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2nd April 2012
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At the Tipping point?

Neil Eisberg, 2 April 2012

Fusion

The Japanese disaster at Fukushima in March 2011 scuppered what many people considered a growing restoration of confidence in nuclear energy. Recent news of a nuclear power deal by France and the UK, together with US approval for two new reactors, has gone some way to redressing the balance, but will this global nuclear energy revival survive?

That question has been on many observers’ minds over the past few months, as even previously strong nuclear supporters like France now appear to be turning their backs on what has arguably been described as the only true carbon-neutral energy source.

Key supporters

France has been the world’s major supporter of nuclear power, with more than 75% of its electricity generated by 58 nuclear power stations. The French presidential elections scheduled for April and May 2012 have taken on a nuclear flavour, with Socialist candidate Francois Hollande promising to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear power to 50% with the closure of 24 reactors by 2025, including the oldest plant at Fessenheim in Alsace, which dates back to 1977.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has responded by saying that the closure of the Fessenheim plant would be ‘at the costs of jobs in the nuclear industry, the cost of our industrial competitiveness and the cost of our energy independence’.

The deal signed in mid-February 2012 by Sarkozy and UK PM David Cameron, however, looks set to invigorate moves to get the UK’s new nuclear programme off the ground. The deal is reported to have secured Rolls Royce a £400m share of France’s energy major EDF’s project to build the UK’s first new reactor at Hinkley Point, near Bridgewater in Somerset. Other UK companies involved are said to be the recipients of further deals worth £115m.

Meanwhile, the world’s oldest nuclear power station was shut down at the end of February 2012 at Oldbury, on the Severn Estuary in south Gloucestershire. UK. The site, however, is earmarked for the construction of one of the UK’s new nuclear facilities by Horizon Nuclear Power, a jv involving German energy majors E.on and RWE, after 2025. Decommissioning the existing plant will take the next three years, to be followed by removal of hazardous materials and demolition of many of the buildings. Demolition of the reactor won’t begin until after 2100 when levels of radioactivity are deemed safe.

The UK sold off its nuclear expertise when the closure of existing power stations was announced by the then Labour administration. The Coalition administration has reversed that policy but progress has been hampered by LibDem resistance.

As if to emphasise the importance of nuclear energy, recent freezing weather conditions across Europe put additional strain on national grids. In France, the Cattenom plant in the northeast of the country dropped offline in mid-February, due to a non-nuclear breakdown. In Germany, where eight of 17 reactors were taken offline in 2011 as part of plans to phase out nuclear by 2022, five of the eight were designated as reserve generation facilities and a number have been brought back online. Germany is also reported to have imported electricity from Austria to help maintain supplies.

But elsewhere in Europe the anti-nuclear lobby has enjoyed some success. In September 2011, the Swiss parliament approved a plan for a phased exit from nuclear with the non-replacement of its existing five plants when they come to the end of their operational life in 2034. The Swiss Office of Energy has now estimated the cost of shutting down the five plants at SwFr20.7bn, with the most costly part being the nuclear waste management.

The Czech Republic has also decided to prune its original plan to produce up to 80% of its energy needs by nuclear by 2060. Around a third of Czech electricity is produced by two nuclear plants located in Temelin, south of Prague, and Dukovany, in the southeast, and this proportion is estimated to rise to 50% when two new reactors are brought onstream by 2025.

In November 2011, Poland announced its first nuclear power station is planned to come onstream by 2020. The decision to move to nuclear should help to meet EU CO2 emissions reductions – Poland currently relies on coal-powered stations for its electricity – and improve energy security by reducing imports. Poland has, however, pulled out of a four-nation project, with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, to construct a nuclear power station in Visaginas, Lithuania, to replace the now closed plant at Ignalina, which had supplied up to 70% of Lithuania’s energy requirements.

Finland is also pushing ahead with plans for a nuclear plant at Pyhajoki. Fennovoima, the Finnish national energy company owned by E.on and a consortium of Finnish companies, is now evaluating bids for the plant including a submission from the EPR consortium, which includes France’s Areva, and is currently constructing a plant, Finland’s fifth reactor, at Olkiluoto. Areva is also bidding for the planned UK nuclear expansion.

