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A RENAISSANCE IN NUCLEAR POWER

 

 

A RENAISSANCE IN NUCLEAR POWER

 

Antonio C. F. Lambertini

 

Departamento de Engenharia de Minas e Petróleo Universidade de São Paulo

Glep Energias Renováveis S.A. Rua Antonio Ramiro da Silva, 250 05397-000 São Paulo, SP antonio.lambertini@poli.usp.br

 

ABSTRACT

This paper presents an analysis of the worldwide evolution of the fleet of nuclear power plants until the 1980s; the reasons why in the same era this contingent was rejected in various developed countries due to a complete lack of public acceptance, being condemned to a phaseout planned to eliminate more than half of the operating power plants by 2020; and finally, what are the reasons for this competent base-load power source to silently resist for more than a quarter of a century, having been the focus of studies and improvements in the most renowned research centers in the world and the most traditional universities of the developed countries, resurging as one of the main allies of worldwide sustainable development, even with all the difficulties of deployment, ecological risks, and nuclear proliferation. However, after more than 30 years of intense debates involving a wide variety of interrelated problems, scientists have collected irrefutable proof that the actions of humankind have caused climate changes that represent an imminent threat to the survival of the human species on Earth, requiring coordinated international action that seeks to determine the economic aspects of the stabilization of levels of GHGs (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. The transition to a worldwide low-carbon economy presents political challenges, where, the most complex political question, is the supply of energy which would depends on a change in the supply of energy from fossil fuels to renewable, hydro and nuclear. Undoubtedly the nuclear power plants are, by far, the most controversial.

  1. INTRODUCTION

After more than 30 years of intense debates involving a wide variety of interrelated problems, scientists have collected irrefutable proof that the actions of humankind have caused climate changes that represent an imminent threat to the survival of the human species on Earth, requiring coordinated international action that seeks to determine the economic aspects of the stabilization of levels of GHGs (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere.

The transition to a worldwide low-carbon economy presents political challenges of international cooperation in the creation of price signals and carbon markets; in the stimulation  of  the  research,  development,  and  implementation  of  technology;  and    in promoting adaptation, principally concerning the developing countries, where the demand for energy must grow most rapidly.

The most complex political question is the supply of energy, as ever since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, it has contributed massively to the increase in GHG emissions. Greatest reduction in emissions depends on energy efficiency along with a change in the supply of energy from fossil fuels to renewable, nuclear and hydro, sources and large-scale introduction of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The politics of nuclear energy are without doubt the most controversial. On one side there are great scientists as well as renowned environmentalists who see it as an inexhaustible energy resource and as the most effective and accessible means of combating global warming, at attractive prices. At the same time, other scientists and environmentalists see global nuclear calamities, recommending substitutes for this form of energy.

For more than half a century these two totally opposite extremes have presented consistent reasons for defending their positions on the basis of premises that in many cases cannot be confirmed for the future. One such premise concerns the safety of nuclear power plants, attacked in depth after the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, which happened in a time span of just over five years. Opponents of this energy source were right at that time, as approximately 400 nuclear power plants were built between the 1960s and 1980s. Some countries scaled down and others almost abandoned their projects, banning any form of use of nuclear resources in their territories, as societies made clear their reluctance to accept the large-scale use of nuclear energy.

Now, after almost 25 years of safe operation, society has realized that the use of nuclear energy can offer benefits that go beyond the supply of electricity, reversing all the catastrophic prognoses of that time.

  1. THE POWER SUPPLY CHALLENGES AROUND THE WORLD

Some countries have opted to improve a secure energy supply, both by permitting the compact storage of energy and by reducing imports of other fuels, with a view to reducing the heavy dependency on fossil fuels that are polluting and imported from regions of political and social instability. By the way, in 2008, more than 40% of greenhouse-gas emissions were produced by electricity generation. From there it arises two big challenges: climate change and energy security.

Strategies adopted by various countries in attempts to resolve climate change and secure the energy supply: 1) Energy-saving programs; 2) Development of clean energy sources; and 3) Assurance of energy supply with competitive prices.

In markets with independent regulation, private initiative is sufficiently effective for setting up energy-generating concerns, however this is not enough, there being a need to solve problems related to climate change. Nuclear energy has been show to be competitive in stable negotiating environments with taxation imposed on polluting sources.

