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1. Background and Overview
Tony Blair’s Labour government has finally decided to move ahead “with a vengeance” (Webster, 2006) with its’ plans for development of nuclear power, ending years of speculation on the issue.
Work on the last nuclear power station started eighteen years ago in the UK on Sizewell B and since then there has been a complete embargo on any fresh initiative in the area. Things are now likely to change, much to the concern of environmentalists and anti nuclear campaigners.
The use of nuclear power, for any reason, peaceful or otherwise, has always been looked upon with deep suspicion because of its inherent association with weapons of mass destruction and its ability to cause large scale destruction on a horrific and unimaginable scale. “Many analysts have attempted to explain the visceral hostility toward nuclear power, and the most common explanation is that people link nuclear power with nuclear weapons.” (Lorenzini, 2005) The reasons for this attitude are also justifiable as most scientific work in atomic radiation, atomic change and nuclear fission, be it in the USA, Nazi Germany or communist Russia, at least till 1956, was focussed primarily on the furthering of the atomic bomb. It was only after 1956 that the focus of nuclear technology shifted to the design of safe and reliable nuclear plants.
The growth in use of nuclear energy for power entered a state of not just stagnation but moderate decline, world wide, in the late seventies and remained so until the turn of the century and the UK was presumably, but echoing global concern in the formulation of its energy policy.
Very few reactors were ordered globally and the new reactors coming on line just about matched requirements. Global capacity increased by only a third in more than a decade. Even then, nuclear energy, from the 442 nuclear power reactors used in 31 countries, adds up to one sixth of the world’s electricity supply today.
The growth of nuclear fuel as an energy source has been sluggish due to quite a few reasons, some of which now need rethinking in today’s grim geopolitical and environmental scenario.
For more than three decades, energy policies in the United States and much of the Western world have been held in the ideological grip of a flawed concept: the notion that we can achieve sustainable energy by relying solely on conservation and renewable resources, such as wind, the sun, the tides, and organic materials like wood and crop waste. Born in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo and arising out of renewed commitments to environmental quality, this idea has an almost religious appeal. An unintended result is that the world has become ever more reliant on fossil fuels and therefore less able to respond to global warming. (Lorenzini, 2005)
It has been the case of the pro nuclear power lobby, for many years now, that nuclear energy is a clean, economic and efficient way to generate power; ideal for continuous generation of medium and large scale electricity. In nuclear power stations, apart from the nuclear reactors, the rest of the equipment works similarly to those in coal or gas fuelled power plants. However, the cheaper and more widely available fuel used by these nuclear plants, compared to those fired by coal, oil and gas, makes the case for its’ wider use attractive. This is especially relevant today with oil hovering in the range of 70 to 73 USD per barrel, and gas from the North Sea wells beginning to run out. With the increase in greenhouse and emission problems and the uncertainty of fossil fuel supplies in a shifting and unstable political environment, the nuclear power option has definitely got itself a strong tailwind.
The concerns of the anti nuclear campaigners focus on a number of worrying issues. Their first contention concerns the forecasted reduction of carbon dioxide emission from nuclear power plants; this to them is no more than blatant propaganda.
In the US, where much of the world’s uranium is enriched, including Australia’s, the enrichment facility at Paducah, Kentucky, requires the electrical output of two 1000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for 50per cent of global warming. Also, this enrichment facility and another at Portsmouth, Ohio, release from leaky pipes 93per cent of the chlorofluorocarbon gas emitted yearly in the US. The production and release of CFC gas is now banned internationally by the Montreal Protocol because it is the main culprit responsible for stratospheric ozone depletion. But CFC is also a global warmer, 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. (Caldicott, 2005)
In addition, the environmentalists say that nuclear fuel cycle also consumes large quantities of fossil fuel, in the mining of uranium, in the construction of the reactor and its’ robotic decommissioning as also in the transportation and storage of radioactive waste.
The use of nuclear fuel can lead to significant health threats from the unregulated emission of radioactive isotopes; which include Krypton, Xenon, Argon and Tritium and could cause long term physical harm to residents in surrounding and nearby areas. These releases are unregulated because the nuclear industry considers these particular radioactive elements to be biologically inconsequential. The transportation and storage of radioactive waste could also become a global security problem, if the use of nuclear energy is adopted on a wide basis. A completely new and potentially catastrophic dimension would be added to global security with the deliberate creation of new and potentially vulnerable targets for terrorist strikes. While the advanced nations would be able to shore up reasonable levels of security the same may not be true of the developing countries where weaker management systems could lead to grave risks; witness the variation in the effectiveness of different management systems in disaster control in the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island episodes.
Nuclear proliferation remains a major issue. The USA is planning to go ahead with the selling of weapons grade nuclear fuel to India, (a non signatory to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and a country with a history of surreptitious manufacture of nuclear weapons) for use in power generation. If it is India today, can Pakistan be far behind? The prospect of an atomic bomb capable Pakistan getting access to Yellow Cake, an intermediary for the production of enriched uranium, is a frightful thought; enough to send shivers down the spine of the developed world.
