The Conversation – 2015-08-30 01:40:28
The Risks Attached to South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Strategy
(August 19, 2015) — According to Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the South African government has entered into a nuclear energy procurement process likely to be completed as early as 2016. So far, South Africa has signed Intergovernmental Framework Agreements on nuclear co-operation with Russia, France, China, South Korea and the US.
The agreement with Russia is very advanced compared to the others. This leads to the assumption that the procurement process will result in risky Russian reactors with a total capacity of 9.6 GW.
The risk of nuclear power to South Africa comes from the high costs of nuclear construction. It also comes with decommissioning nuclear plants, and safety concerns regarding the Russian nuclear industry.
Nuclear energy is expensive
Today, a 1000 MWt reactor costs at least US$6 billion. But the real question is, does nuclear technology produce cheap electricity? Two recent South African studies have found that nuclear generated electricity will be more expensive than the electricity generated by new coal plants, solar photovoltaic panels and wind.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research projects the levelised cost of electricity from nuclear power to be R1/kWh, R0.80/kWh from new coal, R0.80/kWh from solar photo voltaic, and R0.60/kWh from wind in today’s prices.
Analysis by another South African institute also projects that the levelised cost of nuclear energy to be higher than most other technologies. Both studies are inclusive of capitalâ€š financeâ€š maintenance and fuel costs.
As the projected costs of electricity reveal, committing to a nuclear future now is senseless. A report by a Swiss-based banking firm claimed:
We believe solar will eventually replace nuclear and coal, and be established as the default technology of the future to generate and supply electricity.
Africa Joins the Renewable Revolution
145 countries, including African ones, have introduced various policies in support of renewable energy generation. Next year Kenya will increase its renewable capacity by 1.4 GW and will generate more than half of its required electricity from solar plants by 2016.
It is projected that Kenyans will enjoy electricity at a rate 80% cheaper than current costs once the project is complete.
Even Ethiopia has plans to install 570 MW worth of geothermal and wind capacity. South Africa also has approved large amounts of money dedicated to renewable energy projects. Investment in renewables in Africa is expected to exceed US$7 billion by 2016.
The Future Doesn’t Look Good for Nuclear
Despite the nuclear industry’s enormous state funding and political support, the contribution of nuclear to the world’s primary energy production has dropped from 8% in 2000 to around 4.4% in 2014.
The reason behind the decline in nuclear power across the world is simple. Most nuclear reactors currently operating were built back in the 1960s and 1970s. These old reactors were designed for a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. Although some have been granted renewed licenses to operate for another one or two decades, nuclear reactors are not eternal and most now require decommissioning.
Decommissioning requires clean-up of radioactive wastes and demolition of nuclear plants. Because it involves high-level radioactive wastes, it is hazardous for workers and the environment. It is also time intensive. The costs of decommissioning depends on the technology. Some of the radioactive wastes will remain dangerous for thousands of years.
Limited experience with nuclear decommissioning exists around the world and cost overruns are common issue in this field. The UK authorities estimated the cost of decommissioning for 19 existing nuclear sites at Â£100 billion in 2012.
According to a report, more than 200 of the world’s nuclear reactors will reach the end of their designed operation lifetime by 2030. Decommissioning these old reactors can be as expensive as construction costs.
The decommissioning programme in France alone is estimated at â‚¬300 billion, and this cost will likely escalate further.
Accidents Are a Very Real Threat
Russia and the previous Soviet Union has experienced many problems as a consequence of nuclear power development. The largest nuclear accident in the history of humankind, the reactor explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 is infamous across the world. According to the latest scientific data, more than one million people in different countries were affected by this catastrophe.
Before Chernobyl, a lesser-known accident occurred at the Mayak nuclear facility in South Urals. A tank containing radioactive waste exploded resulting in about 20,000 square kilometres of contaminated territory and the forced resettlement of 10,000 local residents. Thousands of locals were sent to clean up the radioactive mess, including 2000 pregnant women.
The Mayak disaster happened in the late 1950s, but the world only became aware of it 30 years later. Despite the disaster, the nuclear facility at Mayak continued to dump radioactive waste from it’s spent fuel reprocessing operations into the nearby Techa river up until at least 2005. There are thousands of local residents living there until today. To date, the Russian nuclear industry has yet to accept full responsibility for the damage done at Mayak.
It is not only Russian nuclear industry which had terrible nuclear accidents. Reactors were melting in Fukushima in Japan; Three Mile Island in the US; Sellafield in the UK. There are dozens of smaller but still very dangerous events. But Russian industry definitely occupies one of the top places in this list.
From this, it is no surprise that when the agreement was signed between South Africa and Russia, this clause was included:
In the case of a nuclear accident, South Africa will accept all of the liability.
Russian nuclear federation Rosatom has launched a large public relations campaign in South Africa with the intention of convincing the public that nuclear power is the solution to the electricity crisis. Rosatom’s campaign makes use of several well-known nuclear lobbyists and deliberately misrepresents key information, such as the real cost of nuclear power and the status of the global nuclear industry.
