2014 Nuclear Issues Vol 37 No 3 May

Posted by NucNet on 30 May 2014 in Issues

Tagged with: Anthropocene, Euratom, PRISM, Plutonium, Uranium.

Prejudiced science

It is now possible to have some understanding of the doubts of the climate change skeptics and their criticisms of the IPCC scientists when some of the statements relating to nuclear power from the IPCC show a clear prejudice.

This prejudice however is not surprising. The summary for policy makers of the IPCC working group 3 was compiled with contributions from 24 countries, 14 of whom came from Germany, 8 from the USA, 6 from India, 3 each from Brazil, China, and the UK, 2 from France, and 1 each from Argentina, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Mali, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden. The contributing authors to the final text were from Austria (2) Brazil, Germany, Italy, Norway (2), Netherlands, Switzerland, and 2 from the USA (2).

Many of the members of the working group were from academic institutions developing improved renewable energies. It is understandable that they then believe that there are more appropriate technologies to the main existing energy sources of fossil fuels and nuclear power. The predominate role of contributors from Germany, a country with a strong anti-nuclear movement which is now, in an exaggerated response to Fukushima, closing down all its nuclear power stations, must also have had an influence on the document.

One comment from the report shows a clear anti-nuclear bias with the claim that “Nuclear energy is a mature low GHG emission source of baseload power, but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993).” and further that “Nuclear power is projected to decline slightly on a global basis after 2010. Capacity additions in developing countries and in economies in transition roughly balance the capacity being withdrawn in OECD countries. Few new power stations will be built in many countries without a change in government policies. IAEA projections for 2020 cover a range from a 10% decline to an optimistic 50% increase in nuclear generating capacity. (IAEA, 2000a)”.

This gloomy assertion, or possibly wishful thinking, is contradicted by the IAEA’s own latest assessment in September 2013 that “The world’s nuclear power generating capacity is projected to continue to grow by 2030.” The figures given in the Agency’s annual publication ‘Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050’ indicate, for the low projection a 17 per cent growth in world total nuclear power capacity by 2030, while the high projection suggests a 94 per cent growth, i.e. nearly a doubling in global generation capacity. In other words, growth in nuclear power following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is expected to continue.

In his statement to the 57th IAEA General Conference the Director General, Yukiya Amano, said that the Agency’s latest projections show a continued growth in global use of nuclear power in the next 20 years, especially in Asia. The annual projections made since 2011 have indicated that growth has slowed, but not reversed. The 2013 updates, taking into account developments through April 2013, reinforce this conclusion. Over the short term, the low price of natural gas and the promotion of renewable energy sources in some energy policies are expected to impact nuclear growth prospects in several regions of the developed world but these low natural gas prices are partly due to low demand as a result of macroeconomic conditions, as well as technological advances, notably with fracking to extract shale gas. Moreover, the on-going financial crisis continues to present challenges for capital intensive projects such as nuclear power.

The IAEA regards Nuclear energy as a critical component of a country’s energy infrastructure, providing a clean and dependable long-term source of energy which is expected to play an important role in the energy mix due to growth in population and in demand for electricity in the developing world, as well as climate change concerns, security of energy supply and price volatility for other fuels.

The IAEA accepts that challenges remain, and policy responses to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident are still evolving. However, over the past year, most countries have finalized their nuclear safety reviews, providing greater clarity with respect to nuclear power development. The final result of those reviews, reactor safety modifications, and in some cases even reactor shut- downs, is that greater confidence in nuclear power is expected as a safe and secure energy source.

The strongest projected growth is in regions that already have operating nuclear power plants, led by Asian countries, including China and the Republic of Korea; from 83 GW(e) at the end of 2012, capacity grows to 147 GW(e) in 2030 in the low projection and to 268 GW(e) in the high projection.

Eastern Europe, which includes Russia, as well as the Middle East and South Asia, which includes India and Pakistan, also show strong growth potential; nuclear capacities grow from 48 GW(e) in 2012, to 79 GW(e) and 124 GW(e) in the low and high cases, respectively.