The energy crisis enveloping the globe has a number of dimensions, all equally worrying. The availability of fossil fuels is reducing sharply because of resource depletion, price spikes and geopolitical reasons. Greenhouse emissions of carbon dioxide are leading to global warming with far reaching ecological effects that could one day threaten the existence of the world. The development of renewable energy sources, wind and solar, once touted as the best solutions, have been largely unsuccessful and remained in the realm of experimentation; useful only in small isolated pockets.
In this situation, while nuclear energy does appear to have most of the answers, the concerns of the environmentalists and the anti nuclear campaigners also remain very valid.
2. Impact on Contemporary Business Organisations
The UK has always been in the forefront of development of nuclear technology. The work carried out by British scientists in the 1940s was renewed after the war and it is pertinent to recall that the world’s first nuclear power reactor started in the UK in 1956. Twenty three nuclear reactors power the country’s nuclear plants, leading to the generation of a total of 75 billion kWh of electricity, a fifth of the country’s requirement. However, all but three of these plants are scheduled to close by 2020, with consequent effects on the economy and operations of contemporary business organisations.
The major dilemma for business and economy is to find alternative sources for energy, nuclear or otherwise to fill this expected gap in energy production and to provide for increased needs. 2020 is not so far away. The other major factor staring British economy in the face is the prospect of importing 90 % of its gas requirement by 2025. The country and its economy is looking at a huge energy deficit, an issue that will need resolution in the very near future.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has, in a widely publicised call in April this year, asked the Government to clarify its’ stand on longer term carbon emission policy to enable low carbon emission sources like nuclear fuel to play an important role. The CBI has also stated very categorically that nuclear power is the only proven low-carbon technology able to deliver consistent supplies of electricity on a large scale. The advantages of stable operating costs, the availability of nuclear fuel from politically stable countries and the ability to store uranium are practical reasons to work towards the development and commissioning of more nuclear plants. In addition, the operating costs of nuclear power are stable because the cost of fuel varies between only 5 and 10% of total operating costs.
The cost of building nuclear power plants, as of now, is far more than that of conventional oil, gas and coal fired plants. Operating costs are however not just lower but also expected to be stable and independent of recurring political upheavals. Two factors are however set to change these circumstances. The cost of fossil fuel, especially oil is on a sharp upward path, threatening to throw all cost projections out of gear. The expected depletion in gas resource and consequent compulsion to buy increasing quantities from outside is also going to come with its own consequences, increased costs definitely one of them. While manufacturers of nuclear power plants are working on reduction of capital cost, a “significant increase in the price of natural gas could make new nuclear plants economically competitive even without further reductions in their capital costs.” (Taylor, 2004)
The CBI in its statement of April also stated that companies would seriously consider investing in new, capital intensive nuclear plants, subject to the introduction of a correct non-discriminatory policy on carbon emission; beyond the present policy which is unclear after 2012. Intense concern about the current situation also made it say that “an energy policy based on crossing fingers and the use of the prayer mat is not acceptable”.(Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom, 2006)
Contemporary businesses, not just in the UK but across the globe are wrestling with an energy crisis, the widespread usage of fast depleting fossil fuels, rocketing oil prices currently resting in the low 70s (USD per barrel), and the continuous spectre of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.
The real advantage of nuclear energy is its potency. One pound of uranium contains the energy equivalent of roughly one million pounds of coal. Such potency means that nuclear power’s energy potential is vast, clearly sustainable as a long-term resource. It also means nuclear’s environmental impact is inherently low. With so much energy coming from such a small volume of material, producing nuclear fuel requires much less exploration, mining, transportation, and collection, with all their attendant environmental problems, than do fossil fuels. For example, a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant requires one refueling per year, whereas a similarly sized coal plant requires 80 rail cars of coal per day. (Lorenzini, 2005)
The gridlock appears to be slowly tightening with nuclear power possibly the only solution to the intensifying problem.
3. Likely Future Scenario
The future scenario in use of fuel for energy and its development is probably going to move in reasonably predictable directions.
All across the globe, awareness on global warming and its possibly devastating repercussions has heightened considerably. Every natural calamity, be it the Tsunami in Indonesia, earthquakes in Pakistan, the arrival of the Katrina in the United States or the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas finds an immediate media connection to carbon dioxide emissions, the greenhouse effect and global warming. This phenomenon, coupled with the instability of supply and the rising cost of fossil fuels is going to lead to an expansion of nuclear power both in the USA and the UK. Governmental restrictions on use of nuclear power are slowly being dismantled as governments across the globe see the advantages of going nuclear for power generation.
Along with increase in nuclear power generation, governments across continents will try to develop renewable energy sources for power generation. Renewable energy has not really made much headway despite concerted efforts in the last thirty years. Nearly 90 % of the global energy production is obtained from fossil sources and most of the rest comes from nuclear power. Wind and hydro energy can be harnessed only in suitable locations that have access to huge amounts of rainfall, fast flowing rivers or conditions suitable for setting up wind farms.
Countries with access to fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal will of course continue to depend heavily upon these sources for power. However, the threat of emissions and consequent ozone layer depletion will nudge all countries towards the development of alternative sources. The rising costs of oil, essential for vehicular and air transportation will lead to its curtailment for use as as fuel for all but essential reasons.
