Nuclear energy is pretty dead for now

Published by rudy Date posted on March 18, 2011

Until last week, it seemed like nuclear energy was going to experience a return to favor. Even the Obama administration was looking at nuclear energy as the cheap and clean alternative to coal in this era that’s super conscious of the serious impact of greenhouse gases on our weather patterns.

What happened in Fukushima last week after a nine-magnitude earthquake and the pretty powerful tsunami that followed dramatically changed things for nuclear energy. Today, no politician will endorse nuclear energy unless he or she has a political death wish. Even Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who is a trained physicist had to make a U-turn on nuclear energy in the wake of forthcoming elections.

Fukushima’s effects have been sudden and dramatic for the nuclear power industry. Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition had just overturned a plan enacted by a previous government to end nuclear power generation in Germany by 2022. The Merkel government decreed that nuclear power plants would be allowed to operate 12 years longer on average as part of a broader energy plan meant to boost conservation and improve energy security.

While they did not dare to suggest building new nuclear plants, the Economist observed that Merkel and her allies found it “a pity to shut down depreciated plants producing cheap, climate-friendly electricity well before the end of their useful life.” But, The Economist reported, “with the Fukushima plant spewing radioactivity, Mrs. Merkel’s courage has failed.

“Yesterday she announced that the government would enact a three-month ‘moratorium’ on its plan to extend the operating life of nuclear plants.’ She also announced that seven plants built before 1980 would be shut down temporarily. Some will probably not reopen.” The Japanese disaster is a “turning point in the history of the industrial world,” she said.

Bloomberg reports that Germany halted 25 percent of its nuclear-generated electricity because of Fukushima. India, “with $175 billion in planned spending by 2030, is reassessing the technology.”  Bloomberg reports Shreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of the Nuclear Power Corp. of India, said in Mumbai that Japan’s disaster may be a “big dampener” on India’s nuclear program.

Political doubts after the Japan disaster may signal dwindling appetite for new plants, Bloomberg reports. But France, the business news agency said, reaffirmed its backing for nuclear power even as Germany took older units offline for a safety review and Switzerland put renewal of three atomic stations on hold.

What happens in the next few days and weeks in Fukushima will impact greatly on the ability of nuclear energy to grow its share of the world’s power generation.  A large radiation release reaching the Japanese public would be “a big step backward,” James Bartis, a senior research analyst at the Santa Monica, California-based public policy group Rand Corp., said in an interview with Bloomberg.

The problem with the handling of the Fukushima disaster is the way the Japanese authorities are rationing information. Nuclear energy is, in the best of times, a pretty scary thing for many people. In the face of what is happening there now, rumors are overtaking official announcements and incomplete information is promoting massive fear, uncertainty, speculation and panic.

Beyond saying the tsunami knocked out backup generators needed to cool the reactors, the Japanese authorities are not saying much on what really happened. For those who know a bit more about nuclear energy and would probably even support its use in normal times, it is puzzling how redundant backup safety generators to power auxiliary cooling systems could have failed.

A nuclear industry expert writing in the CNN website suggested uncharacteristic sloppiness on the part of the Japanese operators of the nuclear power facility. Glenn E. Sjoden, a PhD professor of nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech wrote that “if the backup generating (diesel) sources had been properly sited to operate post-tsunami, the Daiichi reactors would now be stable… this has been devastating — all for want of some diesel fuel, clean water and decent electrical couplings on backup generators.

The fire that broke out in a storage pool for spent fuel rods is also difficult to explain, given the Japanese reputation for meticulous handling of such systems to ensure safety.

Sjoden also suggested that the power plant itself is of an old design (early ‘70s) and the accident would be unlikely in new plant designs. “It’s worth noting that had the reactor plants at Daiichi been modern power reactor designs, no active cooling would be required, and the decay heat would have been removed through an automatic convection cooling mechanism afforded in all modern passively safe reactor designs. Only the older units require active cooling for decay heat removal.”

That view is probably why Germany decided to stop the operation of its older units and may likely not put them back on line.

Directly affected by the Fukushima disaster is General Electric. Tokyo Electric Power Co. operates and maintains the Daiichi plant complex. But the nuclear power plants were designed by General Electric. As one observer puts in a comment given to Bloomberg, “It’s not good to have your company’s name mentioned repeatedly next to ‘large nuclear accident,’ regardless of the safety potential of your current offering.” No wonder GE is offering aid, including 10 truck-mounted gas turbines being flown to the Dai-Ichi plant to help restore power.

Fukushima will most likely boost the use of liquefied natural gas for power generation as a reaction to the nuclear accident. Solar and wind power, the favorites of so-called environmentalists are still not economically competitive and require feed-in tariffs, a direct imposition on consumer power bills, to encourage power companies to use them. For power consumers like us with one of the world’s highest power rates, the feed-in tariffs will prove to be unwelcome indeed.

Sjoden says “we need to reflect on the simple truth that we do not have a non-fossil alternative that can make up the substantial power needs of the world other than nuclear power. Sure, we can use solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass and the like, but collectively, on a future very good day, using every practical alternative resource to expand these alternative energy sources, they will only amount to a grand sum of 20 percent of our energy needs.

“To keep global warming in check, and faced with the concept of rolling blackouts or steady, clean electricity, the gap can and must be made up with modern nuclear power, which is passively safe with the newest design.”

But for now and in the foreseeable future, it seems clear that nuclear energy will be too hot to handle for any political leader of any country. What happened in Fukushima aside, it would be unwise to forever rule out nuclear energy as an option. But the scientists and the nuclear power industry will have to be more forthcoming to the public on the real risks of using this energy source. –Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star)

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