The Nkandla scandal is a drop in the ocean compared with the pending Russian nuclear deal. South African civil society must take a stand now towards the future it wants before it is too late.
Accidents, Waste and Weapons:
Nuclear Power Isn’t Worth the Risks
(May 18, 2015) — The case for expanding nuclear energy is based on myths about its status, greenhouse gas emissions, proliferation, accidents, wastes and economics. Let’s take each in turn.
Nuclear is not, and has never been, a major energy force. Global annual nuclear energy generation peaked in 2006. Meanwhile its percentage contribution to global electricity generation has declined from its historic peak in 1993 of 17% to about 10% today. The only countries with significant growth are China, India, Russia and South Korea. In the rest of the world, retirements of ageing reactors are likely to outweigh new builds.
Nuclear advocates are fond of claiming that nuclear energy has negligible greenhouse gas emissions and hence must play an important role in mitigating climate change. However, the greenhouse case for new nuclear power stations is flawed.
In a study published in 2008, nuclear physicist and nuclear energy supporter Manfred Lenzen compared life-cycle emissions from several types of power station. For nuclear energy based on mining high-grade uranium ore, he found average emissions of 60 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity generation, compared with 10â€“20 g per kWh for wind and 500â€“600 g per kWh for gas. Now comes the part that most nuclear proponents try to ignore.
The world has, at most, a few decades of high-grade uranium ore reserves left. As ore grades inevitably decline, more diesel fuel is needed to mine and mill the uranium, and so the resulting CO2 emissions rise. Lenzen calculated the life-cycle emissions of a nuclear power station running on low-grade uranium ore to be 131 g per kWh.
This is unacceptable in terms of climate science, especially given that Lenzen’s assumptions favoured nuclear energy. Mining in remote locations will be one of the last industries to transition to low-carbon fuels, so new nuclear reactors will inevitably become significant greenhouse gas emitters over their lifetimes.
The Next Generation of Reactors
Some generation IV reactors are potentially lower in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, but these are not yet commercially available.
All are likely to be even more expensive than conventional reactors. The fast breeder reactor is even more complex, dangerous, expensive and conducive to weapons proliferation than conventional nuclear reactors. Despite several decades of expensive pilot and demonstration plants, fast breeders have not been successfully commercialised, and may never be.
Advocates try to justify the integral fast reactor and the thorium reactor on the fallacious grounds that they cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons explosives. However, if not operated according to the rules, the integral fast reactor can actually make it easier to extract weapons-grade plutonium and hence make bombs. To be useful as a nuclear fuel, thorium must first be converted to uranium-233, which can be fissioned either in a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb, as the United States has demonstrated.
The small modular reactor (SMR) has been a dream of the nuclear industry for decades, amid hopes that future mass production could make its electricity cheaper than from existing large reactors. However, offsetting this is the economy of scale of large reactors. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which is not anti-nuclear, has serious safety and security concerns about SMRs.
Nuclear proponents dismiss the danger that civil nuclear energy will drive the development of nuclear weapons, by saying that the nuclear industry is now under strong international oversight. This ignores the harsh reality that India, Pakistan, North Korea and South Africa have all used civil nuclear energy to help build their nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Libya, South Korea and Taiwan all used civil nuclear energy to cloak their commencement of nuclear weapons programs, although fortunately all except Iran have now discontinued them.
Thus nuclear energy contributes to the number of countries with nuclear weapons, or the capacity to build them, and hence increases the probability of nuclear war.
Analyses of the damage done by major nuclear accidents, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, should properly consider not just the short-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome, but also the cancers that appear over the ensuring decades, and which represent the major contribution to death and disabilities from these incidents.
Estimates of future Chernobyl deaths by reputable impartial authors range from 16,000 by the International Centre for Research on Cancer, to 93,000 by an international group of medical researchers.
Four years after Fukushima, the plant is still leaking radiation, while a reported 120,000 people remain displaced and Japanese taxpayers face a bill that could run to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Proponents often cherry-pick highly optimistic projections of the future cost of nuclear energy. However, past and present experience suggests that such projections have little basis in reality. Apart from the Generation IV reactors, which are not commercially available and hence cannot be costed credibly, all of the much-touted current (Generation III+) power reactors under construction (none is operating) are behind schedule and over budget.
In Finland, Olkiluoto-3 is nearly a decade behind schedule and nearly three times its budgeted cost; in France, Flamanville-3 is five years behind schedule and double budgeted cost; in Georgia, USA, Vogtle is three years behind schedule and about US$700 million over budget.
Britain’s proposed Hinkley Point C will receive a guaranteed inflation-linked price for electricity over 35 years, starting at about US$180 per megawatt hour — double the typical wholesale price of electricity in the UK. It will also receive a loan guarantee of about US$20 billion and insurance backed by the British taxpayer. It’s doubtful whether any nuclear power station has ever been built without huge subsidies.
