The pros and cons of nuclear power in the South

Nuclear fuel pellets and a fuel rod Copyright: US Department of Energy

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Last month SciDev.Net published an editorial that examined whether developing countries should be moving towards nuclear power (see Should developing nations embrace nuclear energy?).

Here, five SciDev.Net readers from around the world respond. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the individuals’ institutions.

Follow the links below to read each comment.

Developing nations are not ready for nuclear power
No need for nuclear in world’s sun belt
Nuclear must be in the mix for a sustainable future
Cost and waste must not be forgotten in nuclear debate
Nuclear energy is costly but could kick-start development

Developing nations are not ready for nuclear power


Emad Flear, industrial research scientist, Berliner Elektronenspeicherring-Gesellschaft für Synchrotronstrahlung m.b.H, Berlin, Germany (www.bessy.de)

Nuclear energy is indeed useful, especially in light of global warming and rapid population growth. But for various reasons, developing countries are still not ready to handle this technology.

Firstly, they lack the experienced engineers and scientists needed to operate nuclear power plants safely. Developing nations would need to spend a lot of money training the required personnel.

This money could be invested in simpler technologies that are easier to handle, provide good supplies of energy and are safe. In my native Egypt, for instance, solar and wind energy have become real alternatives.

It should be noted that some industrialised nations — such as Germany — are moving away from nuclear and towards these renewable energy sources.

An additional reason to be cautious about nuclear energy in the South is the rise of terrorist groups who could target nuclear power stations. At the same time, some developing countries that obtain nuclear technology may try to use it to develop nuclear weapons as well as power stations.

I am not totally against the transfer of nuclear technology to developing nations, but I believe that most of them are just not ready yet.

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No need for nuclear in world’s sun belt


Gerry Wolff, coordinator, TREC-UK, United Kingdom (www.trec-uk.org.uk)

The editorial contained some highly misleading and inaccurate statements about sources of power. In particular, it said that renewable energy sources are unlikely to meet the energy demands of the world’s rapidly growing urban population, and that technical, environmental and safety factors have pushed the risk-benefit balance in favour of nuclear power.

However, a June 2006 report commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety suggests otherwise. It says Europe could cut carbon emissions from electricity generation by 70 per cent and phase out nuclear power by 2050 using ‘concentrating solar power’ (CSP) generated in the Middle East and North Africa.

CSP involves using mirrors to concentrate sunlight to create heat, which is used to convert water to steam that generates electricity in the conventional way. The report can be downloaded from here.

It should be read in conjunction with the earlier report that shows how CSP, with other forms of renewable energy, can meet all current and future electricity needs in the Middle East and North Africa.

The same will be true for other countries in the world’s sun belt, many of which are relatively poor.

These two reports are thorough and highly professional. They deserve close attention by all those concerned with energy supplies in all parts of the world. The concepts and policies described in the reports should be carefully considered at the highest levels.

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Nuclear must be in the mix for a sustainable future


Edward G. Wallace, senior general manager — US programs, Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Pty Ltd, United States

After 35 years working in the energy sector, I marvel at the continued segregation in the energy debate about which technology should be chosen and why.

This simplistic view allows proponents and opponents of each option to polarise the debate in isolation of the bigger picture — which is that energy demands are far out-stripping supply in developed and developing countries and regions.

There is no single solution — all options have a place in the mix, but they are not all available everywhere. Some countries are blessed with natural resources and some are not, so the choices must be location-specific.

Economic realities must be considered in establishing sustainable energy supplies. Government subsidies hide the true market cost of some energy options, making some people think renewables are economic. But if they were, the laws of supply and demand would have taken over long ago and assured a place for renewables in the energy mix. 

We cannot wait for nuclear fusion or other options not available today before we make sound decisions on our energy future. The time for action is now. Old fossil-fuel power plants are reaching the end of their lifetimes faster than most people realise, and are the most polluting in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste volumes.

Around the globe, power failures are becoming common because policies for a secure and responsible energy future have been caught up in the hype over nuclear waste disposal and operational safety.

Energy issues have to be solved through holistic policies that focus on the big picture, rather than getting lost in the minutia of misinformation and fear tactics that cloud the debate today.

Nuclear power must be safely developed and deployed globally if there is to be any hope for a better environment and a better way of life for all. 

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Cost and waste must not be forgotten in nuclear debate


Tom Hopper, United States

The editorial glosses over two important issues. First, pollution — while nuclear energy nearly eliminates the emission of greenhouse gases, its radioactive by-products are among the most toxic substances, and remain so for thousands of years.

There is simply no way to store this waste safely over such a long time. At some point in the future it is likely to leach into the environment, becoming a pollutant far more dangerous than greenhouse gases.

The second problem is cost. While nuclear fuel is ridiculously cheap compared to coal, oil, or other energy sources, the capital and non-fuel operating costs of running a nuclear power plant make the electricity it generates far more expensive than electricity from other sources.

Where nuclear energy is used, much of this cost differential is hidden by government subsidies funded by taxpayers. Even the best projections for the most advanced power plants show that nuclear power will be far more expensive than competing technologies for the foreseeable future.

There is at present no good solution, but the most promising, contrary to your editorial, is solar power. Much of the world’s electricity needs could be met by solar power, and with an appropriate distribution grid, it could supply all of the world’s electricity needs.

The capital costs of solar technologies, while currently prohibitive, are falling rapidly. With appropriate government policies to help reduce these costs over the next 15 years, solar could easily compete on price with coal and oil. After that period, there would be no need for subsidies for solar.

In fact, nearly every developing country could run its entire economy on solar for less than they currently pay for coal, and far less than they can expect to pay for nuclear.

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Nuclear energy is costly but could kick-start development

Nathan Eweoya, Natflo Solar Nigeria Limited

Developing countries should in general not start adopting nuclear power, given its many financial, political and environmental costs. It would be far preferable for them to pursue the many advantages of solar technology.
However if acquiring nuclear power can help to shift the balance of power, why should the developing world be left at the mercy of the world’s developed economies? In other words, if nuclear power helps to emancipate the other hard-working countries of the world, why should they not adopt it?

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