of ‘toys for the boys’ or, as he puts it, that ‘real men make nuclear reactors’.
Yet Fairlie, a former civil servant on the regulation of radiation risks from nuclear power stations, maintains that the baseload case for nuclear is increasingly redundant. ‘Look at what’s happening in Britain, renewables are supplying more electricity to the grid every year than nuclear,’ he says. ‘And nuclear power plants can shut down unexpectedly. When they do you get no notice and it can take 500MW out of the grid. In contrast, we know when the wind is going to stop blowing or when the sun will not shine [and plan accordingly]. With new technology, efficiency and battery storage you are getting to the point where the notion of a grid is almost redundant.’
The WNA’s Dr Cobb acknowledges the criticism of the baseload model but insists the industry is becoming more nimble. ‘Nuclear power plants have run on baseload mode because it has been the most cost effective way, but the industry could be more flexible. It’s not a question of going from zero to full power in minutes but they can scale quite quickly.’ Cobb envisages a scenario where nuclear could be deployed in this way in response to predictable forecasts for supplies of solar energy to dip, though he feels this would be more problematic with wind.
‘We are seeing a move away from large control facilities,’ says Froggatt. ‘If we are using more renewables then we need a flexible system – baseload coal and nuclear make that difficult.’ Any transition from an energy supply system relying on baseload to one where smarter grids predominate must be handled deftly, he says. ‘It’s a challenge. It’s not going to be the case that one day we have baseload, the next day we don’t. It’s a gradual process, but the urgency of climate change means that this can’t take too long or be too gradual.’
The cost of power
Energy security has been another of the nuclear industry’s strongest cards and, says the IEA’s Baroni, procuring your own energy makes sense: ‘It helps with diversification and reduces your imports. But even if you are importing nuclear fuel, that is still very different from importing gas or coal, where you are importing regularly and the price can change. Gas – but not coal – also tends to come from countries that have potential political problems.’
Yet nuclear may not necessarily provide true security either: Fairlie points to UK briefings to ministers where security experts have intimated that China could build weaknesses into the computer systems at the new Hinkley C reactor in Somerset that would allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production.
The furore over Hinkley has highlighted another weakness in the case for nuclear: its eye-watering cost. The upfront price tag for EDF and its partners over the coming years will be £18billion. But in return, EDF will receive a guaranteed price for Hinkley’s electricity for 35 years (see The Price of Hinkley). ‘Nuclear power used to be cheap and still is in China,’ says Baroni. The typical cost of electricity generated at a Chinese nuclear power plant is half the cost of that to be produced at Hinkley. ‘The nuclear industry in Europe now has to bring down the costs, they are really high,’ he adds.
When it comes to funding, Baroni acknowledges that the nuclear industry faces unique quandaries. ‘The sheer size of projects, raising the necessary funds, is a challenge. It’s not as easy as it is for other sources of energy. Nuclear has huge investment costs, requires cheap access to finance, [and needs] the back-up of governments. To get the same amount of energy from wind and solar PV involves lower risks that are spread over several projects.’
Cobb acknowledges that costs present ‘some challenges’ though he argues these are front-loaded onto construction costs rather than the price of uranium, which varies little (only small quantities are required and these last many years, so purchasing is not vulnerable to the fluctuations of oil and gas prices). And construction and design costs, he maintains, will come down as the technology is scaled up. ‘China has been building nuclear for the past 25 years, we haven’t had to do that in the UK and so we are encountering first-of-a-kind costs for designs, building manufacturers and infrastructure.’
Baroni believes it is important to recognise that costs are not only found in the bottom line of an accountant’s report. ‘You need to think of the type of world you want to live in. No energy source can compete on simple price with cheap lignite [coal], the problem is that it is dirty and emits carbon dioxide. If you really want to decarbonise your economy with the cheapest set of options you get a different answer than the cheapest list price that coal gives you. If you put a carbon price on fossil fuel use then nuclear and renewables become even more important.’
Yet cost, energy security and low-carbon emissions pale in significance compared to the great bogeyman that has stalked nuclear for decades: safety. The WNA maintains the industry safety record is excellent – that the Fukushima disaster killed no-one; that the deaths all came from the tsunami (a point which Fairlie bitterly contests, see Deaths From Fukushima). It also points out that the latest generation of reactors, such as the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), due to be installed at Hinkley, are resistant to aircraft attack. Other features are intended to avoid a Chernobyl-style disaster.
Yet a Finnish project using the same reactor at Olkiluoto has become embroiled in a legal dispute over flaws in its design. A similar project at Flamanville in France is six years overdue and €6billion over budget. ‘The problem is you can’t build the EPR,’ says Fairlie. ‘There are serious design flaws, particularly with the castings of the rector pressure vessels.’ Fairlie cites research from the University of Sussex, which has ‘recorded all nuclear accidents, put the data and causes into a computer and concluded that another nuclear accident on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima is more likely than not within the next ten years.’
‘Most reactors in Europe and around the world are past their sell-by date,’ he adds. ‘They’re living on borrowed time and we are crossing our fingers in the hope that nothing goes wrong. That’s not a very good way of going about things. With a coal-fired power station the worst that could happen is a major fire. With nuclear, as we saw with Fukushima, it’s very different.’
