In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in developing nuclear power in both developed and developing countries. The United States, where construction had ceased for decades, has now formally certified new reactor designs. In Europe (except for France), where nuclear power development has been in a holding pattern for almost two decades, there is now a renewed and growing interest in nuclear energy. The UK government has announced its support. In May 2008, two decades after a public referendum resoundingly banned nuclear power and deactivated the country’s reactors, Italy announced plans to resume building nuclear plants within five years. Germany and Sweden have reversed their previous stand. Finland is pursuing a fifth nuclear power plant—the first such decision in Western Europe for more than a decade.
More than 40 developing countries, ranging from the Persian Gulf to Latin America, have recently approached United Nations officials to express interest in starting nuclear power programs. In late 2007, Egypt announced that it would build several nuclear power plants to meet rising energy demands. In September 2008, Brazil’s top energy official announced the country’s intention to set up 50 to 60 nuclear power plants in the coming half century.
The motivations toward this renewed interest are easy to see: (a) diversify fuel sources, reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports, and develop immunity to power disruptions; (b) defend against volatile fuel costs; (c) decrease air pollution, by taking advantage of the virtual absence of air pollutants from nuclear plants; and finally, (d) fight against climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Major recent developments
The revival of interest in nuclear power has been facilitated by substantial improvements in their design and operating performance during the past two decades. New streamlined licensing processes promise to reduce regulatory uncertainty and make it easier to build nuclear plants. Plant availability and productivity has increased dramatically, specifically, in the U.S., from about 67% in the 1970s and early 1980s to about 92% today, while also keeping the same or greater levels of safety. Refueling outage has been reduced and the life of many plants was increased by the Regulator from 40 to 60 years. Technical improvements and simplification of design have enabled the units to operate at higher output while reducing the cost of construction and operation. This enables plants to produce more energy (and, of course, more revenue) in one year and during their lifetime.
Is nuclear power a sustainable technology? At the current consumption rate of 68,000 metric tonnes a year, uranium resources (estimated to about 4.7 mill. metric tonnes at a cost of $130/kg), are enough for 70-80 years. This indicates that, under most assumptions, nuclear power (without fuel recycling and breeding) is not a long-term sustainable technology. If recycling and breeding are considered, the lifetime of the resources would be multiplied by a factor of about 80, practically unlimited.
The perils of nuclear power revolve around several basic concerns, which brought nuclear power development to a standstill in the United States and Western Europe and still impede nuclear expansion. These are: (i) the possibility of a nuclear accident, which, although an event of low probability, could have large consequences; (ii) lack of a comprehensive, publicly accepted plan for permanent and safe disposal of nuclear waste; and (iii) anxiety about civilian nuclear power leading or facilitating nuclear weapons proliferation.
Major Reactor Accidents
Two accidents have indelibly marked the history of nuclear power, leaving impressions in the public mind that, many years later, still color public reactions to this form of energy. The Three Mile Island Accident (1979) occurred through a combination of malfunctions and human error but caused no deaths or other health effects. The accident’s most severe impacts were on mental health (from the resulting anxiety) and on property values near the plant. But the financial impacts on the plant were large. The Chernobyl accident (Ukraine, 1986) occurred in unit 4 when the reactor experienced an uncontrolled excursion of power—leading to fuel overheating and an explosion of the large reactor core. Exposure of workers to lethal doses of radiation caused death in a matter of days to about 50 people. The consequences of the Chernobyl accident were undoubtedly severe and with wide-spread repercussions.
Safety is certainly a major concern of society regarding nuclear power- it must be demonstrated convincingly to the public. In setting acceptable risk levels, both the costs and the benefits of a technology relative to those of alternatives must be considered. Two questions are pertinent here: is nuclear energy safer than alternative sources of energy, such as coal? And does a nuclear plant’s benefit to society exceed its risk? Decisions on risk are made through a process of social debate in which the voices of all stakeholders must be taken into account.
Disposal of Nuclear Waste
Nuclear waste disposal has been one of the more recalcitrant problems facing the nuclear industry—a decisive impediment to its expansion. It is important to keep the issue of radioactive waste management in perspective. Although such waste is dangerous, its volume—about 12,000 metric tonnes a year from the world’s nuclear power plants—is small relative to waste produced by fossil fuel plants. The burning of fossil fuels releases, every year, enormous amounts of ash, diverse air pollutants, and a large portion of a total of about 8.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon directly into the atmosphere. The challenges of nuclear waste disposal remain a potent impediment to the expansion of nuclear power around the world. Technical solutions for the safe storage of spent fuel exist and seem to be accepted by most technical specialists and observers. Deep geological formations are the preferred technical solution, and most countries have selected, or are selecting, sites as permanent repositories, with appropriate studies and permits. But institutional obstacles remain formidable, and the public’s aversion to having a repository in its “backyard” continues. Developed and developing countries seems poised to accelerate the expansion of nuclear power, with waste first stored onsite for a fairly long time—and expecting to ship spent fuel to the fuel’s country of origin or to countries (such as China and Russia) willing to accept it for a fee. Despite these considerations, the global public remains deeply skeptical about nuclear waste disposal.
The Risk of Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear proliferation is a complex and controversial issue, with many views expressed on its various aspects. As with so many other issues, nuclear proliferation mainly lies in the domain of political decisions. But understanding the technical issues is crucial to formulating a sound position on this question.
Centrifuge technology revolutionized the economics of enrichment relative to diffusion technology. A country that possesses technologies for enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing can, if it so desires and decides, move toward producing nuclear weapons (about 40 countries have this capacity). Technology needs to address all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle—with an emphasis on enrichment, which poses a threat entirely independent from civilian applications, but the capacity of technology for solutions is limited. The proliferation problem is fundamentally political and so requires political solutions.
Because nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gas emissions, it will likely play a growing role in supplying global demands for electricity. But nuclear power is, perhaps, the most contentious of all means of electricity generation, arousing strong passions for and against. Unresolved issues exist related to safety, nuclear waste disposal, and the potential of proliferation. Indeed, the word “nuclear” strikes fear in the hearts of many people. So, for nuclear power to gain greater public acceptance, become a significant option for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and meet growing needs for electricity supply, four critical problems must be overcome: safety, waste, proliferation, and costs.