  1. The European Approach

The European Union is facing a high level of uncertainty regarding energy supply in the next two decades. The debate is making headway among the older, more industrialized members who do not want to miss out on growth and are starting to look at nuclear power as an alternative for the energy crisis. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are refusing to decommission in the next year their old reactors, which date from the Soviet era, as the EU is requesting, for fear of losing a resource that guarantees them a supply of energy.

Many believe that without nuclear energy the construction of coal-fired plants will be inevitable. In Europe, many obsolete plants are being closed to make room for modernized versions. And if gas or oil supplies are in doubt, the European Union countries tend to choose between coal-fired or nuclear plants with exception of Germany.

  1. The German Approach

The eternal argument over nuclear energy led Germany, one of the largest producers of nuclear energy – together with the US, France, and Japan – to set up a plan to close all plants by 2022.

Germany relies heavily on nuclear energy – around a third of its internal electricity generation is atomic, in addition to importing 25% of its electricity from nuclear sources in France. There is a great deal of pressure on the German government in terms of incorporating nuclear plants in an energy policy being developed in the country.

Furthermore, due to the aging structure of its power plants, one third of the current generating capacity will be renewed in the next few years. From there arises a new environmental controversies, for example the construction of a new coal-fired plant that neither pollutes nor emits CO2 to the air, but rather to water. In other words, they have simply changed the medium. The environmental problem still exists, possibly in greater proportions.

  1. Renewable Energies

Technologies for renewable resources, such as wind and solar, even though ancients, they still are on a steep learning curve, and in the short to medium term offer neither economic competitiveness nor supply security, so they cannot be used for base-load supply, but merely to supplement electricity from other sources. Additionally, as with all renewable resources, they are located at nature’s whim in well-defined locations that are normally far from the main centers of consumption and with generating capabilities also dictated by nature. All forms of renewable energy have been known for centuries, and peoples who predated the Industrial Revolution depended on them, but the only form of renewable energy supply recognized to be competitive in commercial terms and in terms of capability of supply security was water power. The others languished in history for the same reasons that are known today. It must be recognized that, even in terms of energy, the knowledge of the past is the key to the future.

  1. THE ENVIRONMENTAL SOURCE OF INCENTIVES

In the past 25 years, in the US and Europe governments have been inconsistent in their support for renewables research, particularly compared to other speculative technologies such as breeder reactors and energy from fusion. More recently in the US, ambitious goals for the introduction of technology for specific renewable energies are often announced with insufficient funding and to little commitment of the people involved to achieve these goals.

As a result, the dominant perception is that renewables will not work – they are too risky and expensive to make a difference. In contrast, the Europeans count strongly on the introduction of renewables such as wind and solar power, providing the field with political instruments that favor its development. The Japanese have also made a commitment to renewables, with far-reaching goals being incentivized and promoted.

In the electricity generation sector, where new non-competitive technologies are difficult to introduce – market-support policies for technologies in their initial phases will be critical. The current incentives for worldwide introduction are approximately US$34bn per annum.

Many interested governments are claiming for an increase by two to five times compared to the current level. Certainly such measures will be a powerful motivating factor for innovation in the whole private sector, pushing forward the range of necessary non-competitive technologies.

  1. THE NUCLEAR POWER SOURCE

As time goes by, nuclear technologies have been shown to be attractive and convenient when used appropriately, with due care in terms of safety, limitation of radioactivity, and the potential for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, these technologies are physically and financially relentless when used without care, as in the cases of the nuclear accidents already mentioned. Nevertheless, they offer potential environmental benefits that could become increasingly valuable as the problems of other technologies increase (e.g., CO2 emissions).

The nuclear plants currently under construction have third-generation reactors based on proven technologies acquired through the experience of many decades of operation. Water- cooled reactors, operated with a once-through fuel cycle, will continue to represent the greater part of the nuclear fleet in the first half of this century, but in the longer term the design and development of advanced systems will be important for the evolution of nuclear power.

Very-high-temperature reactors under development will have greater thermal efficiency and could increase the market for nuclear energy for non-electrical applications, such as the direct production of hydrogen. Fast-neutron systems with closed fuel cycles could multiply be 50 times or more the energy extracted from uranium.

It is worth pointing out that of all the means of generating electricity, nuclear is among those that produce the smallest volumes, takes the greatest care with its containment and storage of waste and perhaps the only opportunity for solving issues such as global warming and security of supply.

