Power struggle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am

Nuclear has long been a dirty word for many countries when it comes to electricity generation. But with oil and gas prices rising, concern about continuity of supplies and a widespread belief that burning fossil fuels causes global warming, a serious reassessment is taking place.

There are alternatives - wind, solar and tidal energy among them - but these are still formative technologies and are, as yet, unable to provide continuous, on-demand electricity. Attention is now turning to what is known and reliable, and nuclear seems to be fitting that bill for the biggest energy consumers.

Those in the pro-nuclear camp generally cite the example of France, which has 59 reactors that provide 80 per cent of the country's electricity needs. The anti-nuclear lobby is just as quick to point out that nuclear power comes at a high price and the risks of something going wrong are ever-present. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, scenes of nuclear reactor accidents, are words that slip easily off their tongues.

Whatever the arguments, both sides agree that burning coal, oil and gas to produce electricity and heating is unsustainable at present levels and that an alternative has to be found quickly.

The director of nuclear safety for the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, David Lochbaum, said the world needed to stop talking about what to do and take action.

'We need to stop the debate and plan the path forward and start making progress down that path,' Mr Lochbaum said from Washington last week. 'We're running out of time for the best of choices. Global warming, for one, is a serious problem and we can't wait another year or two for more studies to be done. We need to do the best that we can from this day forward. Hopefully, it's not too late.'

Energy-hungry Asia is already acting. The region is leading the world in construction of new reactors and the US is on schedule to start building its first plants since the early 1970s. However, debate has broken out in nations where strong anti-nuclear lobbies have kept the nuclear power industry static. Even Australia, which has long shunned the idea of reactors, is talking about them.

Environmentalists are alarmed by the developments, pointing to the incident which caused a scaling back of nuclear reactor plans across Europe - the accident on April 26, 1986, at Ukraine's Chernobyl No4 reactor - as proof that nuclear is not the way to go. Although less than 50 people died in the explosion, the subsequent toll from the radioactive cloud that followed and spread across much of Europe is estimated in the thousands.

The disaster has had little effect on the nuclear industry in Asia, which has more than 100 reactors, 20 under construction and scores more planned.

Japan has 55 in operation, is building another and plans 12 more, but China and India are fast catching up as they struggle to meet the electricity demands of their booming economies. The mainland has nine reactors, two are being built and with plans for a five-fold increase in electricity output by 2020, up to 28 others are on drawing boards or have been proposed. India has 15, eight are under construction and 24 more have been proposed.

South Korea has 20 and is looking to build eight more, while Indonesia plans to start a nuclear power industry and has its sights set on four reactors.

In 2002, the US announced its Nuclear Power 2010 programme, aimed at building at least one new advanced-technology nuclear power plant in the US by the end of the decade. Although 20 per cent of America's electricity is generated by the nation's 104 nuclear power plants, no new ones have been built since the early 1970s. The scare over the meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979 put paid to new reactors, even though no deaths occurred.

In his State of the Union speech in January, US President George W. Bush announced more investment in 'clean, safe nuclear energy' as part of a wider plan to break his country's dependence on Middle East oil and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases produced by coal, oil and gas-fired power plants.

He pushed that vision at the weekend, saying: 'We ought to start building nuclear power plants again. It makes sense. Technology is such that we can do so and say to the American people, these are safe - and they're important.'

Mr Bush won't have to be so persuasive during his visit to India this week, where he is expected to sign a landmark nuclear energy technology co-operation deal. This is despite concerns that India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, may use the programme to help with its nuclear weapons industry.

The US Energy Department's launch on February 6 of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership detailed the extent of US ambitions, aimed at enabling 'the expansion of emissions-free nuclear energy worldwide by demonstrating and deploying new technologies to recycle nuclear fuel, minimise waste, and improve our ability to keep nuclear technologies and materials out of the hands of terrorists'.

US Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said nuclear power would bring 'virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe in an environmentally friendly manner'.

Such suggestions have been rejected by environmentalists, who say energy needs can be capably met with renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biomass. Environmental group Greenpeace has for decades been an opponent of the nuclear energy industry and has taken much of the credit for the present nuclear freeze across most of western Europe. Germany and Sweden have passed laws preventing the building of nuclear power plants and aim to gradually close existing stations.

Greenpeace International's nuclear campaigner, Jan Vande Putte, argued that nuclear power stations were far more expensive than the alternatives and that not one had yet been built without government subsidies. Uranium was scarce compared to renewable and fossil fuel resources and could never be considered in their place.

'If coal, gas and oil are replaced by uranium, we would run out in less than four years,' Mr Vande Putte told the South China Morning Post from Amsterdam recently. 'The only solution is renewables. Nuclear has lost the battle, both on its capacity to deliver and the cost issue and potential. The potential for wind, solar, biomass and geothermal power is far more world-wide than we will ever need.'

Nuclear power supporters reject such claims. They say renewable energies are unreliable and need traditional power plants as backup when there is no wind, sun or tide. Further, no economic method had yet been found to store electricity from such sources.

The president of the France-based Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, Bruno Comby, said France had some of the cheapest electricity in Europe because it was nuclear-generated.

'It's not cheap in the short term, because there's lots of investment to be done - you have to build the power plants, so the front cost is higher than gas, for example,' Dr Comby said. 'But the cost to maintain it is lower than the cost of burning gas, especially at today's cost, and lower at tomorrow's. Nuclear energy is a major solution.'

Cost was the reason France became the only nation in the world to fully embrace nuclear power. The 1973 oil crisis prompted the programme and the last reactor went online in 1999.

Another argument is that nuclear power is a 50-year-old technology and that 21st-century solutions should be found to the world's energy problems.

Mr Lochbaum, while not opposed to nuclear, believed there were better options available. Nuclear was a mature means of electricity generation, while wind and solar were comparatively new and had not reached such an advanced stage of development. These renewable energy means and other choices had the potential to make as much progress over the next half century, he contended.

'The existing nuclear power plants can be used if they're operated safely to help us transition to the energy of the future, which is more renewable technologies,' Mr Lochbaum suggested. 'It's not one size fits all - not just wind, or solar or biomass. We need to look at the resources of a region and figure out what makes the most sense for it.'

Dr Comby claimed that nuclear was the safest way to produce energy. In China alone, more than 6,000 coal miners were killed annually while in half a century of operation of well-managed western reactors, there had not been a casualty. Chernobyl had not only been poorly managed, but it was a reactor type that had long been superceded.

He said that with coal, oil and gas being increasingly used up - some experts say reserves will dry up within decades - the debate had to end.

'It's time that the kick-off was given,' Dr Comby said. 'The world is very much in the same situation now as France was in 1973. If there's a major oil crisis and many governments decide to shift to nuclear energy, it will take 25 years to complete the programme.'

On this point, at least, there is agreement: the world is running out of time to find alternatives.