Nuclear Power as a Sustainable Technology
In the early part of the century, the term sustainability was phrase to reflect the methods, technology and goal of practices, in order words, to provide growth but ensure the environment is not degraded in the long term. The definition was narrow at the start but has soon expanded over time to mean more things to different people, countries and organisations. It was coined to encompass all activities present and the future, to ensure that sensitive natural resources is not damage, and should be sound economically.
Fossil fuels are view by many supporters of sustainability as unsustainable and as such they banded pollution and finite fossil fuels resources and by its definition as unsustainable. They have proposed other alternatives such as renewable sources of energy, wind power, Solar Thermal Energy and solar Photovoltaic electricity, others are biomass and household waste stream. All these are considered by the environmentalist as ways to improve efficiency in energy supply and sustainable energy future.
Ironically Nuclear power does not feature at all as part of future use by most advocate of sustainability or seen as a remedy of great efficacy in providing future energy. Examples of this thinking are the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) in Energy After Rio document did not state any role for Nuclear Power, or the Swedish parliament who voted to phase out Nuclear power in February 1997 on a bill called " Sustainable energy supply".
Green peace central tenet in their statement in 1997 at the United Nations Earth Summit 11, emphasis an interesting notion on nuclear power that, "The essential solution to Nuclear power problems is a phase- out of Nuclear power and the end to Nuclear fuel reprocessing. Nuclear power must be replaced by ecologically sustainable energy systems such as solar, wind, bio-fuel plantations, energy efficiency and conservation." Environmental organisation of similar stature has made statement citing how Nuclear power is incompatible with sustainable energy for the long term.
The fortunes of Nuclear Power is declining in many respect in different countries, but the issue of climate change has reignited the debate as to its value to sustainable development and means by which we can fight climate change. Further to this, there is recognition of potential advantages in terms of capacity to produce low emission, which majority in the nuclear industry has alluded to as a weapon to combat climate change. For instance, The American Nuclear Society plenary session of their annual meeting in 1996 was based entirely on sustainability of Nuclear power.
In his address to the UN Earth Summit 11, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General stated that, " There is need for further examination of nuclear power in the search for a sustainable energy mix." The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA)believes that nuclear power has huge potential
and important role to play in sustainable development, also a means of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2).
Nuclear power contribution to a sustainable energy mix was also acknowledged by the international Energy Agency (IEA) member countries. This was adopted in their shared goal statement in 1993, the statement outline the principle by which individual countries will ensure the economics make the fullest possible contribution towards sustainable economic development. The shared goal statement also indicated that, nuclear power contribution to energy supply diversity will ensure it is environmentally sustainable use of energy. The shared statement went on to conclude: “A number of IEA members wish to retain and improve the nuclear option for the future, at the highest available safety standards, because nuclear energy does not emit carbon dioxide."
This article has taken a long look at the nuclear power arguments and has decided to draw a parallel between the competing issues by predicating the debate on three fundamental areas of argument. T he argument will be about, if nuclear power would play an enviable role in terms of sustainability and the solution to the search of the energy mix, and will its role by no means be assured in terms of energy supply for the long term? The three issues will include:
§ The supply of Energy :- Availability of nuclear fuel for an indefinite period
§ Environmental issues :- Will it be environmentally compatible
§ Economic Considerations: - Includes cost and economic benefit for the long term.
The article will focus on nuclear power as a sustainable technology and other potential energy source that are less sustainable. However, economics is very important and it is a key aspect to sustainability. The comparative economics of all the competing energy issues will look at the cost to determine the path to follow.
2. The Supply of Energy
Some of the strong point of nuclear power as it would seems to consume a small amount of fuel with its conventional thermal reactor. There are global reserves of uranium known, and they are widespread, there is current usage of about 7000 tonnes per year around the world nuclear reactors. With about 3.851 millions tonnes of known uranium, would amount to only 55 year of supply, although there are speculations about the undiscovered resources which are included, where 200 year of supply is identified.
Coal is thought to have sufficient quantities of supply to last 300 to 400 years at current rate of use. There are limited reserves for fossil material for nuclear technology that has thermal reactors that is base on fission of uranium, this cannot be sustainable for the long term using uranium resources that are speculative.
There is exploitation and distribution of uranium around the world in reserves with various cost attached to them. The price for the known resources of US$130/kg despite the fact that there are large amounts of uranium that may be beyond what is known available and the speculative reserves does not indicate proportionality of energy supply from nuclear power to quantities that can be identified. There are example of sources of uranium such as the sea water which is often said to be source of natural uranium but dispersed throughout the earth crust or may contain large energy source, it does not necessarily represent a great deal of economic energy source in comparison to other energy options.
