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  • Nuclear electricity: a fallen dream?

Nuclear power is no magic solution, argues Pervez Hoodbhoy it's not safe, or cheap, and it leads to weapons programmes.

A string of energy-starved developing countries have looked at nuclear power as the magic solution. No oil, no gas, no coal needed it's a fuel with zero air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions. High-tech and prestigious, it was seen as relatively safe.

But then Fukushima came along. The disaster's global psychological impact exceeded Chernobyl's, and left a world that's now unsure if nuclear electricity is the answer.

Core concerns

The fire that followed the failure of emergency generators at the Daiichi nuclear complex raised the terrifying prospect of radiation leaking and spreading. The core of the Unit 1 reactor melted, and spent nuclear fuel, stored under pools of water, sprang to life as cooling pumps stopped.

Fukushima's nuclear reactors had been built to withstand the worst, including earthquakes and tsunamis. Sensors successfully shut down the reactors, but when a wall of water 30 feet high crashed over the 20-foot protective concrete walls, electrical power, essential for cooling, was lost.

The plume of radiation reached as far as Canada. Closer, it was far worse. Japan knows that swathes of its territory will be contaminated, perhaps uninhabitable, for the rest of the century. In July, for example, beef, vegetables, and ocean fish sold in supermarkets were found to have radioactive caesium in doses several times the safe level. [1]

The Japanese have been careful. In the country of the hibakusha (surviving victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), all reactors go through closer scrutiny than anywhere else. But this clearly wasn't enough. Other highly developed countries Canada, Russia, UK, and US have also seen serious reactor accidents.

What does this mean for a typical developing country? There, radiation dangers and reactor safety have yet to enter public debate. Regulatory mechanisms are strictly controlled by the authorities, citing national security reasons. And individuals or nongovernmental organisations are forbidden from monitoring radiation levels near any nuclear facility.

Poor and powerless village communities in India and Pakistan, that have suffered health effects from uranium and thorium mining, have been forced to withdraw their court cases.

The aftermath of a Fukushima-type incident might look very different in many developing countries. With volatile populations and little disaster management capability, the social response would probably be quite different.

In Japan, tsunami survivors helped each other, relief teams operated unobstructed, and rescuers had full radiation protection gear. No panic, and no anti-government demonstrations followed the reactor explosions.

Questions about cost

Is nuclear energy cost efficient?

A 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, which strongly recommended enhancing the role of nuclear power to offset climate change [2], found that nuclear electricity costs more per kilowatt-hour (kWh): 8.4 cents versus 6.2/6.5 cents for coal/gas. It suggested that as fossil fuel depletes, the nuclear-fossil price ratio will turn around. But it hasn't yet.

The World Bank has labelled nuclear plants large white elephants. [3] Its Environmental Assessment Source Book says: Nuclear plants are thus uneconomic because at present and projected costs they are unlikely to be the least-cost alternative.

There is also evidence that the cost figures usually cited by suppliers are substantially underestimated and often fail to take adequately into account waste disposal, decommissioning, and other environmental costs. [4]

According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the cost of permanently shutting down a reactor ranges from US$300 million to US$400 million. [5] This is a hefty fraction of the reactor's original cost (2030 per cent).

While countries like France or South Korea do find nuclear energy profitable, they may be exceptions to a general rule. Countries that lack engineering capacity to make their own reactors will pay more to import and operate the technology.

Poor track record, military ambitions

The track record of nuclear power in developing countries scarcely inspires confidence.

Take the case of Pakistan, which still experiences long, daily electricity blackouts. Forty years ago, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission had promised that the country's entire electricity demand would be met from nuclear reactors.

Although the commission helped produce 100 nuclear bombs, and employs over 30,000 people, it has come nowhere close to meeting the electricity target. Two reactors combine to produce about 0.7 GW, which meets around 2 per cent of Pakistan's electricity consumption.

India's record is also less than stellar. In 1962, it announced that installed nuclear capacity would be 1820 GW by 1987; but it could reach only 1.48 GW by that year. Today, only 2.7 per cent of India's electricity comes from nuclear fuels.

In 1994, an accident during the construction of two reactors at the Kaiga Generating Station pushed up their cost to four times the initial estimate. Cost overruns and delays are frequent, not just in India.

And some developing countries' interest in nuclear technology for energy could mask another purpose. India and Pakistan built their weapon-making capacity around their civilian nuclear infrastructure. They were not the first, and will not be the last.

Warning bells ring loud and clear when big oil-producing countries start looking to build nuclear plants. Iran, with the second largest petroleum reserves in the world, now stands at the threshold of making a bomb using low enriched uranium fuel prepared for its reactors. Saudi Arabia, a rival which will seek its bomb if Iran makes one, has plans to spend over US$300 billion to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years.

Climate change gives urgency to finding non-fossil fuel energy alternatives. But making a convincing case for nuclear power is getting harder. Neither cheap nor safe, it faces an uphill battle. Unless there is a radical technical breakthrough such as a workable reactor fuelled by nuclear fusion rather than nuclear fission its prospects for growth look bleak.

Pervez Hoodbhoy received his PhD in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. He teaches at the School of Science and Engineering at LUMS (Lahore) and at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Nuclear power after Fukushima.

References

[1] Japan's Food-Chain Threat Multiplies as Fukushima Radiation Spreads (News, Bloomberg, 2011)
[2] Deutch et al. Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power Study  [223kB] (MIT, 2009)
[3]The Least Cost Path for Developing Countries: Energy Efficient Investments for the Multilateral Development Banks, M. Phillips, Washington DC, IIEC, 1991.

[4] World Bank, Guidelines for Environmental Assessment of Energy and Industry Projects. World Bank technical paper No. 154/1992. Environmental Assessment Sourcebook, Vol. III, 1992
[5] Fact Sheet on Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants (US NRC, 2011)

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