Tuesday, September 6, 2011

496. Book Review: "Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power"

By Benjamin Sovacool, Environmental Research Web, June 25, 2011
As someone who has been very critical of nuclear power, I was not expecting to be surprised by this book, which, according to the Introduction, sets out to prove that ‘the basic premise behind a nuclear renaissance is wrong, whether one looks at it technically, economically, environmentally, or socio-politically’.
However I was surprised: I had not appreciated just how strong the case against nuclear power has become. Certainly if the nuclear lobby’s relentless counter arguments have lulled you into a resigned acceptance that not everything about nuclear was bad, this book should provide a wake up call.
Following through the phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, it was good to be reminded just how much radioactive contamination uranium mining produced, including the tailings left behind. In terms of the uranium fuel production process, it was helpful to have the figures for carbon intensity. It has been said that ‘nuclear power needs climate change more than climate change needs nuclear’, but many people had no doubt presumed that, if we did accept a few new plants, they would at least avoid some carbon emissions. That expectation is dashed by this book- Sovacool claims that, as reserves of high grade uranium are depleted, there will be more carbon emissions from the fossil-energy powered nuclear fuel production process than from some directly fossil-fuelled plants.
In terms of plant operation, we are also often told that nuclear plants are relatively safe- and that this is confirmed by the fact that, for example, the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 did not lead to any serious emissions, much less deaths. But then Sovacool points out that this was a lucky fluke: ‘It had a double containment shell capable of containing a hydrogen explosion only because the commercial flight path to Harrisburg Airport passed over the plant’. We were not so lucky with Fukushima, where, as Sovacool reports in a devastating postscript chapter, thin outer containment buildings were blown apart by hydrogen explosions.
Major accidents like this catch the headlines. Sovacool reports that 21 deaths have so far been linked to Fukushima - 7 from first responders and plant operators, and 14 elderly people who died during the evacuation process. None of these were due to radiation exposure, but he notes that 160 people have so far been exposed to ‘hazardous’ levels of radiation. Hopefully the final outcome will be less than the thousands of early deaths that followed Chernobyl - Sovacool quotes the low IAEA-WHO estimate of 4000, but also points to other studies, which suggest 93,000 early cancer deaths. But away from the media spotlight, there are claimed to be continuing deaths and disease as a result of routine emissions and occasional leaks from nuclear facilities: Sovacool quotes 3,780 premature deaths and 1,253 cancers globally per annum.
Of course it’s not just people that have to be buried, but also nuclear waste. The back end of the nuclear cycle is probably its worst aspect- unless you are concerned about the prospects of terrorist attacks, the illegal diversion of nuclear material, or the proliferation of weapons making capacity. The latter issues relate to current geo-political conflicts, but the waste issue takes us beyond that into the far future. Sovacool quotes Alvin Weinberg’s comment that, in terms of guarding and managing nuclear wastes, humanity seemed to have a ’ remarkable belief that it can devise social institutions that are stable for periods equivalent to geological ages’.
All this for what Sovacool depicts as very expensive energy. While some of his explorations on nuclear power problems in terms of safety, security and so on, may be familiar to anyone who has followed the nuclear debate over the years, his treatment of the contemporary economic issues may introduce a new -and potentially conclusive- aspect to the case against nuclear. He quotes Amory Lovins’ view that ‘governments can have only about as many nuclear plants as they can force taxpayers to purchase’, and presents chapter and verse on the ever-escalating costs of nuclear power- in some cases up to £10000/kW and rising.
In which case, why is anyone still backing it? Especially when, as Sovacool points out, there are a range of alternative options which are better - energy efficiency, cogeneration/CHP and the various renewables. Part of the answer seems to be that we have become locked in to a high tech nuclear path and seem to see anything else as unviable. For example he suggests that Japan could have focused on renewables instead of nuclear. He notes that, in total, it currently has 290 GW of conventional/nuclear power plant capacity in place, but has a total of 342GW of achievable potential in the form of onshore and offshore wind turbines (222GW), geothermal power plants (70GW), additional hydroelectric capacity (26.5GW), solar energy (4.8GW), and agricultural residue (1.1GW). However instead of developing this, it has built 50GW of nuclear and imported massive amounts of fossil fuel.
Sovacools chapter on alternatives does not duck the problems that some of them face, for example in terms of land-use conflicts, or the need to balance locally variable availability. But the sheer scale and variety of the renewables resource, and the rapidly falling costs of exploiting it, comes across very clearly.
The case for a change-over seem very strong and of course it is now happening. Following Fukushima, it seems unlikely that Japan will ever build any more nuclear plants. Germany certainly wont, and is phasing out its existing ones, while ramping up renewables rapidly, as is Switzerland and most of the rest of Europe, including now Italy- after 94% of those who voted in the recent Italian national referendum opposed the governments plan to build nuclear plants. China may well throttle back on its nuclear programme and expand its already very much larger renewable programme. It seems set to beat the USA and the EU in this regard, and certainly now has the economic power to do so.
Sovacool does not try to predict what is going to happen, but simply concludes that ’ any effective response to electricity demand in a world facing climate change involves enormous expansion in our use of renewable technologies and a steady abandonment of nuclear power’.
Not everyone will agree, and some might ask for more discussion of new nuclear options including fast breeders, mini nuclear units and thorium based systems, while some will dismiss this book as just anti-nuclear propaganda. But it does present a well argued and wide ranging case that has to be faced.

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