Nuclear risks equation

Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director

The terrible events in Japan have reignited the debate about the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Nuclear is seen by supporters as one of the only options for keeping the lights on and reducing our carbon footprint. For opponents, nuclear is simply too expensive and unsafe, whatever the measure used. The use of nuclear power is expanding, especially in Asia – as we discussed in Nuclear rising in May 2010. In that alert, we highlighted the fragility of public opinion and the perceived risks of nuclear power as a critical factor in future success. The crippled nuclear plant in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami is such an event, and the question now is what impact it will have on long term prospects for nuclear, long term energy security and long term economic development.
What is changing?
62 new nuclear plants are currently under construction worldwide, 27 in China with another 50 planned there. Nuclear power contributes about 6% of global energy at present. Although the USA remains the largest producer in terms of Terawatt hours, France is the most dependent – relying on nuclear for about 75% of its electricity, Japan for about 29%.

Safe nuclear power requires engineering precision and adherence to specifications at every stage of the process; rigorous safety measures, accountability and controls; clear and secure plans for effective long term storage of waste and protection against misuse. There are appalling consequences if things go wrong, as past and present events have indicated. Waste disposal remains a major unresolved issue, especially in countries such as China and Russia where nuclear growth is greatest but where transparency is not good.

The daily images and reports about explosions, fires, leaks, exclusion zones and now water and food contamination rightly raise alarms and highlight the risks. They also affect public opinion and perceptions and reinforce an already very high level of fear and concern about nuclear safety, viability and desirability. But the relative risks, in terms of deaths, per Terawatt hour of electricity produced, for nuclear energy remain low, when compared with other sources of energy, as shown in the table below from an article in the Atlantic.

Why is this important?
The vulnerability of nuclear plants is a major issue. While the co-occurrence of an earthquake and tsunami is extremely rare, but as we have seen, not impossible, other external physical threats such as terror or extreme weather are also real. The Stuxnet incident in Iran, where the electronic controls in Iranian plants were very specifically targeted illustrates the potential for cyber-attacks on nuclear infrastructure. We may see tighter regulation and specification for protection, which will further increase cost and delay completion with significant knock on effects for energy security and supply.

Many existing nuclear power plants are old – in the USA nearly 100 are over 20 years old; over 50 more than 30 years old. Older technologies are more vulnerable. Germany is already reviewing its current older plants, to assess safety and security, and whether or not to extend operating life. France says that its new plants are more expensive because they are safer – but has lost out to other suppliers. Safety costs and designs may be reviewed or placed higher in the criteria. The UK government approved sites for 8 new reactors in 2010, on the understanding that no public money was required. The current crisis may make raising private investment far more difficult, and as a result either delay or even prevent some being built. In the USA, there is discussion of reducing the public loan guarantee schemes – again the assessment is that the result could be increased risk, reduced willingness to invest and delays or no new plant.

Energy security and cutting carbon emissions are both vulnerable if numbers of new or existing plants are reduced or delays become significant. Energy supply gaps are likely in the UK as early as 2016. Without nuclear, experts are saying there are real risks of the lights going out, radically reduced intermittent supply.

The impacts of the current power cuts in Japan and the resulting reduced production capacity and supply provide a stark insight into the potential risks to economic development if the lights do go out, even only intermittently. Even with only a partial loss of power Japanese production is being cut back, supplies of components for manufacturing elsewhere in Asia are already in short supply. Prices of manufactured products and power as well as other energy sources will rise; growth may falter – and not just in Japan.

China and Russia are both investing heavily in nuclear. Longer term, their ability to do so may further enhance their competitive position, relative to the West where more debate and public engagement may be needed to persuade investors and a reluctant public, and no guarantee of success.

But there may be some longer-term benefits of the Japanese disaster. Public, political and business awareness of the need for energy conservation and reduced demand, as well as investment in new sources of energy and energy security are critical to our future economic wellbeing. The co-occurrence of such an unlikely trio of events shows that it can happen, and that preparation helps. Contingency and disaster planning, not necessarily for specific events, but the general practices needed, are essential for continuity and resilience within companies and the wider economy. Companies should also review their own energy sources to diversify supply and their locations to check vulnerability in the unlikely event of a localised nuclear disaster. While the delays that new regulation may cause will be potentially problematic, the events may also result in new designs and improved protection in the future.

Overcoming the very real concerns about the risks of nuclear power is critical to its short and long term development but getting a balance between real and perceived risks could be difficult and time consuming.

View 1000’s more trends by visiting Shaping Tomorrow.


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