Thursday, October 1, 2015

Nuclear Power: pushing up daisies?

A photo of malformed daisies uploaded to Twitter from Japan went viral earlier this year, leading some to speculate that radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster had led to mutation.  National Geographic was more cautious, quoting Jeffrey J. Doyle, a professor of plant biology at Cornell University. Although he said it was possible the flower deformity could have been induced by radiation ‘this is a pretty common mutation in daisies that I've seen sporadically in various places not associated with radioactivity.’ The daisy site was also around 100 miles away from Fukushima, so that high radiation levels would not be expected:
However what is less disputed is that the global nuclear industry is in dire straights, with overall use static at around 11% of global electricity, and declining in some countries, with old plants closing and new projects being abandoned, while renewables are accelerating rapidly almost everywhere, supplying over 23% of global electricity. The 2015 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, noted that since 2000, wind added 355 GW and solar179 GW- respectively 18 and 9 times more than nuclear with 20 GW. And it won’t improve. Nuclear plant construction starts have fallen from 15 in 2010 to 3 in 2014, and of the 62 reactors said to be under construction at least three-quarters are delayed, some for many years, with 5 units having been ‘under construction’ for over 30 years. The most visible example have of course been the EPRs being built in Finland and France, both now many years late and vastly over budget, with new faults emerging all the time, making it even more uncertain that the UK version at Hinkley will go ahead.

The nuclear industry is not dead, but the overall picture was well summed up in the preface to the report by Jonathon Porritt: ‘Every year that passes reveals a widening gap between what is happening with the nuclear industry (forensically laid bare by successive Status Reports) and how so-called alternatives become a new paradigm (based on efficiency, renewables, energy storage and distribution), as portrayed by a wide range of commentators in the energy debate– from the International Energy Agency and mainstream investment banks through to entrepreneurs and NGOs’. With the projected costs of Generation III designs having increased eightfold (and none yet having been completed ) and more speculative nuclear options still decades away, he concluded that ‘the static, top-heavy, monstrously expensive world of nuclear power has less and less to deploy against today’s increasingly agile, dynamic, costeffective alternatives. The sole remaining issue is that not everyone sees it that way-as yet.’

Given this situation, it is certainly surprising that there is still support for nuclear in some countries.  The reports lead author Mycle Schneider said: ‘The gap between the perception of the nuclear sector by decision-makers, the media and the public and the general declining trend as well as the deep crisis that threatens the very existence of some of the largest players is puzzling. A thorough reality check is urgently needed, especially in countries like the U.K., where new nuclear investments- like Hinkley Point C- with huge public subsidies are still on the table.’

Germany has of course already done that, and along with Austria, Denmark, Ireland and others, decided that nuclear was not a viable option. However there remain issues with the cost of making the transition to a non-nuclear future. The economics of replacing fossil energy with renewables is complex, given that market prices, for example for gas, can vary in the short term, but it is clear that long-term, renewables are getting cheaper, while the cost of fossil fuel will rise, as will the environmental and health costs of using them. That is arguably also true for nuclear, although phasing out working plants obviously leads to extra costs (e.g. from the loss of potential revenues) and some see a full nuclear phase out as being expensive in the short term, even if it does reduce risks (e.g. of accidents) and costs (e.g. of impacts and waste management) long term.

Meeting that head on, a new German Federal Environment Agency report by the Oko Institute and Fraunhofer ISI assesses the impact of a global phase-out of nuclear by 2050 on the costs of meeting global climate policy targets in 2020. The analysis is based on simulations of a reference scenario and a nuclear phase out scenario, using the global energy systems model POLES. By 2020, the phase-out of nuclear power decreases the global share of nuclear energy from 12% to 8% and increases greenhouse gas emissions by 2% globally. That’s evidently because a full switch to renewables will take time and will be hard for some countries, though in others it will happen more rapidly: indeed the report says that in a minority of cases, emissions will actually fall. However that is, they say, mainly since switching to renewables increases costs, which will reduce energy use. A rather gloomy view: it could equally well be argued that, longer term certainly, renewables/efficiency costs will be lower than nuclear costs.  Some already are.

However on the basis of its assumptions, the report says that, in Annex I (industrial) countries, as defined in the Kyoto protocol (KP), by 2020 greenhouse gas emissions rise by 7%, emissions in the EU decrease slightly- by less than 1%. Two policy scenarios, an Annex I ‘all trade’ scenario and a ‘KP 2 Parties only’ scenario, are modeled to look at impacts on carbon emission certificates, within the Kyoto-defined global carbon trading regime. That is seen as the key way ahead, perhaps surprisingly given the poor performance of the EU Emission Trading system so far. But Germany, and some others in the EU, evidently think it can and should be improved on and spread wider. Under such a regime, will all Annex I countries involved, the modeling shows that, compared to an unchanged reference scenario, with the nuclear phase out, the price of emission certificates increases by 24% and total compliance costs of Annex I countries rise by 28%. Compliance costs increase the most for Japan (+58%) and the USA (+28%). In contrast, restricted trading of emission certificates results in a lower demand and in lower certificate prices. When trading of certificates is available only to countries that committed to a second Kyoto period, the nuclear phase-out results in a substantial increase of the compliance costs for the group of Annex I countries (but not for the EU and Australia), more than in the ‘all trade’ scenario.

Overall, the report says the findings highlight the importance of certificate trading to achieving climate targets in a cost-efficient way, enabling ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation to be pursued. The 2020 analysis show just a moderate increase of costs for more ambitions mitigation policies compared to BAU mitigation policies. But that
presumably assumes that tight carbon caps are set globally. That sadly is unlikely, although there are still hopes for the upcoming Paris COP 21. But ambitious renewables programmes may still go ahead in any case, driven by the fall in cost of renewables, and the rising direct and indirect costs and risks of fossil fuel and nuclear.  Emission Trading may help, but it’s not the only influence, and perhaps not a reliable one in any case: after all, by increasing direct fossil costs, it also helps nuclear. 


    Energy Analysis

  2. For nuclear power plants any cost figures normally include spent fuel management, plant decommissioning and final waste disposal. These costs, while usually external for other technologies, are internal for nuclear power. nuclear explosion