New Scientist  [Printer-friendly version]
April 26, 2006

IS IT ALL OVER FOR NUCLEAR POWER?

[Rachel's introduction: Wind, solar and other forms of renewable
energy are sprouting all over the world. Local, small-scale energy
projects now produce more power than the nuclear industry, globally.
As Lester Brown pointed out in March, the U.S. could meet all of
its electricity needs from wind alone. Next-generation nuclear plants
face MANY challenges. This article explains why nuclear power is
doomed (though that won't stop pro-nuke campaigners from trying).]

By Michael Brooks

Adam Twine doesn't look like the kind of person the nuclear industry
should be scared of. An organic farmer, Twine is skinny, with big
round glasses and unruly hair that makes his head look like it's
fraying at the edges. How could he possibly be a threat to a
multibillion-dollar industry?

Maybe he wouldn't be if he were operating alone, but Twine is far from
alone and has serious money behind him. He has just managed to
persuade 2127 people to send him a total of more than u4 million that
he will use to set up a co-operative wind farm on land he owns in the
south of England. In fact, the idea of owning a share in the Westmill
wind farm in Oxfordshire has proved so popular that the project is
having to return some of the cash: it only needed u3.7 million [$6.9
million dollars]. The plan now is to give priority in ownership to
people living within 80 kilometres of the site, and asking others to
accept a smaller stake in the co-op.

Though the wind farm is small -- five turbines in a vast, bleak field,
amounting to 6.5 megawatts of electricity [500 megawatts would power a
small city of say 125,000 homes] -- it represents another nail in the
coffin of nuclear power, one of many being hammered in all over the
world. If the nuclear industry wanted to convince governments to start
building another generation of nuclear reactors as soon as possible,
it needed to bury the likes of Twine before their schemes took off.
Now it may be too late.

According to projections by the International Energy Agency and a
handful of energy industry experts, 2005 was the first year nuclear
power's electricity output dropped behind that of small-scale plants
producing low or no carbon dioxide emissions -- and that's not
counting large hydroelectric projects on the low-carbon side of the
balance sheet.

Though small, such projects are already flourishing. Much of the
world's small-scale generation involves combined heat and power "co-
generation" projects, whose carbon dioxide emissions are 30 to 80 per
cent less than that of large-scale gas-fired plants. On average they
are at least 50 per cent less. The worldwide uptake of this technology
is being accompanied by fast growth in the use of renewables such as
solar and wind. The Danish company Bonus, from which the Westmill co-
operative wants to buy its wind turbines, now has a backlog of orders
from wind farms in Texas, Florida, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and
Greece. In 2005 the company, bought by Siemens, almost doubled its
wind turbine sales, and its fabrication capacity for 2006 is fully
booked.

This burgeoning "micropower" movement is a significant step towards
reducing carbon emissions (New Scientist, 21 January, p 36). It is
also a knock for a nuclear industry that has been struggling to get
back on its feet in the western world. Until last year, near-zero
emissions of greenhouse gases were nuclear power's trump card, its big
advantage over other sources of electricity and the one thing that
might make western governments invest in a nuclear renaissance:
nuclear is clean and produces a lot of power, so we need it. That
argument now has a hole punched through it, and it boils down to
economics.

Until recently, it seemed the wide-scale construction of a new
generation of nuclear power plants was inevitable. China is investing
in nuclear, after all, as are Japan, Russia and India, so why not the
west? Though Germany, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland have forsworn
investment in new nuclear plants, other western nations, notably the
UK, France and the US, are taking the idea seriously. In August 2005,
the US government handed out a range of nuclear subsidies and
incentives worth nearly $20 billion. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony
Blair has commissioned an energy review with what is widely believed
to have a pro-nuclear agenda, marking a move away from the position
three years ago when his government said there was no case for nuclear
new build. France, which already gets 78 per cent of its electricity
from nuclear power, has its eye on starting construction of at least
one more plant within the next decade.

In the UK and the US, the case for a nuclear renaissance is on the
table mainly because the reactors now generating electricity are
coming to the end of their lives. The cry is going up that this will
lead to an energy gap: in a few years there won't be enough
electricity to go round, and the lights will go out. That's a
simplistic analysis, of course. "The idea of a 'gap' is artificial and
fails to acknowledge the dynamics of the market system," says Jim
Watson, an energy analyst in the Science Policy Research Unit at the
University of Sussex, UK. The energy markets in these countries will
tend to ensure that there will always be electricity to buy and sell,
Watson points out. The cost may go up and the sources may change, but
the market will quickly adjust by using more electricity derived from
coal and gas, for instance.

Without nuclear, though, won't we be producing ever more carbon
emissions? Not necessarily. Nuclear never was part of the short-term
solution to climate change, and the rapid growth in small-scale energy
production means nuclear may not be needed as part of the long-term
solution either.

Of the electricity added to the worldwide supply in 2004, micropower
technologies generated almost three times as much as nuclear. Spain
and Germany's ventures into wind power alone added as much power
capacity in 2004 as the world's nuclear industry will add from 2000 to
2010. Industry projections indicate that by 2010, renewable and low-
carbon sources will offer 177 times as much added capacity as nuclear.

