Nuclear power is not the answer

Exploding the Hyde

Nuclear power is too expensive and too dangerous to be considered an option

Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, October 1, 2007

The talk of a global nuclear renaissance remains just that: all talk. Ever since such talk began in the mid-1990s, the share of nuclear power in global electricity has stagnated at 16 per cent. Yet such is the hype that the government is seeking to sell a controversial nuclear deal with the US by speciously presenting nuclear power as the answer to India’s fast-growing energy needs.

There are at least 10 reasons why capital-intensive nuclear power is neither a cost-effective answer to global electricity demands nor a good means to fight climate change.

First, after declining continuously for a quarter-century, the world nuclear power industry today lacks the capacity to undertake a massive construction programme that could make a noticeable difference to global warming. More importantly, while nuclear power generation itself is ‘clean’, its back end is exceptionally dirty, with radioactive wastes from reactor operation posing technological challenges and inestimable environmental costs. Also, the nuclear-fuel cycle is carbon-intensive.

Second, electricity generated through currently available nuclear technologies is still not cost-competitive with other conventional sources. The reason why not a single new power reactor in the US has been built after the last one ordered in the 1970s is largely economics. Two separate studies by the University of Chicago and MIT computed the baseline cost of new nuclear power in the range of 6.2 to 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour, as compared to 3.3 to 4.2 cents for pulverised ‘clean’ coal and 3.5 to 5.6 cents for a combined-cycle natural gas plant.

Third, nuclear-fuel costs are escalating because the international price of uranium has been rising faster than any other commodity.

Fourth, the world’s uranium stocks are limited and unless newer technologies are developed or the higher-grade ores reserved for military programmes are freed, the known uranium reserves are likely to last barely 85 years.

Fifth, the lead time for construction of a power plant from any energy source other than large-scale hydropower is the highest for nuclear power. While a power reactor takes five to six years from start to finish, a gas-fired plant takes two years and a windmill even less.

Sixth, because of its potentially serious hazards, nuclear power faces a uniquely stringent regulatory regime, which adds to the time and liability, along with associated costs on operational safety.

Seventh, a tiny nuclear cartel made up of a few state-guided firms controls the global reactor and fuel supplies. This constitutes the most politically-regulated and monopolised commerce in the world.

Eighth, nuclear power involves significant external costs that the industry does not bear on its own, including on accident-liability cover, anti-terrorist safeguards, radioactive-waste storage, retirement of old reactors, and international monitoring. State subsidies are not factored into the generating costs and thus remain hidden.

Ninth, nuclear power tends to put serious strain on water resources. The light-water reactors that make up the bulk of installed nuclear-power capacity (and which India seeks to import) are highly water-intensive. As they copiously use water as a coolant, they appropriate large quantities of locally available water. Worse, they pump the hot-water reactor outflow back into rivers, reservoirs and oceans in a continuous cycle, damaging plant life and fish.

And tenth, as global warming accelerates and average temperatures and ocean levels rise, such reactors will be particularly vulnerable and be less able to generate electricity at their rated capacity.

In the 2003 heat wave in France, 17 reactors had to be scaled back in operation or turned off because of the rapid rise in river or lake temperatures, while Spain’s Santa María de Garoña power reactor was shut for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro River. Reactors by the sea, of course, are better situated because they do not face similar problems in hot conditions.

But what a global warming-induced rise in the ocean level would do was illustrated by the late-2004 tsunami, which flooded India’s twin-reactor Madras nuclear power station, forcing its shutdown.

More than half a century after the then chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency, Lewis Strauss, claimed that nuclear power would become “too cheap to meter”, the global nuclear-power industry subsists on generous state support. The Bush administration is today offering not only tax concessions and loan guarantees but also $500 million in insurance against regulatory delay to whichever company that starts constructing the first two reactors.

The writer is a strategic affairs expert.

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