The difficulty with these procedures is that radioactive waste can have lifetime of up to thousands of years, and for this reason must remain isolated and protected. The largest volumes of waste are of low and intermediate activity, produced by the medical and industrial sectors. High-activity waste from fuel already used in nuclear plants are kept in the plants themselves, where there are suitable locations for storing the total volume produced in the working life until a definitive solution for the problem can be found.

Remarkable investments have been made in the search for a solution – preferably one that makes the waste non-radioactive and innocuous. In the whole world, radioactive waste depositories have to be managed and administrated by the country, being checked by their respective regulatory agencies for nuclear activities according to national and international standards so as to guarantee their safety.

  1. The Current Expansion of Nuclear Power Plants

Many European nations seem reborn to the idea of nuclear energy.

Italy, which banned nuclear energy 20 years ago, last year announced the signing of an agreement in February with France. The agreement, signed in February between Italian and French utilities, anticipates a joint venture with equal participation for undertaking viability studies for the construction of four European Pressurized Reactors.

In Portugal, the nuclear energy debate was initiated and has been developed by the chiefs of Enupor (Energia Nuclear de Portugal).

Spain – The two big worldwide electricity generators, asked the Spanish government for permission to extend the working lifetimes of their nuclear plants by another 20 years. The high energy dependency of Spain and Kyoto commitments reinforce the advantages of nuclear energy for Spain.

France and Great Britain have come together in the development of a new generation of nuclear plant, whose technology they intend to export to the rest of the world. Also in France currently has a 1650MW plant under construction at 25% physical progress at Flamanville, Normandy, where there are already two reactors producing power. A third-generation PWR with a service life of 60 years, the EPR is designed to increase electricity generation by 36% while using less uranium. Flamanville3’s expectation is to become part of the grid in 2012. A good part of the electricity generated in France from nuclear sources is exported to Germany. France uses this fact strategically since it knows that Germany depends greatly on imported electricity, that the economic pressure is very high, and that prices are currently rising.

Finland has another EPR under construction at Olkiluoto. Olkiluoto 3 is a 1600 MW unit. There have been various delays and its operational startup is forecast by the end of 2009.

Sweden also announced that it would revoke its pledge to phase out nuclear power. Although the Scandinavian nation is considered one of the most progressive "green" nations, with one of the lowest levels of carbon emissions in the EU, nuclear energy supplies around half of its power and substituting it with renewables would be costly and laden with risks.

Two official utilities of the Czech and Slovak Republics have signed an agreement for the creation of a binational company that will build a new nuclear plant in Slovakia.

Armenia will build a new nuclear plant to substitute its existing one, practically tripling its power.

Russia reports that six large reactors are under construction and due to be completed in 2012, one of them being a large fast-neutron reactor. A small floating reactor plant could also be operational in 2012.

Japan has a 1.373 MW advanced boiling-water reactor (ABWR) is under construction with a forecast date for operational startup in December 2011. Tomari 3, a 912 MW PWR plant, started operations recently some months ahead of schedule. The Japanese are always notable for their record construction schedules for atomic plants, achieving 50 months while the worldwide average reached 116 months.

India has six reactors under construction, including two large Russian units as well as a large prototype fast-breeder reactor being built as part of a national strategy to develop a fuel cycle that can use thorium. Work on the first Russian reactor is currently delayed by a year and it is hoped that the second will be operational nine months after.

Pakistan has a 300MW PWR under construction, the twin of an existing plant, that is due to be connected to the grid in 2011.

China has announced that 24 nuclear plants with a combined power-generating capacity of more than 25 GW are under construction in coastal provinces. By 2020 China will have 40GW of generating capacity from nuclear power units.

  1. The expansion of Nuclear Power Plants in United States of America

Due to its importance, since the US nuclear program is by far the most important of the world, having an influence over the behaviour of the overall worldwide nuclear industry, it needs an specific analyze of its nuclear industry.

In the US nuclear industry history there was two significant impacts. Firstly in 1973 in the petrol crisis. Secondly in 1979 with the TMI accident reinforced in 1986 by Chernobyl accident. After these accidents the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - NRC approved a large amount of new regulamentation to make the deployment of news nuclear power plants more difficult. Basically, four issues was responsible for the decrease of the US nuclear industry: 1) The decrease of the demand of electric power; 2) Cost escalation; 3) Management issues; 4) Public rejection.

In spite of complex technological problems technicians carried the nuclear power plants’ improvement through, reaching nowadays a meaningful rise of its capacity factor (CF), setting out in 1986 of an historic average of 56% to 90% in the present days.

