Despite the accident at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011 and Germany’s plan to phase-out nuclear by 2022, nuclear energy continues to provide a substantial amount of power to our every-day lives. In some parts of the world, nuclear actually contributes the majority of our power for electricity generation. The debate around what is perhaps the most controversial energy production source arouses many emotions. What follows is an attempt to depict the reality of nuclear energy and what is at stake, for better or worse.

Source: Michael Kappel/Flickr

Source: Michael Kappel/Flickr

Today, 31 countries operate 439 nuclear power reactors – 23 of those countries are planning to expand or maintain nuclear in their energy mix, with Russia and South-East Asia leading the way in the construction of new power plants. Of the 72 reactors under construction globally, 25 are in China, 9 in Russia and 6 in India. At the same time, 48 reactors remain idle in Japan while they are inspected for compliance with new, stringent safety requirements.

The global revival of nuclear energy is a fact. Despite the 2011 accident at Fukushima, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) projects that nuclear power capacity could nearly double by 2030. Why? The world demands low-emission, constant and uninterrupted power supplies at stable prices. Nuclear energy can provide all three and contribute to energy independence and security as well. Out of Japan’s 48 idle reactors, four have already received permission to restart.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, says it will have to raise electricity rates unless it can restart two of its reactors at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant. The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry says further electricity price increases will adversely affect small- and medium-sized enterprises in the country. Japan had a positive trade balance (exports exceeded imports) since the 1980s with the exception of a brief period at the end of
2008 when the financial crisis took its toll on the economy. But since the shutdown of the country’s nuclear reactors in mid-2011, the country has been in the red financially due to the need to import natural gas for power generation.

Nuclear power provides electricity at a constant price with little variability. According to a study by the University of Leuven, the price of electricity from nuclear energy can vary by around four euro per megawatt (MW)-hour due to maintenance and fuel costs. In a world where oil prices can fall 50% in six months and supplies of natural gas are used as a bargaining chip in the battle for geopolitical dominance, this kind of stability is envious.

Stable and reliable nuclear reactors in commercial operation in France can supply base-load energy to Germany as it undergoes its transition to renewables, according to a report written in May 2014 by Senator Jean Bizet for the Commission on European Affairs in the French Senate. The report also claims electricity prices in France are on average one-third lower than in other countries in Europe. For example, the average price of electricity in Germany in 2012 was 0.27€ per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while it was 0.14€ per kWh in France.

France – the country operating 58 nuclear reactors which produce 77% of its electricity – has some of the cheapest power in Europe.

France’s electricity is cheap and clean. The International Energy Agency’s statistics show that the average carbon dioxide emissions per capita per year were 9.3 tons in Germany compared to 5.5 tons in France, while average annual energy consumption was almost the same at 32 MW per capita in Germany and 29 MW in France. On an average day, France’s nuclear stations generate around 75-80% of the country’s electricity, with another 15% coming from clean hydropower which results in around 95% emissions-free electricity generation.

Domestic Success Attracts Foreign Business

When nuclear power spread in the 1960s and 1970s, it was mainly developed in North America, Europe and Russia. Now, according to the World Nuclear Association, 16 countries depend on nuclear energy for at least a quarter of their electricity supply, most of them in Europe. However, the sun is setting on the West’s dominance in nuclear power; Asia is rising.

The present champion of nuclear energy is China. The Asian mega-country has invested incredible amounts of time and resources to become a technological leader in nuclear energy. According to the China Nuclear Energy Association, China will surpass South Korea and Russia in terms of installed nuclear capacity in 2016 and will become the world’s fourth largest producer of nuclear electricity. The country already hosts reactors of different types, provided by companies from Canada, the USA, France and Russia. But the most common reactor technology being put into operation in China today is domestic: five CPR-1000 reactor units entered commercial operation in 2014 and another five are expected to come online in 2015.

While concentrating on its domestic market, China is looking international. Its development of nuclear technology incorporates elements from the whole supply chain, including manufacturing of nuclear fuel and even a uranium mine in Namibia being built by China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN). China’s financial (and potentially technological) participation in the UK’s most recent nuclear energy project – Hinkley Point C – as well as its agreements to build reactors in South Africa and Argentina is all proof of the world’s most populous country’s ambitions in nuclear energy.

China’s main rival in the global nuclear energy business is Russia. The state nuclear power corporation Rosatom has an iron grip on nuclear fuel supplies to reactors built in Eastern Europe during the time of the Soviet Union. Rosatom is the technology provider for new nuclear plants in Finland, Belarus, Turkey, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

In 2014, a Russian-built reactor began operation in India and the two countries agreed on the construction of at least 12 more. The government also approved nuclear power project-related loans to Hungary and Armenia.