Western Europe is less optimistic and shows the biggest difference between the low and high projections. In the low projection, Western Europe’s nuclear power capacity drops from 114 GW(e) at the end of 2012 to 68 GW(e) in 2030. In the high projection, nuclear power grows to 124 GW(e).

In North America, the low case projects a small decline, to 101 GW(e) in 2030, while the high projection shows an increase from 116 GW(e) at the end of 2012 to 143 GW(e), or a 24 per cent increase.

In these IAEA forecasts the low projection assumes current market, technology and resource trends continue with few additional changes in laws, policies and regulations affecting nuclear power. It does not assume that all national targets for nuclear power will be achieved. It is a “conservative but plausible” projection. The high projection assumes that the current rates of economic and electricity demand growth will continue, notably in Asia. It also assumes changes in country policies toward the mitigation of climate change.

On the other hand, probably reflecting differences of emphasis within the group the full report from the ICCP Working Group 3 gives a more balanced account. Chapter 7.5.4 includes a very fair assessment of the present situation and probable future development for nuclear power.
“Nuclear power has been in use for several decades.” (A slight understatement – Calder Hall began operating in 1956). “With low levels of lifecycle GHG emissions (see Section 7.8.1), nuclear power contributes to emissions reduction today and potentially in the future. Continued use and expansion of nuclear energy worldwide as a response to climate change mitigation require greater to address the safety, economics, uranium utilization, waste management, and proliferation concerns of nuclear energy use”.

It is obvious that advantages will come from any advances in nuclear technology listed in the second sentence and although much is already being undertaken it would always be possible to do more. It is then difficult to see the point of all this. Conflicting assessments by different scientists with a detailed summary of all the very different approaches to meeting future energy requirements and possible future developments is an interesting, and perhaps even useful, exercise, but the actual course of events will only be determined by spending money and doing something. Can we now hope that this will be the outcome?

Energy in the Anthropocene

The ever-increasing human activity, which characterizes the anthropocene, will require a corresponding increase in energy consumption. In addition industrialisation has led to considerable air and water pollution associated with the extraction, production, consumption and disposal of goods.

Between 1970 and 1997, the global consumption of energy increased by 84%, although much of this accelerating economic activity and energy consumption occurred in developed countries, the developing world is beginning to play a larger role in the global economy and hence is having increasing impacts on resources and environment.

Given the threat to health, climate change, and ocean acidification that could result this will require a replacement of fossil fuels by other energy sources.
This was considered in a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal society in the series ‘The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?” (March 13, 2011) by Sir Crispin Tickell which considered the consequences of increasing world population. In this he recognized the threat of climate change and the immediate threats of burning fossil fuels when “the consequences of our continuing dependence on fossil fuels could be more serious than the prospect of their depletion.” He also pointed to the rapidly growing demand for energy, giving the example of China where energy use doubled between 1990 and 2006, “and is likely to double again by 2025.” Similar increases in demand can be expected from all the now rapidly developing countries in Asia, India, and Latin America. This led him to point to the need to develop alternative sources of energy, and he listed nuclear power, power from biofuels, tidal and ocean power, wind, hydro power, and geothermal power. But in this there was no consideration of the relative costs or capability of the so-called ‘green’ energies to provide a sufficient and secure supply. The increasing energy requirements of the Anthropocene can only be fuelled by nuclear power.

The Great Acceleration

The ever-increasing human activity, which characterizes the Anthropocene, will require a corresponding increase in energy consumption. Between 1970 and 1997, the global consumption of energy increased by 84%, and in what is appropriately termed the ‘Great Acceleration’ energy growth is forecast, by the World Energy Council to increase by 56% in the period 2010 to 2040.

Although much of this accelerating economic activity and energy consumption in the past occurred in now developed countries, the developing world is beginning to play a larger role in the future global economy and hence is having increasing impacts on resources and the environment. In addition to the expected future growth of new energy sources there will be an ever more urgent need to replace fossil fuels.

