x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fukushima and Chernobyl haunt atomic future

In the long shadows of Chernobyl and Fukushima lurks lingering uncertainty over the global nuclear energy sector as arguments rage about safety and cost-effectiveness.

The Qinshan nuclear power plant in Haiyan, Zhejiang province. China plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants despite questions over safety. AFP
The Qinshan nuclear power plant in Haiyan, Zhejiang province. China plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants despite questions over safety. AFP

In the long shadows of Chernobyl and Fukushima lurks lingering uncertainty over the global nuclear energy sector as arguments rage about safety and cost-effectiveness.

Europe has been severely affected by a reluctance to invest as concerns grow about the reliability of some nuclear plants and the hefty costs of construction, operation and waste disposal.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNIR) for 2013, whose authors were drawn from France, the United Kingdom and Japan and led by the German-born nuclear energy consultant Mycle Schneider, has found 20 years after reaching a peak of 17 per cent, nuclear's share of world energy provision has slumped to 10 per cent.

The triple Japanese catastrophe of tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima in March 2011 is the obvious cause of two years of accelerating decline. The 4 per cent fall in power generated by nuclear plants by the end of that year was already a record low; last year, the decrease was greater still, at 7 per cent.

The picture in Europe is decidedly patchy, Fukushima having added to the suspicion inspired by the Russian Chernobyl explosion, fire and meltdown a quarter of a century earlier. Russia, the status report says, maintains a major commitment to the sector, with "one of the most aggressive nuclear power construction programmes in the world with 10 reactors under construction and suggestions of deals imminent for further projects all over the world".

But even there, progress has slowed while in parts of the European Union, notably Germany, the anti-nuclear lobby has made significant advances.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced two months after Fukushima that Germany, whose power supplies from nuclear energy fell from 22 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent in 2011, would abandon the source completely by 2022.

The decision prompted the permanent closure of six nuclear power plants, already shut down for tests after the Japanese disaster, and two more subject to longterm inactivity because of technical problems. All remaining nine plants are due to be shut down within the target timetable, as Germany turns to renewable energy.

Even in France, the provider of the world's seventh-cheapest electricity for both householders and industry, is scaling back.

Nearly 80 per cent of electricity is generated by nuclear power and the country exudes deep Gallic pride as a world leader in low-cost, carbon dioxide-free energy.

It is also the EU's biggest exporter but there, too, Fukushima has stirred misgivings. The socialist president, François Hollande, plans to close 24 older reactors by 2025. This would reduce France's reliance on nuclear power for its energy needs to about 50 per cent.

Given Mr Hollande's unpopularity, this may be a bold promise he and his party are in no position to see through. The opposition centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) says the pledge threatens higher domestic power bills and lost jobs.

But how resilient, in the face of growing international concerns, has been the huge Russian nuclear sector?

Twenty-seven years after the world's worst nuclear power plant accident, in what was then part of the USSR controlled from Moscow, the largest remnant of the Soviet bloc is still a global force.

Lessons were undoubtedly learnt from the accident at the plant, 14km north-west of the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl. But suspicion has never been fully allayed. The incident killed 31 people directly and the radioactive particles released over the western USSR and parts of Europe left a legacy of illness that has still to be accurately measured.

But, far from losing faith with nuclear-generated energy, Russia has pressed ahead with its building programme. An energy strategy set out 10 years ago committed the country to reducing dependency on natural gas. Three years later, targets were set providing for nuclear power to meet 23 per cent of electricity needs by 2020 and 25 per cent by 2030. By last year, the proportion had risen to just under 18 per cent.

While Russia is one of few countries to be increasing its use, progress is slow, the WNIR points out, since the proportion already stood at 12 per cent 20 years ago.

It has 33 reactors in operation. These include 11 RBMKs, the type used at Chernobyl.

Elsewhere, Britain offers a classic example of a country that cannot quite make up its mind.

The government gave consent in 2010 for up to eight new plants to be built privately. But the Scottish parliament later ruled no new reactors would be allowed in Scotland and the share of the energy market has dwindled across the UK from a peak of 26 per cent in 1997 to 19 per cent last year.

All but one existing nuclear power plant in the UK is scheduled to close by 2023 and, as shale gas developments present another fuel source option, companies are in no hurry to commit to new building.

The French nuclear giant EDF has delayed until the end of this year a decision on whether to go ahead with a new £14 billion (Dh79.79bn) plant at Hinkley Point, Somerset and wants government assurances on subsidies.

Perhaps the recent experience of Ukraine, an independent state since the break-up of the Soviet Union, offers another glimmer of hope for the industry's European prospects.

The average age of Ukrainian reactors is now 25 years, just five years from the end of their ordinary 30-year life expectancy. But the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has awarded the state-owned nuclear operator, Energoatom, a €300 million (Dh1.46 billion) loan towards the €1.45bn cost of upgrading all the country's reactors. But the WNIR's conclusions highlight the authors' belief that the sector is in decline.

"This report's emphasis on recent post-Fukushima developments should not obscure an important fact," they say.

"The world nuclear industry already faced daunting challenges long before Fukushima, just as the US nuclear power industry had largely collapsed before the 1979 Three Mile Island accident."

The industry seems in need of a significant boost if the long-cherished dream of a world powered by clean, cheap and effectively limitless atomic energy is not to remain just that.

 

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