An example of fossil fuel as finite energy resources is qualified by it reserves. Perhaps there is the danger of fossil fuel depletion within 30 years as soon as the estimate is given. It is possible the reserves for nuclear fuel would go the same way, however, the key to supply of energy for the long term through nuclear power would not be uranium ore reserves or reserves of fertile materials such as thorium.
Instead, the new but non-commercial as yet nuclear technology that will enable nuclear power to be sustained for the near term and over a long period of time. The actual step in achieving that is by using breeder reactors, about 2% of available energy from natural uranium is used by thermal reactors, whilst the energy from depleted uranium remains used. In order to overcome this deficiency however, the breeder reactor could be use in two ways, by ensuring that plutonium produce by thermal reactors are recycled and the other one is to extract and convert fertile uranium (U-238) that have a huge depleted uranium concentrated into fossil plutonium, it can also be applicable to breeding fuel cycle based on thorium uranium.
These two combinations could potentially improve and increase by 75% or even higher the energy extracted from natural uranium. This could enable the uranium reserves to be extended up to 40 times which will amount to eight thousand year of sustainability. The projections prepared by the world energy council shows a scenario where there will be a high demand for breeder reactors between 2030 and 2050. Although largely depends on the rate of growth in demand for energy and also use of nuclear power. The use of breeder technology is limited, apart from few plants built for demonstration which have been built and operated such as French's Phenix and Superphenix plants. Other plants Monju by Japan currently shut down due to technical problem, Beloyarsk plant in Russia which is still in operation today (2400 MWe).
The plants built by the French and Japan, have shown to be very expensive when compared to conventional thermal reactors, this is because the plants most essential systems are quite different from a commercial systems e.g. Safety Systems and Heat Transfer Reactor. The breeder reactors technical potential has been demonstrated by these plants, but there is no sufficient evidence to precisely define its features and cost with plants that are technically matured. A fuel cycle would be required if nuclear energy is supplied via breeder reactors, it is been demonstrated that by using uranium plutonium route, potential fuel cycle essential elements does not pose any major technical problems, similarly, there is not evidence of major economic problem, but the implementation cost for bringing in adequate safety measures for its operation for the long term fuel cycle as well as waste disposal can not be fully evaluated at the present time.
Nuclear power future potential development would allow it the enduring time far into the future. New technology such as fusion offers a limitless energy supply, and yet the paradigm of fusion which today is under development will rely on the use of tritium, at the moment is limited in the world reserves. Although commercial fusion reactors face a considerable economic and technological hurdles and there is no prospect for an immediate resolution as of yet. Over time, human ingenuity will prevail in overcoming the technical hurdles, but doubt still exist as to the time frame this will be achieved and the cost of using fusion reactor to produce power. At the present time fusion is still a concept.
In summary, the supply of energy from natural resources is limited, under the current technologies. In order to extend the current rate of supply into many centuries, a feeder reactor as well as recycling of generated fossil material in them would certainly be required. It is quite clear how this approach and the technical ability to provide source of energy for a very long, but what is not clear is its comparative economics.
3.1 Environmental Issues
Sustainability of nuclear power is one area where views are most divergent. From the nuclear proponents come the view which is correct by the way, that there is no carbon dioxide or airborne pollutants produced by nuclear power and also solid waste from nuclear power are small in volume in comparison to waste from fossil fuel plants. While those against nuclear power believe that waste and accidental releases of radiation from nuclear poses grave threats to the environment. They argued that it is the potential health risk from waste but not the volume that matters.
3.2 Current Emission Levels
Nuclear power stations have zero % emissions of gaseous pollutants of any kind on an ongoing basis. The reason being, the release energy remained within the solid state in a reactor that is enclosed on like the fossil fuelled power plants with an open gas-phase system. Government of various countries have developed regulations that are stringent and placed tight controls on sulphur dioxide emissions, particularly matter, nitrogen gas including a host of other airborne pollutants. Various commitments by the OECD countries to ensure carbon dioxide emissions are reduced or controlled remained to be measure in depth as there is still wrangling over how much percentage can be cut.