Renewable sources will of course fill a part of the yawning power gap which appears to be looming on the horizon but nuclear power is also very much a part of the final answer. It is the one energy source that today combines the benefits of displacing the use of fossil fuels, minimising pressure on land, avoiding resource depletion and restricting harmful emissions.
The UK and the USA, both countries with over regulated nuclear power generation environments will necessarily open up their laws to ease the setting up of newer power facilities, based on nuclear fuels. The building of nuclear energy capacity necessarily comes with the enormous added responsibility of ensuring public health and safety, involving first, the storage and containment of harmful waste material and second, the prevention of dangerous nuclear material going into the hands of rogue states and terrorist organisations.
Contemporary business organisations will need to survive in similar circumstances for the next few years until additional nuclear and renewable energy facilities are set up. This is essentially going to be a slow, expensive and careful process and the period of infrastructure build up will be open to all the risks that exist today, namely uncertain supplies and skyrocketing prices.
It is only with the spread and extensive use of nuclear power on a global basis, the establishment and strict enforcement of protocols for responsible and peaceful use of nuclear energy and the rooting out of rogue states and terrorist organisations that businesses will be able to witness and take advantage of stability in supplies and cost of energy, free of the worry of a global environmental threat from emissions of harmful gases.
4. Summary and Way Forward
In the UK the 2006 review of the energy policy has put development of nuclear energy firmly on agenda and public opinion is also now veering towards its use. It has been determined that all the new plants will have to be built by the private sector with internalised waste and decommissioning costs. All barriers that threaten to slow down investment will be looked at very carefully, without compromising public safety; new and speedier licensing procedures will also be considered.
The use of nuclear fuel for energy is gaining ground globally after years of stagnation but some of the old concerns still remain. Environmentalists and anti nuclear campaigners have a number of worries, most of which concern safety, the prevention of hazards from nuclear plants and the misuse of nuclear fuel by rogue states, international criminals and terrorist organisations.
While their strident objections to the theory of nuclear energy being much cleaner and “greener” than energy derived from fossil fuels could be taken to be substantially incorrect, it would be presumptuous to brand all their worries about safety and the possibility of nuclear proliferation as facile and alarmist. Many of these concerns are still valid and do need attention.
The two major areas that demand consideration are the disposal of nuclear waste and the reprocessing of spent fuel. The sustainability of nuclear power, the ability to make it work for long time frames and to think of it as a real long term solution to the global power issue depends upon obtaining an acceptable and workable solution to the problem of managing nuclear waste. Nuclear wastes are classified differently from other toxic residues and need to be kept safely for thousands of years, whereas the timeframe for non radioactive toxics of between 50 to 70 years is far less. Work is needed in this area on two fronts, the carrying out of continuous scientific research, needing significant governmental and institutional funding to find a solution to the storage problem, and a fresh look at regulatory laws to assess whether they can be revisited without compromising safety.
Reprocessing relates to the process in which plutonium and uranium are chemically separated from spent fuel for reuse, as is done in France. Reprocessing allows for more complete usage and tapping of the energy potential of nuclear fuel and makes waste management easier, reducing both bulk and long term hazards which could arise from the waste. However, the separated plutonium could create a potential nuclear threat, if it finds its way to the wrong hands, and again will need very careful security.
After years of stagnation, the several demands of the twenty first century have combined to make the world seriously think of the need for nuclear power. The increase in demand for power and electricity in the developing world, the sharply eroding global resources of fossil fuels, the continuing global geopolitical instability, the skyrocketing prices of oil and gas, and the need to severely restrict carbon emissions are forcing nations to turn towards nuclear fuel for release from their energy worries.
The need of the moment is to think and to cooperate in this global mission. As Paul Lorenzini states:
The most critical step is to build a consensus among energy planners and policymakers that “sustainability” as a policy goal should include nuclear power. Bringing nuclear power back into the mix for energy planning means shedding ideological biases. It means openness of thinking to resolve the tension between the human desire for modernization and the global need for sustainability (2005)
Caldicott, H, 2005, Nuclear Power is the problem, not a solution, Common Dreams News Center, www.commondreams.org/views05/0415-23.htm
Clapp, R. W., 2006 Nuclear Power and Public Health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(11), 720+.Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5012166072 [27 Aug 2006]
Lorenzini, P., 2005, Spring. A Second Look at Nuclear Power: By Overlooking Nuclear Power in the Quest for Clean Energy, We Are Condemning Ourselves to a Future of Increased Fossil Fuel Use. Issues in Science and Technology, 21, 31+. Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5009414160 [27 Aug 2006]
Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom, 2006, World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf84.htm [27 Aug 2006]
Taylor, J. J. (2004, Spring). The Nuclear Power Bargain: The Potential Benefits Are Enormous If We Can Continue to Make Progress on Safety, Environmental, Fuel Supply, and Proliferation Concerns. Issues in Science and Technology, 20, 41+. Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5006170378 [27 Aug 2006]
Webster, P, 2006, Britain goes nuclear to beat energy crisis, Times Online, www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2184192,00.html [27 Aug 2006]
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