Friday, 4 October 2013

Nuclear power: a reality check

The world is dancing a dangerous waltz with nuclear power, taking endless steps backwards and forwards, with the industry lurching between renaissance and recession. With progress stilted, mounting costs are dragging the industry into a dangerous quagmire. How much longer can we afford to dance around?

Nuclear power was once considered a utopian dream – a technology that would change the human landscape forever, a 'beautiful' energy source that would utilise nature's most mysterious forces, and an undeniable sign of technological and political supremacy. Yet, nearly 60 years after the world's first civilian reactor was built, nuclear power is still fighting for public acceptance. Between risk, threat and misperceptions lay many questions and uncertainties. Is nuclear power safe? Is it environmentally friendly? Is it sustainable?  Such questions have spawned a heated debate over the role of nuclear power in the global energy scene.

Unlike other energy fields, nuclear power is heavily regulated. While it takes less than a year to build a gas-fired power plant, nuclear vendors need about 5 years to prepare a sound new build proposal to submit to regulators. Following this, regulators take the same period of time, if not more, to study the proposal – and this does not include the time consumed by endless public consultations and parliamentary debates. With rapidly growing economies and environmental challenges, nuclear power is just too slow to deploy. Some may argue that, in the past – specifically the early 1960s – nuclear power plants were built from scratch within a period of 3 years. But, nowadays, the global political landscape of the 1960s has been effaced, and the reasons for accelerated nuclear builds are no longer relevant.

With the continuing drama of Fukushima running in the background, it is difficult to overcome the negative public perception of nuclear safety and acknowledge that new nuclear builds are safer than these built in the 1960's. Concepts like ‘defence in depth’ and ‘passive safety’ are now the cornerstones of any new build proposals. While the former aims to prevent severe accidents by deploying successive lines of defence throughout the plant’s systems and structures, the latter introduces safety systems that do not rely on electric power or human involvement. Such reliance initiated the events that eventually led to the Fukushima meltdown.

Radioactive waste legacy and nuclear proliferation are major concerns to governments and the public, equally. It was once thought that all of the waste produced by a nuclear power plant in a single year could be stored underneath a desk. Unfortunately, the reality is slightly less containable. In the US alone, the roughly 100 operating reactors will create 87,000 tonnes of spent fuel in their lifetime. Worldwide, more than 250,000 tonnes of spent fuel will require disposal. A conservative projection of the amount of spent fuel that will be produced by 2050 is around 1 million tonnes. Currently, research is focussed on new reactor concepts that incorporate nuclear waste as fuel. However, it is very unlikely that these new reactor concepts will be able to eliminate the problem of waste completely. Moreover, there are doubts that the potential recycling capacity of these reactors would be high enough to process all of the waste produced by conventional reactors, let alone the colossal inventory of existing waste.

Despite the public’s ambivalence, nuclear power remains a prime option in the fight against climate change and its adverse effects. Current technology does not reflect the full potential of nuclear power to offer safer, cheaper and more sustainable energy. While rapid advancements in renewable technologies continue to overcome major challenges, nuclear power suffers excessive regulations and lack of public confidence. This makes it more likely that alternative energy sources will gain a bigger share of our future energy market – a market that is expected to grow with the deployment of smart grids that could resolve fluctuations in electricity supply and demand.