In the long term, nuclear power is sustainable with absolute certainty if we are to discourage those pollutants that are traditional energy related or emissions of carbon dioxide. Nuclear power plant thermal emission are considerably high due to low thermal efficiency, and nuclear plant that are quite large can be problematic if they uses river water, which can make the river temperature raised to a level that become detrimental to the river ecosystem. Nevertheless, with a modest increase in cost the problem can be overcome by building a closed loop cooling systems. This approach does not incur technical or cost impediments but ensure river or bodies of water does not suffer from nuclear power plant thermal emissions.
The concern of potential radioactivity emissions is only unique to nuclear power plant. Although all radioactivity that are potentially harmful are kept and controlled within the areas of the plant that is specifically identified. Under this measure, the personnel at the plant are first and for most to be protected and also the environment within the confine of the plant. Stringent regulations have been imposed by governments to control radioactivity which so far have proved to be very effective. There are without doubt accidental emissions of radioactivity from plants, therefore, the issue of accident or mishap should be given due considerations because of its impact and immediate relevance to nuclear power long term sustainability.
The Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island accidents have concentrated minds which ensure attention was focused on the dangers of radiation leak from nuclear power plant. Multiplied safety of nuclear regulations was brought in the 1980s which constrained operating practices and new design requirement was imposed. This measure brought in a substantial increase in the cost of operation and staffing as well as building plant systems. Although the question remains about the usefulness and cost effective measure taken in the wake of these disasters, there remain the fact that the safety of nuclear plant has seen improvement beyond and prior to 1979 levels.
The accidents at The Three Mile Island did demonstrate that well engineered safety systems could prevent environmental damage through the release of radiation even when badly managed. There is need to emphasis the human factor involves in contributing to the overall safety of plants as a useful development. For almost 40 years has seen the sustain and safe operation of commercial nuclear plant in OECD countries, it is possible to maintained these standard indefinitely as nothing suggest otherwise, even without the improvement to the design of nuclear plants.
The OECD countries have got a good safety record, but the counter-arguments believes that the consequences of nuclear plant accident could be serious and very grave indeed, they recon it could be far worse than the accidents from most power plants. They believe even if the accident risk is small, it will be far reaching and consequences could be catastrophic. The regulators and those in the industry are assured that they have put in measures to protect human health and the environment as a satisfactory approach.
They equate nuclear power to hydroelectric power production dam failure or accidental of chemical production on industrial scale such as the Bhopal disaster in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in India on December 3, 1984. This can also cause environment degradation and loss of life as in the example given above, but the technical reasoning are not shared by nuclear opponents. Grave concern was raised on the Chernobyl accident about the safe operation of nuclear reactors. The accident at the Three Mile Island saw significant degradation of the environment by the releases of radioactive material.
These concerns was address by the government and the nuclear industry by ensuring that due consideration to safety should be paramount in the design and operation, that these should be part of continued improvement to ensure the sustainability of nuclear power for the long term. To further enhance and reduce nuclear plant accident, a number of plants have been designed in recent years to reduce the possibility of radiation release even when the plant is poorly managed or mis-operated. Example of this evolutions, are the System 80+, AP600, Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, and the European Pressurized Water Reactor are geared towards medium term of safer nuclear plant designs.
All these design rely upon system simplification and passive safety systems where standardization of designs require no power or intervention by the operator. New safety risk that will be instigated with a shift to breeder reactors due to the difference in design mechanism will not be helped by lack of experience with this technology. The plutonium transportation will increase and would also engender more risk, the other great risk would be the transition period to breeder reactors, where the risk to the environment is grave. But it must not be a foregone conclusion or ignore the fact that there is sufficient experience to make the transition a smooth success.
3.3 Decommissioning and Disposal of Nuclear Waste
The one important single issue that had polarised opponents and the nuclear industry is radioactive waste disposal. This has called into question the effectiveness of nuclear power and its sustainability for the long term. Similar concern are raised from the material decommission from plant. The waste from nuclear power is an unresolved issue that have divided opponents and believe it poses a grave threat and unsolvable environment problem that will be borne by future generations. This question must be asked, would the storage or isolation of nuclear waste for period of time be sufficient to remove all its radioactive elements deem harmful to humans or the environment?
The answer is yes, most of the nuclear technical committee thinks that the disposal of waste from radioactive matter, even before the generation of nuclear has purely been based on the principle of human protection and the environment. Whilst that is true in its self and led to this conclusion, it did not however answer the question. Although there was a collective opinion issued by NEA's Radioactive Waste Management Committee on the environment that there is an ethical basis for geological disposition of radioactive waste that have lived for a number of years.