This is not going to be enough to power the world; large-scale fossil-
fuel generators will still be needed in this timescale. But the
overarching global trend is clear. Few new nuclear stations will be
operating before 2020, and by the time these plants are even half-
built, there will be enough low or no-carbon electricity available
from non-nuclear sources to give investors in nuclear plants second
thoughts.

The 'negawatt' effect

If they ever invest at all, that is. In January, the financial analyst
Standard & Poors issued a report saying that even the new incentives
for the US nuclear industry will not be enough to persuade investors
to climb aboard; from a business perspective, nuclear remains the
highest-risk form of power generation. That's because the subsidies
don't deal with the capital, operating and decommissioning risks that
most concern the capital markets, says Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky
Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based energy analysis firm. "The effect
of even such huge subsidies will be the same as defibrillating a
corpse," he says. "It will jump, but it will not revive."

What's more, a report issued in February by the California-based
Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), whose members include
private and public organisations concerned with power generation and
distribution, says that implementing energy efficiency measures
together with technologies that can respond to changes in demand
offers a cost-effective alternative to adding new generating capacity.

Contrary to what is often said, we are getting better at controlling
our hunger for electricity. If you want proof, just ask the US firms
who built gas-fuelled power plants capable of generating 200 gigawatts
of electricity, and then found that the anticipated demand they were
catering for never materialised. The investors lost $100 billion.
According to Lovins, worldwide electrical savings, or "negawatts", now
match or exceed global additions of low or no-carbon micropower. So
far, the EPRI says, we have only scratched the surface of possible
efficiency increases; it is estimated that the US could save three-
quarters of the electricity it now uses.

Some states are making progress towards this goal. In California,
energy use per capita has been flat for 30 years, and the state has
issued plans to halve its rate of growth of electricity consumption by
2013. Vermont has done even better, with efficiency measures that have
already cut per capita energy use.

It is economics that is driving these changes. Producing and
delivering electricity costs money, so not wasting it makes good
sense. Businesses, of course, respond well to market forces and are
implementing changes well ahead of domestic users. DuPont's 600-
hectare Chambers Works in New Jersey has reduced by one-third its
energy use per kilogram of chemical produced. Western Digital's disc
drive factory in Malaysia cut energy use by 44 per cent and recouped
the cost of implementing the efficiency measures in just one year. By
last year, Toyota US had reduced its energy consumption per unit of
production by 15 per cent from 2000 levels. All these measures add up
to less need for new electricity generating plants.

Nuclear power is also being squeezed on the cost of the electricity it
produces. According to a report last year by the New Economics
Foundation, a London-based think tank, a kilowatt-hour of electricity
from a nuclear generator will cost as much as 8.3 pence once realistic
construction and running costs are factored in, compared with about 3
pence claimed by the nuclear industry -- and that's without including
the cost of managing pollution, insuring the power stations or
protecting them from terrorists. This compares with about 3.4 pence
for gas, 5 pence for coal and up to 7.2 pence for wind power,
according to a report in 2004 by the UK's Royal Academy of
Engineering.

The same report told the government that it has to ensure the "long-
term stability of electricity prices" if it wants people to invest in
nuclear power. Around the same time, Oxera, a firm of energy
consultants based in Oxford, UK, reported that a new-build nuclear
programme in the UK would require an injection of billion[s] in
government grants to make the idea appeal to private investors.

The action needed to meet either of these requirements is unlikely to
be allowed within the European Union. Andris Piebalgs, the EU's
commissioner for energy, wants different forms of energy production to
compete with each other on a level playing field, and has declared
that state funds must not be used to subsidise the building of new
nuclear plants. British Nuclear Fuels and the UK's Nuclear
Decommissioning Authority have already been subject to an 18-month
inquiry over potential infractions of fair competition -- though even
Gordon MacKerron, head of the UK's Committee on Radioactive Waste
Management and no fan of the nuclear lobby, has called the alleged
infractions "marginal". Finnish line

More serious are allegations against the European Pressurised Reactor
(EPR) at Olkiluoto, Finland, the only nuclear power station presently
under construction in Europe. A relatively new design of pressurised
water reactor, the EPR is being built jointly by the French nuclear
company Areva and the German company Siemens, and is being financed at
extremely low rates of interest by French and German state-owned
organisations. The scheme is being investigated by the European
Commission, following a complaint by the European Renewable Energies
Federation that the financing breaches the commission's rules.

If the complaint is upheld, it will be a serious blow to the nuclear
industry, which likes to point to Olkiluoto as evidence of the
viability of new nuclear stations. That argument, however, is
questionable whatever the outcome of the complaint. The company the
plant is being built for, called TVO, is not a conventional
electricity utility, but a company owned by large Finnish industrial
concerns that supplies electricity to its owners on a not-for-profit
basis.