Nuclear Waste vs. Renewable Energy
High-level nuclear wastes will have to be safeguarded for 100,000 years or more, far exceeding the lifetime of any human institution.
Meanwhile, Denmark is moving to 100% renewable electricity by 2035, and Germany to at least 80% by 2050. Two German states are already at 100% net renewable energy and South Australia is nudging 40%. Hourly computer simulations of the National Electricity Market suggest that it too could be operated on 100% renewables, purely by scaling up commercially available technologies.
The variability of wind and solar power can be managed with mixes of different renewable energy technologies, at geographically dispersed locations to smooth out the supply. Why would we need to bother with nuclear?
This article is part of The Conversation’s worldwide series on the Future of Nuclear. You can read the rest of the series here, and a counterpoint to the views expressed in this article here.
Russia’s Floating Nuclear Plants
To Power Remote Arctic Regions
(November 11, 2013) — Though Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, it is embarking on an ambitious and somewhat imaginative programme of building floating nuclear power stations. These are part of Russia’s wider investment in nuclear energy, with many reactors beginning construction in the next few years and technology being exported to China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Jordan and Turkey.
These reactors, mounted on huge, 140m by 30m barges, are being built in the Baltic shipyard in St Petersburg and will be floated through the Norwegian and Barents Seas to where they will generate heat and electrical power in the Arctic.
The first, Academician Lomonosov, has been built and its two 35MWe KLT-40S reactors are now being installed. Lomonosov is destined for Vilyuchinsk, on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East where she will be operating by 2016. Up to ten similar plants are destined for similarly remote and unpopulated areas.
Power Where It’s Needed
Russia is building these reactors to help extract its most valuable asset: Siberian oil and gas. This requires huge quantities of energy and large amounts of heat for the operators living in subzero temperatures.
Relatively small, self-contained nuclear power units such as these are a way of providing energy in this inhospitable, isolated region far from the grid. Nuclear power is seen as both dependable and relatively simple to operate.
The concept is not new. The US mounted a submarine nuclear power plant on the Liberty ship, Sturgis, in 1966 to power the Panama Canal Zone from 1968 to 1975.
The Russian concept shares a similar heritage, using two small, military reactors designed for nuclear powered icebreakers. Instead of driving a ship’s propeller, it drives electricity generators and has facilities to provide heating. Larger barge-mounted reactors up to 600MWe are planned — a similar size to a civil nuclear, gas- or coal-fired power station on land.
Cheaper to Run?
Such plants are ideal for remote regions and these reactors are a direct application of military industries. Can they tell us anything about the economics and safety of small power reactors?
The KLT-40S reactor is fuelled by 30-40% enriched uranium, which falls outside what would be allowed for civil use (concern about weapons proliferation limits enrichment to very low levels). The reactors are built in factories and assembled in shipyards, where productivity is much higher and quality standards easier to police than on construction sites.
But military reactors are designed with little thought for costs and because of their small power output it’s very likely that their lifetime generating costs will be several times that of large, grid-connected reactors, and many more times higher that of a gas power station.
Mixed Safety Record
Modern nuclear safety practice focuses on the “three Cs”: control of reactivity, cooling of the core, and containment of radioactivity. Each of these has to be completely effective and reliable, so designers employ multiple system redundancy with backups and layers of protection.
Just how safe Russian military reactors are is clouded in secrecy; we just don’t know how safe the KLT-40S is. Russia has successfully operated nine nuclear icebreakers over the past 50 years. On the other hand we know that seven Russian nuclear submarines have sunk, some due to reactor problems and others due to weapons explosion onboard, and a further ten reported reactor accidents. So this reactor’s pedigree is not unblemished.
Cooling systems for civil reactors have become very complex and this is a prime cause of soaring construction costs. It is difficult to install in a naval vessel the number of systems and separate them so that they provide redundancy should one fail.
New ideas are needed, such as the natural circulation cooling used in some small reactor designs in the US. They provide cooling through largely passive systems, which are inherently less complex and therefore cheaper.
Providing containment is difficult in a small plant. The usual approach is to construct a very large, almost cathedral-like, box around the reactor to ensure that even in the worst case a radioactive release is kept inside the plant.
The result of poor containment design can be seen from the disaster at Fukushima in 2011, where radioactivity had to be vented into the atmosphere to ensure the structure did not burst from built up pressure.
As with many other aspects, we do not know whether the containment structure of the Russian reactors will be effective. Though the Russians are being imaginative in developing barge-mounted reactors to address a problem specific to their geography and their needs, the lack of openness makes it hard to see how useful their nuclear technology can be in the West.
Britain still has a similar nuclear capability and a nuclear-powered naval fleet, but one more attuned to civil safety standards. But, unlike Russia and the US, Britain is making little attempt to develop such small, factory-built reactors as a counter to the huge costs of civil reactors — such as the multi-billion pound planned power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
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