The strategy for geological waste disposal could be designed and implemented in such a way that due consideration will be given to sensitive and fundamental ethical environmental question. This view was developed with specific references to the paradigm of sustainability. This is the affirmation and acceptability of the approach that shows the waste argument is complex and difficult to understand. It will require a great deal of technical evaluation to find a suitable nuclear waste disposable sites, and develop a coherent approach and well engineered infrastructure to have the ability to assess the system and minimise the protracted impact of radiological effects on humans and the environment.
The nuclear plants produces volume of wastes that are smaller compared to waste from fossil fuelled electricity plants. This is where nuclear power has environmental advantage, due to the fact that its waste comes from widespread activity that can be located in one place. This therefore limits the extent to which the environment could be damaged. Paradoxically, it is not the amount from nuclear power that determines their environmental acceptability. The high level waste from nuclear have a more acute health effects than fossil fuel waste, but apart from the technical aspects and scientific high level waste disposal, there remain the difficult question of future behaviour by humans and institutional adequacy. There is no technical impediment that is inherent in the environment for the safe use of nuclear power.
4.1 Economic Considerations
Cost is vital if the goal of energy supply is based on sustainability, at present the competition for source of electricity is based on economic viability. Therefore, the cost solution should be the evaluation of all energy sources but particularly nuclear economic sustainability which at present is still called into question by many observers in the industry.
4.2 Competition from Fossil Fuel
There are many evaluations of power plants such as gas-fired power plant and New coal-fired which have offered lower cost of electricity than nuclear power plants. In the light of the current prices of natural gas, the Gas-Fire Combine Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) power plants becomes very attractive and as such their short construction time and the low capital cost provide financial an economic advantages over nuclear power. It also shows some situations where CCGT can be built half the cost of building traditional nuclear power plants. Coal-fire power plant looks more attractive in comparison to nuclear power in many markets when high efficiency pollution control equipment is fitted. It is however not surprising, that in many OECD countries there is lack of political will to built new nuclear power plant due to it competitive economic position. The reality is there is a strong competition from other alternatives such as fossil fuelled plants.
The economic situation with nuclear power and its competitiveness in the new liberalising electricity markets has fuelled the current debate on why a certain number of nuclear plant were uneconomic to operate, but did highlight its excellent performance. Perhaps another way of looking at it is the competing technologies currently generating electricity will change in terms of cost in the long term. It will be erroneous to base the appraisal of long term economic sustainability on today's technology, therefore, the economic viability of nuclear power can be said to be critically dependent on the prices of fossil fuel. The concerted effort to reduce gaseous emissions from fossil fuel power plants and new technological developments will renew the demand for nuclear plant and it competing technologies such as the renewable.
4.3 Energy Security and Prices of Fossil Fuel
The strong stimulus of nuclear power development was provided by the shock of oil price in the 1970s even as recent as 2008 when price volatility takes it to an unsustainable position. The prices of fuel for power generation dramatically increased and the inexorably increase of fossil fuel prices are still being projected in the future. At the same time, 50-80% account for fuel cost of fossil plant life cycle and because of the increased prices of fossil energy, nuclear power competitiveness is enhances by both current and projected price increase.
Simutaneously, the advantage of nuclear has equally diminish in parallel with declining stable prices of fuel, although the advantage of nuclear is still huge not least the oil price shock of 2008, where the price of fossil fuel increase substantially to record a high of almost $150/barrel, $147 to be precise. Fossil fuel is shrinking, it got to its peak and declining, the whole world is now being forced to live within its means and look for alternatives. World's 2% primary energy supply comes from renewable energy like solar, geothermal and wind, despite growing very rapidly but will not be sufficient to filled the gap created by fossil fuel.
The security concern and supplies of fossil fuel has caused the economic evaluation of nuclear power and therefore increase its competitiveness, to this end, there is mad rush to build new nuclear power plants. Even the UK government has set out on its white paper proposes for building new nuclear plants to replace the old ones, although there is loud cry over cost but it is the only solution to the current energy situation the strategy does not in anyway diminish the interest in renewable. Other countries has followed suit and coming out to support the development of nuclear power as a source of economic base load power that will be immune from fossil fuel market price increase.
On the other hand the OECD countries regard nuclear fuel as indigenous because they own half the world uranium reserves and as such there no risk of natural uranium supplies being interrupted compare to oil or natural gas.