The main risk, according to Fairlie, is wear and tear. ‘There are concerns around pressure reactor vessels, abrasion of graphite moderators, which are worn away by carbon monoxide [used as a coolant gas]. We’re getting to the point where we are shaving things very thin.’
Antony Froggatt of Chatham House agrees and argues that to say that new-build nuclear is much safer is to miss the point. ‘The new generation of reactors have secondary containment and they are safer, assuming they are operated correctly,’ he acknowledges. ‘But the key issue is not the safety design of newer reactors, it’s that most of the existing reactors are of the older kind and they are being operated for longer and longer.’
Safety concerns stretch beyond the reactor, cautions Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace. ‘Safety does not only concern the reactor and its core,’ he says. ‘ The reactor is just the pivot point, there’s a whole lot of other stuff that happens, you can’t just point to the reactor and say that’s the end of the story. There are issues around transporting the fuel, discharges from the reactors while they are in operation, the spent fuel...’
Fairlie believes governments have failed to understand the implications of the Fukushima disaster. ‘It’s very strange. The Japanese government seems to be saying it will not have such an earthquake and combination of events again – is that realistic? The UK government has decided not to pre-distribute stable iodine to populations near nuclear power stations, even though other countries do. You just come back to the same point – is there a more rational way of satisfying our electricity needs?’
Such concerns are compounded by the secrecy with which the nuclear industry has tended to go about its business, and the WNA admits the industry has not helped itself. ‘There is a perception of nuclear that also has, in part, to do with the historical way the industry has communicated, which it hasn’t done particularly well,’ says Cobb.
‘The suspicion has a lot to do with emotion and fears,’ adds Baroni. ‘You can try and find rational arguments but if people are afraid they will not want to be close to it. Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island [a partial nuclear meltdown that occurred in Pennsylvania, USA in 1979] and Fukushima certainly did not help. Lack of transparency has been a problem. If people feel you are not telling them the truth it will not help. Fukushima was not well communicated. The industry has to be transparent when it comes to cost, safety and the case for nuclear.’
Baroni also feels this applies to what to do with plants when they reach the end of their working lives. ‘How do you dismantle them? There are a lot of materials to deal with. The knowledge is there to do it, it’s not unsolvable. It’s a question again of communication, of making clear just who will pay for it.’
Another concern, particularly vocal in the UK at the time of the Hinkley decision, is that backing nuclear means that less money and research is invested in renewables; the latter risks becoming the poor relation in energy production. The Stop Hinkley campaign says regional funds would be better spent on solar, wind, wave and tidal power (see Renewables vs Nuclear).
In Britain, domestic energy bills appear to reinforce this tension. Froggatt points out that household energy bills include a control framework levy, an additional sum added on for investment in new technology. ‘This levy covers both nuclear power and renewables – there is a direct competition for funds between them.’ Unless the levy is increased, he warns, ‘if all the planned reactors in the UK are built then the subsidy for building them will not leave a great deal for renewables.’
Froggatt, however, is sceptical that many countries will turn to nuclear to meet pledges on greenhouse gas emissions; and doubts that the 2015 Paris Climate Treaty will herald an increase in nuclear power. ‘I don’t really see how that can be the case. If you look through the INDCs [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, the measures by which countries will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions], not many countries are talking about turning to nuclear as part of the answer. If nuclear is going to play a bigger role it needs to expand to more countries and barely a handful have started nuclear programmes in the past 20 to 25 years.’
How will nuclear’s role unfold over coming decades? Baroni sees two possible projections, both of which see nuclear playing a significant part in the global energy mix. The first scenario sees world governments more or less complying with commitments they made at Paris, along with other greenhouse gas reduction initiatives. In this case, the amount of electricity generated from nuclear power rises from 400GW in 2016 to 600GW in 2040 and the sector’s share of global energy rises marginally from 11 per cent to 12 per cent.
In the second scenario, where countries make more meaningful efforts to keep global temperature rises to below 2ºC – which Paris does not aim to do – nuclear plays a far more pivotal role, doubling generation to 800GW by 2020 and representing 18 per cent of energy production. ‘Nuclear will be a big part of the answer to decarbonising for some countries, in others, less so,’ says Baroni.
The mistake, he says, would be to see nuclear as the sole silver bullet. ‘I’m not saying you can’t meet the most ambitious carbon reduction targets without nuclear – New Zealand, Brazil and Norway are doing just that [mainly through hydro]. The most important measure is energy efficiency. Then it’s renewables, followed by nuclear and carbon capture and storage. Nuclear is not indispensable but in some countries it is likely to be part of the solution.’
Surprisingly, Blagojevic says Greenpeace is not unequivocally against nuclear. ‘Nuclear power should be an energy source of the last resort and we are not at that point yet,’ she says. Nuclear will have a role to play, maintains Cobb, who agrees that coal use needs to be addressed. ‘We won’t meet our low-carbon targets just by keeping things running as they are,’ he says. ‘We need to commit to a low-carbon future. Nuclear needs a level playing field, which means appropriate pricing for carbon.’
Froggatt is more sceptical. ‘I expect we will see a small increase in nuclear power plants over the short-term as China continues to build but then we will see a decline as it no longer becomes viable to extend the working lives of the older ones and the market price of renewables continues to fall. Markets will drive out the least economic reactors. Will the bigger push to decarbonise energy production reinvigorate nuclear power? I would say probably not.’
This was published in the March 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.