Moreover, in the United States, nuclear companies started to modernize their plants and, by exchanging some equipment, are extending the working lives of their reactors by up to 20 years. They have already submitted 32 nuclear plants to this process and gained approvals. 16 more are being analyzed, and around 30 more are showing interest in extensions. The forecast is that, in the coming years, around 80% of North-American nuclear plants will have their working lives extended.

The results of the composition of these two improvements compound leads to an efficiency equivalent to approximately 55 news nuclear power plants. Accordingly, all the restriction imposed to the advance of nuclear power development has an reverse effect, since it was one of the most important incentive to the improvement of the knowledge in technical issue related to nuclear power plant deployment, during the 90’s.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 reserved a limited quantity of benefits for a few new plants that can guarantee that construction can start in 2012 and finish within a specified schedule. The candidates for these benefits can be faced with high costs and risks, including shortages of resources in the nuclear industries, uncertainties in the control of carbon and energy demand, antinuclear campaigns, as well as high financing costs that might not stimulate immediate interest for investors.

It will most probably be more interesting for investors to wait for the development of other reactors around the world, with the benefit of additional information and stabilization of financial markets permitting a better assessment in their investment decisions.

  1. The Non-Proliferation Traty (NPT)

There is no doubt about the importance of the increasing political and technical difficulties concern, but the current literature do not even mention this gap. They are devoted entirely to analyses of the technological similarities between civilian and military nuclear programs.

Certainly the states emphasize the non-proliferation commitments, and the admission of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Otherwise the world would be nowadays in a “life in a nuclear-armed crowd” as Albert Wohlstetter stated a quarter of century ago.

The question is “Why are there any nuclear weapon state? One of the most important political science research center attribute the answer to three classic foreign policy motivations – the need to match power for power, the desire to reinforce national self-esteem, or the selfish demands of narrow domestic constituencies and to blackmail UN to obtain international advantages and support.

  1. WHICH RENAISSENCE ONE IS TALKING ABOUT, ANYWAY?

Some developed countries' electricity supplies have large percentages of nuclear generation. Among these, France has 78%, Belgium 57%, Japan 39%, South Korea 39%, Germany 30%, Sweden 46%, Switzerland 40%. In the United States, one quarter of the worldwide NPP fleet, generate 20% of the electricity of that country. Apart from these reactors, there are  another 284 research reactor functioning in 56 countries, without counting an estimated 220 propulsion reactors in ships and submarines.

Some improvements in the existing fleet, beyond an life extension of the reactors, are equivalent to 55 news NPPs.

One could say that the so called Renaissance in Nuclear Power means The Renaissance of the People Credibility in Nuclear Power

  1. CONCLUSION

The future for investments in new nuclear plants around the world is as bright as it has been for many years.

The projects most likely to go ahead are those (a) in existing sites, (b) in states that have not adopted free-market models, and (c) where there is support from local authorities.

If at the Copenhagen COP-2009 arise any program for trading CO2 emissions that yields prices in the range from US$25 to US$50/ton of CO2, this will make investment in new nuclear plants much more financially attractive than at present, even without any subsides.

The extent of economically recoverable spent fuel focusing on the rate of construction of reactors and fuel facilities to fulfill the nuclear power demand and to keep the TRU inventory below reasonable levels, through: 1) thermal recycling in traditional Light Water Reactors (LWRs) using Combined Non-Fertile and UO2 fuel (CONFU) technology; 2) fast recycling of TRU in fertile-free fast cores of Actinide Burner Reactors (ABR); and 3) fast recycling of TRU with UO2 in self-sustaining Gas-cooled Fast Reactors (GFR).

 

REFERENCES

 

  1. S. M. Keeney, Jr., Nuclear Power: Issues and Choices, Ford Foundation, New York,USA.
  2. Greenpeace International, “The Economics of Nuclear Power”, pp. 1-16 (2006)
  3. Yangbo  Du  and  John  E.  Parsons  “Nuclear  Cycle  Technology  and  Policy Program”

“Update on the Cost of Nuclear Power”

  1. An interdisciplinary MIT Study, “The Future of Nuclear Power, MIT, MA, USA.
  2. E. M. dos Santos, Dissertação de Mestrado – Retrospecto da Política Nuclear no Brasil e Perspectivas de Utilização de PCNs no SEB – Universidade de Campinas, Campinas, Brasil