5. The Price of Carbon and the Competitiveness of Nuclear Power
The climate change concern will surely have a dramatic effect on the relative economic of fossil fuelled plant and nuclear power. The need to reduce carbon dioxide emission including other greenhouse gases would therefore place an effective value on the need not to produce them. The limit on carbon emission through carbon pricing will strongly affect power generation, but in terms of relative competitiveness of different energy generating sources , the cost of renewable and nuclear power would remain unaffected, since their source of energy does not depend on carbon. Others such as gas-fired power generation, coal and oil, would increase in price, but the most palatable option would be Gas-Fired Combine Cycle because they release the least carbon dioxide per KWh in comparison to any fossil fuelled option.
In summary, carbon dioxide emission restrictions in the power sector, either market based or explicit could significantly placed coal-fire power generation at a disadvantage due to cost which will favour gas-fired power, nuclear and ultimately renewable. The constraints of carbon dioxide could contribute more importantly to nuclear power's economic sustainability.
6. Competition from Renewable Energy
There are potential limitations in some technologies and this need to be taken account of. There are different renewable energy generation that are intermittent and largely depend on external forces where availability is not certain, example of this is tides, wind or carbon capture and storage (CCS). Renewable such as wind are variable and have unpredictable outputs, while tidal power generation are variable but predictable. Then there is an issue of uncertainties over the rate of development of new and less technologies such as tidal, wave and CCS, these uncertainties also affect deployment feasibility, timing and cost on a much larger scale. Local acceptability is another important consideration which relates to land use or impact on wider environment, and this could hinder these technologies to be deployed thus limit or reduce number of available sites.
The last UN Conference on climate change in Copenhagen ended acrimoniously with bitter recriminations between countries, despite the patchy agreement that was reached, it does not amount to viable and effective solutions to substantially reducing CO2 emissions.
7.The issue of Cost versus Safety
There is need to find a balance between safety and cost even with the advent of independent technological developments. Due to stringent safety regulations relating to design, construction and the operation of nuclear plant, it caused a dramatic increase in the cost of nuclear production. Even a low level waste disposal cost has increased markedly. Nuclear facilities in many countries have seen a dramatic increase in protest against them on environmental grounds. Example of nuclear facilities that have faced this serious opposition are the United States Ward Valley waste facility, the United Kingdom Nirex Rock Characterisation Facility at Sellafield, Indonesia Mount Muria nuclear power plant, and Japan Maki nuclear power plant. Township that host the nuclear site in Japan are being subsidised by the Japanese government. The OECD countries have yet to find equilibrium between safety and cost. If the long term issue of nuclear power economic sustainability is to be maintained, a consensus must be reach to stem the increasing safety-related cost.
The other issue that are central to the future of nuclear power is the issue of non-proliferation and public acceptance in the near term. The international co-operation has been strong in terms of ensuring the control and spread of nuclear materials to a failed state or terrorist organisations. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) initially signed in July 1968 become effective in 1970 currently has 189 member countries. It provides the necessary instrument to monitor and support its goal and objective of non-proliferation. Although not universal but it provide safeguards for the effective implementation of this strategy.
It is clear there is potential for Nuclear power to be sustainable and source of energy in the medium and long term. But the economics and environmental issues that currently exclude nuclear power pursuit as a sustainable option for the future and other serious challenges must be resolved before it can play any major role in terms of energy production. There has to be the development of technological solutions that will sustain the nuclear industry for the long term and allow the uranium reserves to be fully utilised, by introducing breeder reactors.
Some have been tried and tested, but still lack the necessary experience to confirm the long term economics benefits. The development of technology to enhance nuclear power must ensure that safety and cost are properly managed because of the strong competition from the renewable. The one single environmental issue that is facing nuclear power is long lived radioactive waste disposal, while there is technical consensus but certainly no social consensus on the adequacy of geological disposal.
The nuclear industry must adequately express their views on safe disposal of waste to government and the public; this is an issue that must be resolved before the next generation of nuclear power plants are built. The competition for energy production is tensed from competing forces, therefore nuclear power economic benefit must be proven because currently it is at a disadvantage when compared to fossil fuelled options. Better nuclear plant design and performance would no doubt have a significant advantage in terms of low carbon emissions and lower cost.
This will be the main advantage of nuclear power for the long term compared to fossil fuel. There is desire by the member countries of IEA to maintain nuclear power as a future long term option as it play a vital role in the supply of electricity in the member state. This role they promised to be maintained and contribute towards sustainable development. But the arguments on nuclear power merit and effectiveness amongst opponents continues.
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