BY TIM PROBERT, conference director, nuclear power europe
Despite governments facing some difficult choices regarding the role of nuclear power in the future energy mix, it remains the most credible source of low-carbon generation, offering baseload power and energy security. Tim Probert, conference director of Nuclear Power Europe 2011, considers the impact of recent events in Japan against long-term energy challenges.
Nuclear power has never been too far from the news. The disaster that struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan following an earthquake and subsequent tsunami is a catastrophe. The bravery of the workers, emergency services personnel and the scientists battling to save the plant is testament to the resolve of the nation.
For the nuclear power industry, the long-term impact of the Fukushima crisis is extremely hard to gauge, but the short-term prospects appear bleak. Public approval for nuclear power has reached a low not seen since 1986 and a widespread re-examination of safety is underway.
Certainly, governments seeking to allay public fears have taken a tough stance, with Switzerland placing a moratorium on plans to replace its fleet of reactors, China announcing it is to suspend approving further nuclear projects until new safety rules are ready and Germany at first delaying its plans to extend the lifetimes of its reactors before taking the decision to close seven reactors built before 1980.
Italy is now the latest country to respond to the events in Japan, placing a one-year moratorium on Enel’s plans to build four Areva EPR reactors in the country. Italy’s citizens voted to close down the country’s nuclear plants following the Chernobyl incident in 1986, but that outcome was recently overturned as Rome looked to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and natural gas.
For the nuclear energy industry, this decision was widely viewed as confirmation of the significant swing in both public opinion and government policy back in favor of nuclear power. Indeed, with 19 nuclear power plants under construction across six countries within Europe and nuclear policies being reviewed, the whole of Europe looked set for a renaissance.
The shift in favor of nuclear energy was driven by concerns over climate change and the reliability on foreign energy supplies. And here lies the dichotomy both governments and the nuclear energy industry are wrestling with.
Today’s economies are energy-hungry and it is unlikely alternative sources of power will be able to meet projected demand or ensure security of supply, and an increase in the use of fossil fuels will increase greenhouse gas emissions. So, unless there is a radical and rapid change in the way energy is sourced, generated and consumed, nuclear power will continue to pose a viable solution.
Nuclear safety has now moved to the top of the agenda. The European Council is calling for the safety of all EU nuclear plants to be reviewed on the basis of a comprehensive and transparent risk and safety assessment (stress tests) and is also requesting that similar “stress tests” be carried out in the neighboring countries and worldwide, regarding both existing and planned plants. The Commission will review the existing legal and regulatory framework for the safety of nuclear installations and will propose by the end of 2011 any improvements that may be necessary.
Reactor vendors will now be under increasing pressure to re-evaluate their latest ‘Generation III’ designs. Some of these reactors promise passive safety systems in the event of a reactor shutdown to keep the cooling system pumps operating. In reality, however, these reactors will still require back-up power to avoid the potential for core meltdown.
And for utilities seeking to invest in nuclear there will, no doubt, be second thoughts. U.S. utilities often talk about “betting the firm” to build nuclear plants. Capital costs for nuclear have already risen. The risks of a catastrophe that writes off valuable assets will have to be reconsidered and the industry will watch for any potential liability claims resulting from the crisis in Japan.
What is vital for both the nuclear industry and the global economy, is that governments take a balanced view of nuclear power development moving forward. It would be easy to abandon further development in the face of short-term panic, but for most countries that would be a mistake. The meticulously high safety standards to which nuclear plants adhere have ensured a strong record in recent years.
Most nations do not suffer earthquakes and tsunamis on the scale of Japan and modern reactor technology promises greater safety. Nuclear power remains the most credible source of low-carbon generation offering baseload power and energy security.
About Nuclear Power Europe
Nuclear Power Europe is a conference and exhibition focused on a European nuclear power industry reinvigorated by the climate change agenda, but facing a widespread re-examination of the associated risks that, at the most extreme, could halt the industry’s revival in its tracks. If you are a member of the nuclear energy industry, or are involved in addressing related policy, be sure to join the debate at Nuclear Power Europe 2011, being held at Fiera Milano City in Milan, from June 7-9. Visit www.nuclearpower-europe.com