Mixed futures

The US is also bucking the trend against nuclear energy, with the approval of its first new nuclear plants in over 30 years. The vote by US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was not unanimous, however, with one of the five commissioners, Gregory Jaczko arguing for ‘binding commitments’ to implement design changes that will fully address the risks exposed by the disaster in Japan.

The NRC has approved two combined licences (COLs), which authorise Southern Nuclear Operating Company (SNC) to build and operate two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors adjacent to the company’s existing reactors at its Vogtle site southeast of Augusta, Georgia. At the end of 2011, the NRC certified Westinghouse’s amended design that includes passive safety features that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for electricity or human intervention.

But Europe and the US are not the only places where nuclear projects are moving forward. In Asia, India currently has 20 nuclear plants in operation with a further seven under construction and is struggling to meet the 6% annual growth in energy demand now satisfied mainly by coal-powered electricity generation. China, too, is planning to expand nuclear power generation. It currently has 14 operational rectors and 26 under construction – the largest proportion of reactors currently under construction globally. China is also working on a new reactor design in cooperation with Terrapower, a company created and funded by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates. This so-called fourth-generation reactor design is said to be low cost and safe, with low waste generation.

South Korea is also planning to increase its nuclear power capacity despite objections. The country currently operates 21 reactors, which are believed to supply around 30-35% of its electricity demand; however, the government wants to raise this proportion to 40% by 2040 and is planning a further 12 plants. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s recently re-elected president Ma Ying-jeou has given his support for completion of the commissioning of the NPP-4 nuclear plant in New Taipei City, which comprises two advanced boiling water reactors that have been beset by problems during pre-operation testing in 2011.

In Japan, another nuclear reactor has been closed down resulting in just two out of an original total of 54 remaining in operation, with the closure of these plants for inspection expected during April 2012. And there is mixed support for nuclear power in the oil-rich Middle East, with Kuwait recently announcing that it is abandoning its plans to build four nuclear reactors by 2020 as a result of the Fukushima disaster.

Mixed signs

In 2010, the nuclear share of total world commercial primary energy usage fell to around 5%, down from a peak of 6% in 2001/2, according to a Vital Signs Online report from the Worldwatch Institute in December 2011. Only four countries: the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and the UK, increased their share of nuclear power by over one percentage point between 2009 and 2010. Worldwatch also reported a decline in installed nuclear capacity due to halted construction in the wake of Fukushima.

‘It’s too early to conclude that nuclear energy is beginning a long-term decline,’ said Worldwatch president Robert Engelman. ‘The high cost of nuclear electricity generation and the widespread public perceptions that it poses unacceptable safety risks make it unlikely this form of power will help slow human-caused climate change or offer an attractive alternative to rising fossil-fuel prices any time soon.’

Whether one agrees with this view or not, the signs are mixed for the future of nuclear power, which is indeed at a tipping point.

Safety, subsidies and the environment

Safety concerns are not the only possible slayer of Europe’s nuclear ambitions. Energy Fair, together with other environmental groups, has sent a formal complaint to the European Commission concerning the level of nuclear subsidies. If the complaint is upheld, Energy Fair believes it is unlikely that any new nuclear power stations will be built in the EU.

If the operators of nuclear plants were to be fully insured against the cost of accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima then Energy Fair believes the price of electricity generated by nuclear stations would rise by between €0.14 and €2.36/kWh. Even at the lowest level, nuclear-based electricity would become uncompetitive.

Energy Fair’s Gerry Wolff says: ‘There is no justification for any kind of subsidies for nuclear power. It is a mature technology that should be commercially viable without support.’

And while nuclear power could make a major contribution in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, this would lead to considerable impacts on natural resources and the environment, according to a report published in December 2011 by the UK’s SPRIng research consortium, which is funded by EPRSC and ESRC and led by the University of Manchester.

According to British Energy, part of French energy major EDF, all reputable studies agree that nuclear is very low carbon compared with fossil fuels. And it is also comparable with wind generation in terms of its carbon ‘footprint’, at around 5g/kWh of electricity, even when the energy used in uranium mining and fuel manufacture, construction, decommissioning and waste disposal is taken into account.

However, SPRIng notes that it would also require a much larger nuclear expansion than currently planned in the UK to increase the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear power to 35% of the total mix – almost double the current proportion. The findings also highlight possible uranium fuel shortages that would constrain future development unless major new reserves can be identified and exploited economically.

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