The continuing economic growth and increasing living standards of an increasing world population expected in the Anthropocene will require an ever- increasing output of nuclear powered electricity.

Stop Burning Coal

It is not only a matter of meeting the increase in energy consumption expected with the Great Acceleration, but urgent steps should be taken to reduce the present reliance on fossil fuels and in particular on coal. This is indeed the main focus of the IPCC report which concentrates on the effects on the future with the continuing discharge of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. But even a small degree of uncertainty will allow the climate change doubters, supported by the oil and coal companies, to contest these conclusions. On the other hand there is no doubt at all over the high rates of death and disease which are now, caused by air pollution with the discharges from coal fired stations being added to those from motor vehicles. This is an immediate problem which demands attention now.

The death of some 400 coal miners in Turkey has rightly attracted widespread concern, but this is due to the fact that this was a single, dramatic and fortunately not a very common incident, although even this can be disputed with some reports claiming 1049 miners were killed in China in 2013. But these figures are only a fraction of the premature deaths attributed to emissions from coal plants; a study from Stuttgart University in 2013 estimated that air pollution form Europe’s 300 largest coal power stations caused 22,300 premature deaths a year and cost government’s billions of pounds in disease treatment and lost working days. The contrast with clean safe nuclear power could not be greater.

There are now the first signs that this may no longer be tolerated. An Italian judge has ordered Tirreno Power, 50 percent-owned by France‘s GDF Suez, to turn off two coal-fired units at its Vado Ligure plant due to environmental concerns, This plant in northern Italy consists of a combined-cycle unit powered by natural gas with a capacity of 800 megawatts and two coal-fired units, each with a capacity of 330 MW that date back to 1971. It is claimed that the deaths of at least 400 people between 2000 and 2007 were linked to air pollution from the coal-fired station. With a growing awareness of the cost to to public health of burning coal this ruling could well set a precedent in the European energy sector.

This will require exceptional action. In addition to the growing energy demands of the WEC forecasts we should be seeking to replace the 41% of the world electricity supply now generated from coal. This task is far beyond the potential of the renewable energies: it can only be met over time through increasing nuclear power output.

It is then encouraging from a global viewpoint that, as the IAEA forecasts show, the future expansion, and much of the research and development of nuclear power, is now passing to the developing countries, with a lead being taken by China and India together with Russia. This negates the often quoted observation that since total emissions of carbon dioxide are now dominated by the non-OECD countries, mainly the Asia pacific regions, with their increasing populations, and increasing prosperity there is little point in Europe and North America attempting to reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions.

The Prism fast reactor

It is still possible for the UK to take up the challenge of, and participate in, fast reactor development with the proposal by GE-Hitachi to build a Prism fast reactor for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. According to a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (Feb 15th 2014) this could start to reduce the present 112-tonne stockpile of plutonium, which costs the NDA £80 million a year to store.

“The sodium-cooled Prism fast reactor would effectively use plutonium as a fuel, ‘burning’ it so that all isotopes of plutonium are fissioned, and creating low-carbon energy in the process. After the fuel is spent, the remaining waste is safer than plutonium in the form stored today, making it less liable to be used in weapons, and therefore cheaper and easier to store. The Prism reactor would convert separated plutonium oxide to a sodium-bonded uranium/plutonium/zirconium metal fuel using direct electrolytic reduction, pyro-processing and metal casting techniques. Irradiation of this fuel in a Prism reactor would take place in a burn, rather than breed, mode. The spent fuel could then be stored according to a long-term disposal strategy.”

The NDA has already spent 2 years considering this offer and has concluded that “Prism appears to be a credible option against our criteria.” But it also proposes to spend a further 2 years of discussions with GE-Hitachi over the next two years to clarify what it calls “technical uncertainties”.

According to the I Mech E report the NDA has said that a Prism reactor could be operational within 14 years. While undue haste should be avoided the NDA approach seems unduly leisurely.

