Thursday, August 14, 2008

Newfound resurgence in nuclear energy

I keep reminding my friends (or anyone who will listen, really) that renewable energy is not the only option on the table when discussing alternatives for addressing climate change and energy security. Economic arguments notwithstanding, the 900-pound gorilla, better known as the nuclear energy industry, is fighting hard to stay in the mix. Their task is made easier by the support of the "Group of Eight" and two other developments:
  • According to a new poll by Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times, twice as many Americans support nuclear power as oppose it. In a telephone poll of nearly 1,500 Americans conducted from July 28 through August 1, 61 percent of respondents said they support the increased use of nuclear power as a way to contain projected global warming, while only 30 percent opposed it.
  • Continued opposition (in many cases by environmental organizations) to the development of both onshore and offshore wind energy projects -- the most cost-effective utility-scale renewable energy technology. (GW)
World Leaders Endorse Nuclear Power

By Ken Silverstein
EnergyBiz Insider
Juloy 23, 2008

Nuclear energy now has a big endorsement from world leaders who say it is an effective means to slow global warming. But the Group of Eight cautioned that any future development must abide by nuclear nonproliferation standards.

The solid support is more of a symbolic gesture -- one that officially takes nuclear power out of the backrooms and into the limelight. For three decades the fuel source had been a taboo topic. But today the global community is focused on energy security and environmental awareness. Indeed, the growing demand for fossil fuels has not just placed upward pressure on prices but it has also added to concerns over greenhouse gas emissions. Multiple nations have reacted with plans to construct new nuclear power facilities, which is why many international leaders are standing behind the idea.

"A growing number of countries have expressed interest in nuclear power programs as a means to addressing climate change and energy security concerns," says Yasuo Fukuda, Prime Minister of Japan, at the G8 conference in Japan. "These countries regard nuclear power as an essential instrument in reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and hence greenhouse gas emissions. We reiterate that safeguards, nuclear safety and nuclear security are fundamental principles for the peaceful use of nuclear energy."

During the G8 conference, leaders agreed to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In the spirit of that commitment, 29 nations have said they will expand their use of nuclear energy. In the United States, where 104 nuclear reactors are present that provide 20 percent of the electricity mix, plans are on the table to build 30 plants. Japan wants to supply 40 percent of its electricity mix with nuclear power by 2030. South Korea has made a similar pronouncement. China, India and Russia, all with growing economies, have aggressive nuclear energy programs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that nuclear energy makes up 16 percent of the world's generation mix. But it projects the use of such power to grow significantly over the next 30 years and mainly in Asia. In fact, 22 of the last 31 such plants have been constructed in Asia while 18 of the current 27 reactors now being built are going up there. Japan, for example, has few natural resources and limited land space while India and China rely heavily on coal.

To put the matter in perspective, consider that the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting a 45 percent increase in energy demand in this country by 2030, necessitating an additional 350,000 megawatts of new generation. The primary alternatives, natural gas and coal, each come with problems -- namely supply shortages and dirty emissions, respectively.

Nuclear energy plants, meanwhile, have shown themselves to be safer and more productive than ever before. But if new construction is to occur, the industry must demonstrate that it has learned from the past.

Long Road

While nuclear power is gaining ground, it still has a long way to go before it would be fully accepted. Past incidents still ring loud among many skeptics. They recall the Three Mile Island scare in 1979 and the serious Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine in 1986, which relied on antiquated Soviet-era technology that was never used in this country.

Advances in nuclear technology could alter the discussion. Futuristic plants are called Very High Temperature Reactors. They will differ from current ones in that they will operate at three times the temperature of today's light water reactors. That results in a more efficient use of fuel and the ability to create hydrogen in the process. All of that makes the proposition a lot more economically attractive.

Meantime, the reactors are cooled by helium gas and not water. That means that the reactors rely on gravity and not on mechanical instruments to flush water through the system in the event of emergency. Therefore, the odds of any leaks and subsequent meltdowns are close to zero, say advocates of the design.

In any event, those supporters must overcome the issue of how to dispose of spent fuel. At present, such radioactive material is stored on site in steel casks and discussions are occurring in the United States that would create permanent repository. Long run, researchers are examining how to reprocess the fuel.

And then there are the costs and timetables: The price tag to build a nuclear facility in the days before Three Mile Island totaled about $1 billion. After, the sunk costs amounted to about $6 billion. Now some peg the expense at $12 billion a plant, largely because of the international demand for labor, supplies and fuel. To complicate matters, before Three Mile Island it would take about five years from the time it took to initially site a plant to the time pre-construction might begin. After that, the time frame doubled to 10 years.

Germany is the only industrialized in the G8 to oppose more nuclear development. It says that too many obstacles stand in the way of future development and the fuel source can therefore do little in the near term to ease greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the current national government there plans to phase out its nuclear plants by 2020.

"It's a fact that nuclear energy today is based on risky reactors, leads to proliferation and security hazards and produces long lived deadly nuclear waste with no solution for its safe disposal," adds Daniel Mittler, Greenpeace International's climate policy expert. "We need solutions based on renewables and energy efficiency to defeat climate change and ensure true energy security."

No one disputes that new energy forms are a must. All forms are potentially viable and especially renewable technologies. But global leaders are under pressure to meet growing energy demands while curbing emissions and therefore realize that any newfound resurgence in nuclear energy cannot be ignored.


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