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Why nuclear power is not the dream that failed

Last updated on: March 21, 2012 18:48 IST

Why nuclear power is not the dream that failed

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Dr K S Parthasarathy

The rising prices of fossil fuels and the unreliability of alternative sources like solar and wind power means that the charms of nuclear power may still return, thanks to improvements in safety and technology, says Dr K S Parthasarathy.

One year post the Fukushima nuclear accident, an avalanche of articles examined the status of nuclear power worldwide. Among them, an article titled "Nuclear power, the dream that failed" in The Economist of March 10, stirred a section of the discerning readers in India.

The magazine's admirers include some decision makers who appreciate complex arguments. However, the case against nuclear power is seldom based on rational arguments but on perception fueled by raw emotions and on hard economics. The article is one-sided; it did not reflect the global developments. Is nuclear power the dream that failed?

The article revealsthat over 26 years ago, The Economist observed that the only way forward for a somewhat moribund nuclear industry (emphasis is mine to show the magazine's bias) was "to get plenty of nuclear plants built, and then to accumulate, year after year, a record of no deaths, no serious accidents -- and no dispute that the result is cheaper energy."

The magazine ignores the success story of the French nuclear industry. It says little about the improvements in safety and commendable performance of nuclear power plants in USA, post the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

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Image: The Electricite de France nuclear power station of Cattenom near Thionville, Eastern France, is seen at night
Photographs: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

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Chernobyl didn't stop the growth of nuclear power

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Their average capacity factor (ratio of the electricity produced, compared with the maximum electric power a plant can produce, operating at full power all the year round) was 56.3 percent in 1980 -- a year after the accident at TMI -- it increased gradually and remained mostly above 90 percent since 2002 to date; 17 of the 104, operated with a capacity factor of over 100 percent in 2011. The capacity factor remains the highest among all fuel types.

Neither the accident at Chernobyl nor the one at TMI stopped the growth of nuclear power world-wide. Does the magazine realise that 50 out of the currently-operating 104 nuclear power reactors in the US were connected to the grid after 1979, the year in which TMI accident took place.

The grid received power from 19 of these after 1986 -- the year in which Chernobyl accident occurred. Fourteen nuclear power reactors started delivering electric power to the Canadian grid after 1979. Fifty-three of the currently operating 59 reactors in France came on line after 1979.

Since 1970, the US added 6,194 MWe through 140 power up rates; applications for 20 up rates totaling 1,493 MWe are pending; 1,160 MWe from 15 up rates are expected. Effort is to extract every ounce of juice!

Fukushima certainly adversely impacted nuclear power. Belgium, Switzerland and Germany decided to phase out nuclear power. Italy decided not to have it.

Germany acted in panic shutting down eight old reactors. Ironically, the impact on Germany was not high as it imported power from French and Czech nuclear power plants.

"Since March 17, there has been an increase in imports. Flows from France and the Czech Republic have doubled, on April 4, 2011," Spiegel online quoted Hildegard M ller, head of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries.

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Image: A view shows a sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine
Photographs: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

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'Nuclear may charm again'

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"For 2011, Germany's overall energy trade balance was positive, and because of new wind and solar facilities could well build on that surplus in 2012". IP Journal of the German Council of Foreign Relations reported on February 22, this year. How can they be so sure with solar and wind, the two notoriously capricious and fickle minded sources of power?

The magazine concedes that nuclear innovation is still possible, but argues that it will not happen apace. "This does not mean nuclear power will suddenly go away. Reactors bought today may end up operating into the 22nd century, and decommissioning well-regulated reactors that have been paid for when they have years to run -- as Germany did -- makes little sense.

Some countries with worries about the security of other energy supplies will keep building them, And if the prices of fossil fuels rise and stay high, through scarcity or tax, nuclear may charm again," the magazine admits grudgingly.

On March 16, Reuters quoted an unpublished report from the International Atomic Energy Agency stating that significant growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide is still anticipated -- between 35 per cent and 100 per cent by 2030 -- although the agency projections for 2030 are 7-8 per cent lower than projections made in 2010.

IAEA noted that many countries are still pushing ahead with nuclear energy, with 64 reactors under construction at the end of 2011, mostly in Asia.

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Image: A protester takes part at an anti-nuclear rally near the nuclear power plant Gundremmingen, Germany
Photographs: Michaela Rehle/Reuters

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Some fence-sitters may change their views

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Reacting to The Economist article, Barry Brook in Bravenewclimate, a pronuclear blog,  argued that nuclear power -- or, more to the point, radio phobia (external link) has caused a major economic and social upheaval in Japan, post-Fukushima.

"But over the last 40 years, nuclear power has also substantially reduced Japan's need to import coal and LNG, and kept its ongoing carbon emissions lower to the tune of roughly (external link) 250 million tonnes of CO2-e per year," he added

The most telling line in Barry Brooks's article is: "Yet for an article in a magazine called The Economist, the Morton article is remarkably vague about the economics of alternatives to nuclear."

The Economist article received over 300 comments from readers over a period of a week. Seventy five percent of the views supported nuclear power! A few commentators have been conspicuously pro-nuclear. Some fence-sitters may change their views if correct information is provided to them.

Michael Dunne, a nuclear advocate called the article a "Bit of what could be charitably called a disingenuous article with the tone of a myopic, willful child."

"Last week The Economist was bemoaning the use of coal," he added.

Many comments could not be classified as pronuclear or anti-nuclear. There was understandable criticism on the very title of the article. It appears that the majority of readers do not endorse the opinion of The Economist!

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Image: A radiation monitor indicates 131.00 microsieverts per hour near the No 4 and No 3 buildings at the tsunami-crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima
Photographs: Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters

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'The UAE project could set the stage'

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Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, wrote about "Nuclear power's uncertain future" in The National Interest, a bimonthly foreign-policy journal offering cutting edge analysis of politics, national security and economics.

Hydraulic fracturing has unlocked copious supplies of cheap shale natural gas in the US making gas power plants decidedly less expensive than nuclear power plants. He shares this view with many industry leaders and hard nosed investors.

It does not matter for India and many other countries as they do not have plentiful gas supplies.

Oliver Norton, the author of The Economist article ignored another development. Beating international competition, South Korea won a contract to erect four nuclear power reactors in the United Arab Emirates. The French nuclear industry was forced to recalibrate its approach to commercial nuclear power

"If successful, the UAE project could set the stage for competitive nuclear power," Ferguson noted in The National Interest on March 15.

According to him, the UAE is rich and South Korea has the technology to construct the plant within budget and on time. India has demonstrated that it can do so with their version of pressurised heavy water reactor.

After a thorough analysis of the accident at Fukushima, the preventive measures taken by nuclear industry, and the status of nuclear power world-wide, the Toronto Star (March 10) ably disputed the views of The Economist.

Evidently nuclear power is not the dream that failed.

Dr K S Parthasarathy is a Raja Ramanna Fellow, Department of Atomic Energy

Image: An employee of Yamagata city office holds a Geiger counter to detect radiation when evacuees from the vicinity of Fukushima nuclear plant wishe to be screened upon their arrival at an evacuation center set in a gymnasium in Yamagata, northern Japan
Photographs: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

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