The UK is already associated, through Euratom, with a number of fast reactor devlopments coordinated by the European Sustainable Nuclear Industrial Initiative (ESNII) which brings together industry and research partners in the development of Generation IV Fast Neutron Reactor technology. ESNII was set up under the umbrella of the Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform (SNETP), formed in 2007 and brings together more than 90 stakeholders involved in nuclear fission. The projects include French led ASTRID and a gas-cooled- reactor ALLEGRO. And a lead cooled fast reactor, ALFRED , is to be built by Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment (ENEA) together with Ansaldo Nucleare and Romania’s Nuclear Research Institute (Institutul de Cercetari Nucleare, ICN). The group is to be known as the Fostering Alfred Construction (Falcon) consortium, which will be expanded through the participation of further European organizations. ALFRED will be built at ICN’s facility in southern Romania.

Europe is however lagging behind Russia where the Beloyarsk unit 3 of 600 MWe gross, has been supplying electricity to the grid since 1980, and where a larger version BN-800 is now under construction. Fast reactor projects are also being built in India and China.

Prism as an operational fast reactor in the UK would go beyond the present passive role as a participant in EU projects and offer an opportunity to the UK to regain a position as a serious player in nuclear power.

Nuclear Europe

A fact, not widely appreciated, is that nuclear power is the major source of primary energy produced in Europe. The Eurostat figures for August 2012 give the nuclear contribution at 28.5% of the total energy production. Solid fuels, mainly coal, supplied 19.6%, natural gas 18.8%, and crude oil 11.7% , renewable energy resources contributed 20.1% overtaking for the first time that from natural gas and solid fuels, having surpassed crude oil production in 2006. But this claim for renewables hides the fact that off-shore, and on- shore wind power. together with solar and tidal energy, which are widely regarded as the truly renewable energies on which our future depends, made only a trivial contribution to energy consumption at 0.28% of the EU production. It is then difficult to take seriously the claims for a large expansion of renewable energy which can only have any credibility if there is a significant expansion in burning wood – although ‘biomass’ sounds more technically exciting.

The renewables do rather better in electricity supply. Figures for 2011 show that they took a 21.3% share of European electricity compared with 27% for nuclear.
Europe however relies increasingly on energy imports. The downturn in the primary production of hard coal, lignite, crude oil, natural gas and more recently of nuclear energy has led to a situation where the EU is increasingly reliant on primary energy imports in order to satisfy demand. The percentage of net imports in 2010 at 54.1% was made up by 39.4 % solid fuel, 62.4% gas and 85.2% oil.

The EU-27’s imports of primary energy exceeded exports by some 952.3 million toe in 2010. It is obvious that there could be serious political risks if there is an undue dependence on one or a few countries and Eurostat points to Russia as the main supplier of crude oil and natural gas and now as the leading supplier of hard coal. The present political differences over Ukraine and the threat of EU and America imposing sanctions on Russia could obviously put the EU at a considerable risk of a Russian retaliation. There are then strong political arguments for increasing nuclear power production as the only practical means of giving the EU an increasing independence in energy.

Instead of confrontation, cooperation would offer a more sensible outcome. We should therefore welcome the agreement between Rosatom, the Russian State utility, Fortum, the Finnish utility group which operates nuclear stations in Finland and Sweden, and Rolls Royce to build and operate VVER nuclear power plants in the UK.

Under the collaboration agreement Rolls-Royce will undertake engineering and safety assessment work for Rosatom ahead of potential licensing of VVER reactor technology in the UK. The UK Government and Rosatom have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to facilitate this commercial work.
Rolls-Royce and Rosatom have been working together since 2011, when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two companies. This contract will see Rolls-Royce undertake engineering and safety assessment work for Rosatom’s ‘Generation III+ VVER reactor to enter the UK’s formal Generic Design Assessment. Fortum, which operates two VVER reactors at Loviisa in Finland, will provide commercial experience in areas such as safety and waste management.