Debating future power needs and at what price

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am


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The Issues

Concerns about the safety of nuclear power emerged after Japan was rocked by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami in March. Last year's reported fuel tube leak at Daya Bay in Shenzhen also eroded enthusiasm for nuclear power and led to much scepticism.

Hong Kong authorities are again reviewing safety issues before deciding whether to revamp the present coal-dependent fuel mix. Below is a summary of the hot topics of discussion regarding nuclear power.

Safety concerns

Everyone is legitimately concerned about safety.

The Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Co claims Daya Bay's nuclear reactors are designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 9.67 on the Richter scale. It is kept a safe distance from the city as regulated by the current evacuation zone of a 20km radius set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Yet these assurances are not enough to put environmental groups and political parties at ease. They say the risks are still too great and advocate banning the use of nuclear power in the territory.

After Fukushima, Greenpeace formed an independent monitoring panel, which included 13 lawmakers and green activists, to keep track of Daya Bay's safety performance by gathering information from the government and the plant.

Leading campaigner Prentice Koo Wai-muk thinks technology is not advanced enough to handle accidents that could have grave consequences.

'We have never seen the government confidently and successfully solve a nuclear crisis in history,' Koo says. 'In the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, there were no contingency plans to tackle radiation leaked into the atmosphere or efficiently and safely evacuate residents.'

Environmental concerns

Nuclear scientists such as Professor Roger Cashmore, chairman of United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, say the greatest virtue of the electricity produced by nuclear power is that nuclear fission is clean. 'It emits none of the greenhouse gases that are warming the climate,' he says.

The Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Co claims that the operation of Daya Bay means that Hong Kong doesn't have to deal with about 7.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, thousands of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and hundreds of tonnes of airborne particulates being produced by fossil fuel plants each year.

However, Koo says nuclear plants still emit greenhouse gases during the mining and transporting of uranium deposits, although they are often far away, in such countries as Kazakhstan, Australia and Canada.

He agrees that the carbon footprint in the production of nuclear energy is half that of natural gas and coal, but argues it is still triple or quadruple that of renewable energy.

There are also unresolved waste questions that Koo says should dissuade authorities from pursuing new nuclear plants.

The government now disposes of Daya Bay's nuclear waste onsite and at a former chemical plant in the northwest but has not yet discussed how to recycle the waste.

Cost efficiency

Despite subsidies from the central government, nuclear energy still comes with an enormous price tag. Each reactor costs US$20 billion to US$80 billion to build because it takes strenuous research, comprehensive safety facilities and manpower.

The cost needed to dismantle a generation III reactor after its lifespan of 50 to 60 years ends is not reflected in the current price of electricity in many countries. In 2009, Greenpeace estimated the price of energy produced by nuclear plants in Netherlands, which has the world's strictest safety regulations, using a methodology developed by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It found that to be profitable, wholesale electricity should be Euro43 (HK$436) to Euro100 per MW hour. The price in 2009 was Euro60 per MW hour.


Nuclear proponents agree that the best hope for the future lies in new designs for reactors. Light water reactors can now use only 1 per cent of the mined uranium. But Cashmore says that as research and development advances, the new generation IV reactors will run more efficiently and will dominate the scene by 2050.

Meanwhile, the European Union has agreed to allocate Euro1.3 billon over the next two years to try to harness nuclear fusion - which produces energy by joining two nuclei - into an affordable solution.

'Scientists are keen and excited about fusion because it will become a massive source of energy in the future if we can make it work,' Cashmore says.

The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Britain was the pioneer in the technology. Its first fusion reactors could generate 50 MW of power - 10 times more energy per MW of input - though the energy produced lasted for only a second.

Now researchers are aiming to produce five seconds of energy in 2015 and hope to bring the power onto the grid by 2050.

Koo says the nuclear scientists are making empty promises. 'There has been talk about generation IV reactors and nuclear fusion since the 1960s. But until now, there does not seem to be any breakthrough in technology.'

The News

Nuclear power is back at the top of the political agenda. The government proposed last December to increase the proportion of atomic energy in Hong Kong's fuel mix from the current 23 per cent to 50 per cent by 2020. This would see nuclear power replace coal as the dominant energy source.

Officials say nuclear is the way to meet an estimated 40 per cent increase in energy demand in the next decade, cope with soaring oil and gas prices, and solve problems such as dwindling fossil fuels and climate change.

Hong Kong imports 70 per cent of the annual output from Daya Bay, the first commercial nuclear power station on the mainland. Its two pressurised water reactor electricity generators are 20km from Hong Kong's border, in Shenzhen.

Many countries across the globe feel a similar strain on their energy supplies as their populations grow and seek higher standards of living.

Currently, 400 nuclear reactors are operating across the world, with 40 more under construction in the fast-growing economies of China and India. Each can run for 50 to 60 years on average before needing to be dismantled.


what people are saying

'With the development of new technology, people are using more electrical devices like notebooks, game consoles and electric cars. There will be a jump in energy consumption everywhere. Nuclear alone has the potential to deliver sustainable energy for 600 years or more at the cheapest price on a large scale.'

Roger Cashmore, chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and former deputy director general and research director at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland

'There is no need for nuclear power, but for renewable energy. I think the two are not compared using the same scale. If they are judged fairly, renewables are certainly a better investment. Uranium will last for another 100 years, while solar and wind power is unlimited. Nuclear can cause unprecedented disasters on a huge scale, but with renewables, the worst scenario is a dropping wind turbine.'

Prentice Koo Wai-muk, a campaigner for Greenpeace

'We want the company [Hong Kong Nuclear Investment] to have a quick, timely and simultaneous public release of information relating to nuclear power, and make reasonable arrangements to step up transparency.'

Lai Tung-kwok, the under secretary for security

'As engineers, we acknowledge both possibility and probability. We use the term 'risk' to assess whether the exposure to danger is acceptable. In the case of nuclear power, although the consequences can be devastating, the likelihood of such a happening is very low. Above all, if things are assessed based solely on possibility, then there is virtually nothing we would consider safe enough to do.'

Tsang Wing-hay, Institution of Mechanical Engineers