"The plant will have a guaranteed market and will not therefore have
to compete in the Nordic electricity market," says Steve Thomas, an
expert in nuclear economics at the University of Greenwich in London.
What's more, he says, suspicions have been raised that the Areva-
Siemens consortium is so anxious to showcase its technology that it
has "offered a price that might not be sustainable" just to get the
plant built.

If that is their aim, they may succeed. When the Olkiluoto project is
completed -- it is scheduled for 2009 -- it will become apparent
whether the EPR design works and how long it takes to build. The US
Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already investigating whether the EPR
is a good model for replacing US nuclear plants.

There are a couple of problems looming, though. First, the US is
experiencing some new public health and safety concerns: in March, the
state of Illinois filed a lawsuit against Exelon, which operates the
Braidwood nuclear power station, seeking damages over tritium leaks
from the plant. The regulatory commission has formed a task force to
investigate radioactive spills that have occurred at plants across the
US in the past decade. Any new technology will need to be proved safe
and reliable.

The second problem was highlighted at a seminar at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology last month, when Peter Lyons, head of the US
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, pointed out that few science and
engineering students are coming through to replace reactor workers who
are now retiring. As a result there will soon not be enough people to
build and operate new reactors. The next decade will be crucial, Lyons
said. If the US does not start investing in nuclear energy over that
period, it will have neither the skilled workers nor the industrial
infrastructure for nuclear power to be a viable option.

It is not just for the US that this is a problem. Last October, UK-
based energy consultant Ian Fells told an energy conference in Rimini,
Italy, that there are only six engineering consortia in the world
capable of building a nuclear power station. None of them is British.
"We do not have the skills to build nuclear power stations in the UK
anymore," Fells told the conference. "The teams of engineers that
built Sizewell B in 1995 are all retired or dead." Even the limited
construction now taking place across the world is stretching the
industry's capacity, and a construction queue is developing that could
kill nuclear plans for the UK, Fells says. Bridging the gap

Despite these obstacles, Fells remains a supporter of nuclear new-
build as the best way to secure energy supplies and protect the
environment. "My feeling is that it is inevitable that we add a new,
nuclear electricity supply component to our energy mix," he says. He
envisages a future in which 30 per cent of the UK's energy comes from
new nuclear plants. Just maintaining the nuclear status quo in the UK,
however, would require eight to 10 new plants, which he says might not
be up and running for 25 years.

That time lag could prove fatal for the nuclear industry. As existing
plants go into decline and are shut down, something else has to
replace their generating capacity. Adam Twine and his ilk, with their
reduced or no-carbon technologies, are already taking up this slack
and pulling themselves into an ever stronger position.

Renewables alone won't bridge the gap, even with increased energy
efficiency. Fossil-fuel generators will also be needed, in both small-
scale projects and large plants, perhaps with carbon sequestration
(New Scientist, 3 September 2005, p 30). And here is the problem for
nuclear: any investment in new nuclear power could damage the chances
of making other climate-friendly technologies work. After all,
finances are not unlimited, and you can only spend the money once.

How can anyone justify spending it on something that is not proven to
be economical, not going to deliver for two decades -- and then will
only provide a limited solution? In the UK, nuclear power supplies
only 8 per cent of energy used, Watson points out. "Why prejudice
programmes and policies to tackle 92 per cent of emissions by spending
lots of political and financial capital on 8 per cent?" he says.

In the end, contrary to everything touted by the industry, nuclear
investment may not help reduce carbon emissions at all -- it might
even increase them over the next two decades. If nuclear supporters
are truly concerned about climate change and an energy gap, they ought
to be encouraging the take-up of renewable and low-carbon technologies
- the very technologies that threaten to drive their industry to
extinction.

Nuclear power continues to prompt concerns based on safety issues,
regulatory problems and the danger that it encourages proliferation of
nuclear materials and weapons. Now it also faces a bigger hurdle:
there are better economic options that are no less climate-friendly.
The slow, steady success of idealists like Twine is showing the world
that it no longer needs nuclear power.

==========

Energy security

How many countries want their energy sources to rest in the hands of
foreign governments? Such concerns were at their height during the
cold war, but they have not gone away completely. Are they a valid
reason for shifting towards new nuclear power plants for generating
electricity?

It's certainly true that much of the fuel for Europe's gas-fired
plants comes from politically unreliable states such as Russia. That
can lead to problems. In January, the supply to many European
countries was interrupted by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

In the US, gas sources are more diverse and less vulnerable, according
to a 2004 report from the University of Chicago on the economics of
nuclear power. The researchers studied the prices of natural gas in 34
countries from 1994 to 2002 to see how closely they were linked. They
found that the US buys from at least three major world markets in
natural gas, and that the groups' prices are not strongly linked. That
means, the report concluded, that no one will be able to hold the US
to ransom over gas supplies. So for the US, at least, security of fuel
supply is not a good argument for increasing the nuclear share of its
electricity market.

The point is reinforced when uranium sources are taken into account.
The expected expansion of China's nuclear programme could absorb all
the uranium supplied by Australia, which alone accounts for some 40
per cent of the world's uranium reserves.