Hype on nuclear power is misleading

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — Talk of a “global nuclear renaissance” remains just that — all talk. Notwithstanding the strong public relations campaign by the nuclear power industry and its powerful lobbying groups, nuclear energy is hardly the answer to the twin challenges of carbon mitigation and energy security that the world confronts.

Indeed, ever since the talk began in the mid-1990s, the share of nuclear power in global electricity has stagnated at 16 percent. Today, 429 power reactors worldwide generate 370 gigawatts of electricity, with just another 24 under construction, mostly in developing countries.

Yet such is the hype that Washington and New Delhi are seeking to sell a controversial nuclear deal to their skeptical publics by speciously presenting nuclear power as the answer to India’s rapidly growing energy needs. Despite tax concessions and other sops, the Bush administration, however, is still trying to revive the moribund U.S. nuclear power industry, with not a single new plant currently under construction.

Actually, the U.S. is counting on the deal with India to revitalize its own industry. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, “India plans to import eight nuclear reactors by 2012. If U.S. companies win just two of those reactor contracts, it will mean thousands of new jobs for American workers. We plan to expand our civilian nuclear partnership to research and development, drawing on India’s technological expertise to promote a global renaissance in safe and clean nuclear power.” But in India, the deal is beginning to unravel the government, making a midterm national election a virtual certainty.

Owing to the global warming crisis, nuclear power is no longer a hobgoblin to some environmentalists. With the power sector responsible for 24 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions in the world, cleaner means to produce electricity are necessary. Yet, for 10 distinct reasons, nuclear power is unlikely to make any real dent in global greenhouse-gas emissions or be a cost-effective answer to the growing electricity demands:

After declining for a quarter-century, the world nuclear power industry lacks the capacity to undertake a massive construction program that could make a noticeable difference to global warming. While nuclear power generation itself is “clean,” the nuclear fuel cycle is carbon-intensive, with greenhouse gases emitted in mining and enriching uranium with fossil fuels. Reactor construction also carries large carbon footprints. In addition, radioactive wastes from reactor operation pose technological challenges and inestimable environmental costs.

While nuclear-power proponents trumpet the emission-free front end, opponents cite the back end of nuclear power that is exceptionally problematic.

Independent studies worldwide show that electricity generated through currently available nuclear technologies is not cost-competitive with other conventional sources. Also, nuclear power is highly capital-intensive. The reason why not a single new power reactor in the U.S. has been built after the last one ordered in 1970 is largely economics. Two separate studies by the University of Chicago (2004) and MIT (2003) computed the baseline cost of new nuclear power at 6.2 to 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 3.3 to 4.2 cents for pulverized “clean” coal and 3.5 to 5.6 cents for a combined-cycle natural gas plant.

Little surprise, therefore, that more than 100 planned reactors were canceled in the U.S. in the period since 1970.

Resource-poor France and Japan remain exceptions to the global reluctance to embrace nuclear power in a major way. Despite the new intense Chinese interest in nuclear power, the reactors under construction or planned will increase the share of nuclear energy to barely 5 percent of China’s total generated electricity.

The world’s uranium stocks are limited and unless breeder technology is embraced in a big way or the higher-grade ores reserved for military programs are freed, the known uranium reserves may last barely 85 years, according to calculations published in the joint OECD-International Atomic Energy Agency Red Book.

Nuclear-fuel costs are escalating sharply because the international price of uranium has been rising faster than any other commodity. While the price of coal, measured in a two-decade time frame, has dropped, the spot price of uranium more than quadrupled just during 2004-07. Australia holds 41 percent of the known global uranium reserves, yet has not built a single nuclear power plant.

The lead time for construction of a power plant from any energy source other than large-scale hydropower is the highest for nuclear power. While a power reactor takes five to six years from start to finish, a gas-fired plant takes two years and a windmill even less.

Because of its potentially serious hazards, nuclear power faces a uniquely stringent regulatory regime, which adds to time and liability, along with associated costs of operational safety and spent-fuel management.

A tiny nuclear cartel made up of a few state-guided firms controls the global reactor and fuel supplies. This constitutes the most politically regulated and monopolized commerce in the world, with little sanctity of contract, as several cases in the past have showed. That is why many countries today view the idea of an international nuclear fuel bank as institutionalizing discrimination because it would allow a handful of advanced countries to preserve their supply monopoly.

Nuclear power involves significant external costs that the industry does not bear on its own, including costs related to accident-liability coverage, antiterrorist safeguards, radioactive-waste storage, retirement of old reactors, and international monitoring. State subsidies are not factored into the generating costs and thus remain hidden.

More than half a century after the then chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency, Lewis Strauss, claimed that nuclear power would become “too cheap to meter,” the nuclear-power industry subsists on state support — from subsidies to loan guarantees.

Nuclear power tends to put serious strain on water resources. The Light Water Reactors (LWRs) that make up the bulk of installed nuclear-power capacity are highly water-intensive, which sets a limit on where they can be located. As they copiously use water as a coolant, the LWRs appropriate large quantities of locally available water. Worse, they pump the hot-water reactor outflow back into rivers, reservoirs and oceans in a continuous cycle, damaging or altering plant and fish ecosystems.

As global warming accelerates and average temperatures and the ocean level rise, the LWRs will be particularly vulnerable and be less able to generate electricity at their rated capacity. Water shortages caused by climate change would adversely impinge on LWR operations when such reactors are dependent on waters from rivers or lakes.

During the intense 2003 heat wave in France, 17 reactors had to be scaled back in operation or turned off because of the rapid rise in river or lake temperatures, while Spain’s nuclear power reactor at Santa Maria de Garona was shut for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro River.

Reactors by the sea, of course, are better situated because they do not face similar problems in hot conditions. But what a global warming-induced rise in the ocean level would do was illustrated by the December 2004 tsunami, which inundated India’s second-largest nuclear complex and shut down the twin-reactor Madras nuclear power station.

Without a breakthrough in fusion energy or greater commercial advances in breeder reactors, nuclear power is in no position to lead the world out of the age of fossil fuels.

The path to energy and climate security lies through carbon-free renewable energy, which by harnessing nature frees a nation from reliance on external sources of fuel supply. A shift toward “renewables” is critical, given that global energy demand is projected to rise by 53 percent in 2030 from 2004. To achieve the transition to a world less reliant on carbon-based fuels, a massive increase in research and development on renewable technologies is called for.

Wind power is already less inexpensive than nuclear power worldwide. Given that wind power often can be more abundantly generated at night while solar power is economical in sunny hours, the two can be integrated into a common grid to help overcome intermittence.

Renewables can provide both base-load power to the grid (including from hydropower and geothermal and biomass-fueled plants) and intermittent loads (such as from solar thermal generators).

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.