Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nuclear Contentions

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the nuclear industry became increasingly bullish about the prospects of nuclear power. The World Nuclear Association asserted that ‘people can draw confidence from the absence of any health harm even from this extreme, highly unusual event,’ while its then director general, John Ritch, claimed that  ‘countries like Germany will soon demonstrate the economic and environmental irresponsibility of allowing politicians to set important national policies in the middle of a panic attack.’

While it accepted that there were short term impacts, in a report marking the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in March, the World Energy Council (WEC) commented  ‘Very little has changed... in respect of the future utilisation of nuclear in the energy mix.’ After surveying its members in 94 countries, according to senior project manager Ayed Al-Qatani, WEC had found that ‘The Fukushima accident has not led to any significant retraction in nuclear energy programs in countries outside Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Japan’. Progress in some countries had been delayed, but there was ‘no indication that their pursuit of nuclear power has declined in response to Fukushima.’ A subsequent report from the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), said that the Fukushima Daiichi incident had slowed nuclear growth by about 10% compared with projections before the accident.

This positive assertiveness, that all was, and will be, well, may overdone: the prospects for nuclear may not actually be as bright as portrayed. The NEA admitted that ‘as retirements increase in the 2030s and 2040s, a greater fraction of new-build will go to simply replace what already exists. Hence, it says ‘the growth of nuclear capacity could slow after 2030 unless there is a strong upturn in new construction at that stage’.

Moreover, there could be problems well before that.  In addition to the increasing economic problems facing the proposed nuclear programmes in the UK and USA, France is rethinking its policy on nuclear.  And Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and several other EU countries, are anti or non nuclear. Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also now adopted critical stances. Brazil has delayed work on a new nuclear plant and of course Japan in unlikely ever to build a new plant and may well keep most of the existing ones shut.

A 24-country public opinion study carried out by Ipsos in May 2011 found that 62% of those asked opposed nuclear power. 26% had changed their mind after Fukushima, with opposition in some countries being very high, ranging up to 69% in Brazil and 79% in Germany. Interestingly, it was at 62% in Russia and 58% in China- two of the key areas the industry looks to for future growth. A GlobeScan opinion poll, commissioned by the BBC, and completed in Sept 2011, put opposition in France at 83% and in Japan at 84%.

Certainly, given that context, internally, within the nuclear industry, the mood is more reflective. For example, Steve Kidd from the World Nuclear Association admitted, in the Industries trade journal Nuclear Engineering International, that since the Fukushima accident, ‘public and political acceptance of nuclear power has taken something of a knock in certain countries, resulting in the revival of phase-out policies.’ He went on:  ‘Even in countries where nuclear power is still being endorsed as a useful contributor to a clean energy future, statements in support of nuclear power have been something less than strong and positive endorsements. And if this is the case, political choices in favour of nuclear and decisions made by private companies to invest in new nuclear stations are likely to get deflected by the slightest problem, and other less worthy energy options may indeed be pursued’.

His view however was that much of this reaction was mistaken. Fukushima was ‘the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, with radiation releases and contamination in some communities. And yet there have so far been no radiation-induced deaths, nor are there likely to be any in the future. How can this relatively benign incident create such a degree of fear that it is dominating discussion of nuclear power’s future?’

He says, by way of explanation, that it is due to mistaken beliefs about the impacts of radiation.  And more specifically he says: ‘There is undoubtedly a huge economic impact of moving people from their homes and jobs in order to protect them, but the reason for this is the essentially unwarranted fear of radiation. This in itself can cause many illnesses, providing much wider implications a long way from the scene of the accident.’

He thus seems to put much emphasis on psychological and stress impacts. He admits that, in reacting to concerns from the public, the nuclear industry might inadvertently have enhanced the level of fear that surrounds nuclear power, by stressing safety issues so much.  However he comes perilously close to claiming that the main culprit was what he labeled the ‘anti-nuclear brigade’.  For them  ‘the misunderstanding of radiation is an important key to discrediting nuclear power,’ thereby raising unwarranted fears. ‘Yet they are the very people who are inducing such effects by continuing to feed the public scares about radiation! So the psychological impacts become essentially self-fulfilling; they stoke up an (illusory) fear and then complain about the consequences of this.’

In a subsequent article, he even suggested that ‘the high and apparently rising capital investment costs of nuclear plants in the western world’ might in part be due to the success of the anti-nuclear movement, asking  ‘could it be that public acceptance issue is at least partly to blame for the high costs of nuclear; indeed, perhaps not only the capital investment costs but also the operating costs of plants?’

As I argue in my new book, given that the nuclear industry is clearly suffering economic problems, with Fukushima adding more, while  renewables are doing very well around the world, it is perhaps not surprising that some of its supporters have become a little shrill. But it seems a little odd to try to blame the opposition for their problems. It may be true that the anti-nuclear movement can at times be less than rigorous in its use of campaigning arguments, but the issues it seeks to raise are, arguably, real ones, reflecting real concerns and risks, and technological choices. The relative significance of some of the risks can be debated, as can the benefits or otherwise of the various technologies, but to suggest that the nuclear lobby has a unique grasp of the truth seems, to put it mildly, unconvincing and possibly inappropriate.

In addition to health impacts, and the unresolved issue of waste disposal, there are other contentious issues.  Although the cost are high, the nuclear industry has stressed the economic benefits.  A report commissioned by EDF Energy claimed that expanding Britain's nuclear reactor fleet could boost the UK economy and create 32,000 jobs. Well maybe. But so would a renewables/efficiency programme on the same investment scale. The London based Citigroup financial assessors have suggested that the ‘strike price' needed to support nuclear plant construction under the proposed new government EMR arrangements might be £166 per MWh.  That’s more than is needed by offshore wind projects and much more than is needed for on land wind.

My new book ‘Fukushima: impacts and implications’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their new Pivot e-book initiative.

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