When Russia’s government released plans to build 21 new nuclear reactors domestically by 2030, it was clear that the country would remain committed to atomic energy. 11 of these reactors will replace existing ones which will have to shut down as they come to the end of their lifetime, but 10 are planned for new sites. Russia is also spearheading a program for the development of a new generation of nuclear reactors, called Generation IV, which can reduce nuclear waste generation and which use different materials as a coolant instead of water. In 2014, a 600 MW reactor which uses liquid sodium as a coolant connected to the grid at Beloyarsk.

A Giant’s Demise

The future of nuclear energy may still be bright in some countries in Europe but the continent is divided. Germany, Belgium and Switzerland have all decided to abandon nuclear power technology within the next decade. Austria has gone as far as refusing to import nuclear-produced electricity. However, a phase-out of nuclear power does not mean the end of the industry. The decommissioning and dismantling of a nuclear power plant can take years and the operation of a spent fuel repository can continue for as long as 60 years after the shutdown of a reactor.

Base of one of the Bugey cooling towers. (Bugey Nuclear Power Plant, France)  Source: Berenger/Sodel.

Base of one of the cooling towers of the Bugey Nuclear Power Plant, France.
Source: Berenger/Sodel.

Europe needs to develop robust technical solutions to nuclear waste while keeping the options open for future policy changes, according to a report published in July 2014 by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) which states that solutions for deep geological disposal of highly-radioactive waste are “essential and urgent”. In Germany, the government set up a commission of experts to approve a final repository for the waste by 2031 at the latest. The Czech Republic’s Ministry for Environment set a deadline for a repository to enter operation by 2065. ‘Urgency’ seems to have a different meaning in the nuclear industry.

The EASAC report (“Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel and its Waste”) also says a regular nuclear reactor’s lifetime spans about 100 years from the beginning of construction to the final disposal of waste in a repository. The first nuclear reactors in the world still in operation came online in the early 1970s and are reaching the final leg of their lifetime. The USA, the UK and Russia are in uncharted waters when it comes to decommissioning their old facilities, most of which are one-of-a-kind and the first to be dismantled. The newcomers like China and India will benefit from the know-how when they reach the same stage after mid-century. By that time we will also know whether the nuclear phase-out has succeeded or not.

Conflicting Arguments

What makes nuclear power controversial and gives rise to its opposition is the large concentration of toxic material which is specific only to this type of energy source. Radioactivity is a naturally occurring phenomenon but its artificial build-up inside a contained space and its possible release causes fear of a potential accident. In its brief history, the nuclear industry has experienced several accidents, most notably the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima accidents.

There were no deaths at Three Mile Island and the most exposure a single person had was the equivalent of a chest x-ray while around 4,000 people are expected to die as a result of the radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released in 2005. In 2013, the WHO also assessed the risk of elevated cancer as a result of the Fukushima accident, concluding that “the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated”.

IAEA experts depart Unit 4 of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan's plans to decommission the facility. Source: Greg Webb/IAEA.

IAEA experts depart Unit 4 of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan’s plans to decommission the facility. Source: Greg Webb/IAEA

In a recent interview for the International Youth Nuclear Congress news bulletin, Paul Gunter, director of the US-based antinuclear lobby group Beyond Nuclear, said nuclear power is “inherently dangerous” and “exorbitantly expensive” due to the need to put in place multiple safety barriers. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace describe the threat of using spent nuclear fuel for the creation of atomic weapons as one of the biggest problems with nuclear energy.

The only way to address these concerns is to trust national regulators and the discretion of the nuclear industry. The IAEA acts as the global UN atomic watch-dog, while groups such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and European Nuclear Safety Regulators (ENSREG) have numerous systems of peer-reviews to make sure everyone conforms to the regulations. This has brought experts from numerous countries to visit and inspect nuclear power plants all over the world. The peer-review system was included in the EU’s Nuclear Safety Directive which was amended in 2014.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970, commits the parties to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. However, some countries which are developing nuclear energy are not signatories of the Treaty – India, Pakistan and South Africa are all looking to construct numerous nuclear power reactors in their countries without adhering to international non-proliferation standards. Through bilateral agreements with nuclear fuel suppliers, these states have agreed to behave on this issue.

For those who do not have the level of faith required to trust the regulators and the industry, the idea of phasing out nuclear energy becomes an ethical imperative. In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011, the German Ethics Commission on Safe Energy Supply said a total withdrawal from nuclear energy is necessary to rule out risks in principle and that this is possible because less risky alternatives exist. The question now is whether these ‘less risky alternatives’ are sufficient to meet growing energy demand and a reduced supply due to a nuclear phase-out.

Writer: Lubomir Mitev is a journalist for NucNet, the world’s nuclear news agency. Previously, he worked as a freelance journalist for numerous publications on issues related to the development of renewable energy and global environmental politics 

This article featured in Issue #15 (Spring 2015) of Revolve Magazine on pages 52-58.