Nuclear power. A central and touchy energy question that is occupying less space in media than the latest buzz on social media. Nonetheless, when discussing the topic of sustainability, the question of nuclear power is central to the transition to a low-carbon energy future. This is not “the scoop” anymore. Countries must transition away from CO2 emitting power by excluding from their energy mix as quickly as possible their fossil fuel-fired plants. While still depending on fossil resources such as uranium, the low carbon intensity of nuclear power should not be downplayed. Thus, it is paramount to point out that in the transition debate, the nuclear question cannot be avoided and should be openly, collectively, and thoroughly thought through.
Being a central and recurring political debate, Greenfish could not stay out of this discussion as it advances. At its inception, we decided to take the easy option of not working in the nuclear industry, putting the hot potato aside. Today, our position is put to the test while the sustainability debate is spreading in media. As a company made of different individuals, we are interested in creating a constructive opinion collectively by starting the debate inside and outside of our organization. The lines you are reading are part of this reflection, and emerge from the desire to openly write about nuclear power. Therefore, Greenfish will dedicate a series of 5 white papers on the various dimensions of the topic (namely nuclear safety, waste, environmental impacts and overall costs of the technology and its impacts). These topics are introduced below, to help our brains to get into the swing of things.
As a first step, let’s take a nuclear world tour. The current state of nuclear power over the globe can be summarized as followed: 449 nuclear reactors producing a combined capacity of over 390,000 MW of electricity. These are being operated in 31 countries, providing a fair chunk (11%) of the world’s electricity. Principally built in large capacity units (nuclear power stations usually have capacities from 1 GW to several GW), this source of energy is used to provide reliable power and to meet the constant base-load electricity demand on national grids. Another 15 countries are building a combined amount of 60 new nuclear plants to power their growing electrical consumption during the next 30-40 years. On the other hand, several other countries are starting to take the opposite direction, engaging themselves on the phase-out of their nuclear power production like in Belgium and Germany.
Figure 1 – Forming an opinion on nuclear energy
As it is often seen in the press with anti or pro-nuclear movements, taking a boisterous position on nuclear topics can be very controversial. For us, it must be done with great caution and proceeded by a thorough investigation. This introductory paper aims at displaying how complex it is to make an informed decision on the topic due to the substantial number of different components that nuclear power entails. Below, we give an overview of these core topics and explain their importance about forming your own opinion.
Safety and radiation
No surprise, safety is a non-avoidable theme in the nuclear debate. History has proved that no industry is immune to accidents. With nuclear power, the high energy density makes the potential hazard obvious, transforming safe operation into a risk management exercise. The question of nuclear safety is factored in the engineering design of the plants, their operational procedures, and the learning-curve about our past mistakes. While the number of significant accidents can still be counted on one hand, the impact they have on people perceptions are huge and non-negligible. When considering safety, both factual (such as the number of fatalities/diseases, the comparison to other power generation technology, etc.) and psychological dimensions (public opinion, emotions and fears) must be looked at in detail.
Safety also offers paradoxical situations. For instance, due to lack of public support to build new nuclear facilities, some countries are forced to keep their plants open longer than what initially planned. The management of existing nuclear assets is to be examined closely in the safety debate.
For several decades, waste from nuclear plants has been a persistent challenge for researchers, national regulators, and the public. Technologies for processing and storage are already operated today but this activity suffers from a very low public acceptance, especially in defining permanent storage space. While it is important to dismantle the pop culture idea that nuclear waste is green and liquid (majority of the time waste is turned into a solid form), radioactive waste and its considerably sustained decaying timeframe is a reality of nuclear power.
As a result, this reality must be dealt with. Numerous options can be considered when picking from the waste management menu. These include the quantity of waste produced and its level of radioactivity, current options to deal with it (mainly as surface storage), the future of its disposal and the importance of good legislation to avoid health issues.
Humanity is audacious: attempts for waste storage projects already exists and are underway in countries like France and Finland. Of course, the future of waste cannot be discoursed without talking about the current technological race to find the perfect reactor that will allow to use the existing waste as fuel. Comparing the promises of these projects to the difficulties and risks they encounter will be a nice exercise that Greenfish is willing to accomplish in a later white paper.
Environmental impact: pollution and resource use
Compared to conventional power plants, nuclear reactors are very clean in terms of air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions when isolating the waste topic. In era of the Anthropocene where humans are making considerable damage to their own environment, the low–emission profile of the nuclear options will have to be weighted promptly on the climate change balance. Do renewable energy options provide a sufficient and realistic alternative to shunt aside the nuclear card and win the climate game? Answering this question enters a universe of complexity, but some part of the answer lies in energy projections, their probability of occurrence and their economic impact.
Similarly, our question should be looked through the lens of resource use. The likeliness of reaching mineral resource peaks is each time more documented and exact projections are being debated notably for oil, coal or other minerals like sand. Indeed, reactors need a fuel, being principally uranium, which must be mined and refined. Is the remaining quantity of easily accessible uranium on earth sufficient to provide enough affordable power for long enough? Is the ratio between the energy invested on the plant life-cycle and the energy produced by this plant, positive enough to satisfy the growing electricity demand? Most importantly, how will the geopolitical question of extracting those resources at a fair price for local communities be considered in the future?
These environmental impacts of going nuclear must also be looked at carefully.
Several possibilities to generate electrical power are available today. While their cleanliness matters, the economy prefers the ones that are producing at the lowest costs. The comparison between the prices of different generation technology is most commonly done by using the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) metrics. The LCOE methodology integrates different cost phases from the fuel extraction to the plant operation all the way to the decommissioning of the plant. For nuclear power, according to the European Commission, the average LCOE ranged from 80 to 120 €/MWh in 2016.
For countries in the neighboring Asian continent, there is even the possibility to have lower LCOE due to a shorter construction timeframe.
However, to calculate an accurate LCOE, the devil lies in the details of the assumptions taken. For nuclear, the debate on those cost assumptions is laying on various aspects such as:
- Are the costs of decommissioning for nuclear power plants well evaluated and do operators provide enough money to account for these costs when plants come to their end-of-life?
- How do increasing safety requirements affect the cost of the energy produced?
- What is the exact cost of a long-term commitment for the storage and handling of radioactive waste?
- What will the cost of electricity be from the newest generation of reactors?
In any case, a clear view on these issues is required to understand how national nuclear energy decisions such as a phase-out program can affect future electricity prices on the market. Other areas of this equation such as development of other energy sources (e.g. renewables) can also be affected.
Figure 2 – Views on nuclear power are opposed and the debate often falls in the hands of the media – portrayed as such in the views of these two cartoonists (up: Rodrigo de Matos – down: Michael Ramirez)
With this we have introduced you to the pieces that make up the nuclear power puzzle. Environmentalists are located on both side of the nuclear energy debate, even though they want to achieve similar outcomes; such as prosperity and nature preservation. To reach those outcomes, the development of a long-term sustainable energy vision must consider the nuclear option.
Consequently, if you care about energy efficiency, you could turn off the radiators during your next dinner party and ask the question, “Who is pro, who is anti-nuclear power?”. No doubt, the room temperature will soon rise again! Yet, to be constructive, it is important to escape from the binary approach and form a deliberate opinion. Although the dimensions to the debate seem to be endless, with the upcoming series of white papers, Greenfish will try to delve into the specifics of all the factors mentioned above so you can put each of them in proportion. At the end of our white paper series, we will not ask you the same question again but we hope that you will be able to defend and challenge your own opinions among your circle of influence. How is that for a New Year’s resolution?
Nassim Daoudi – Managing Director at Greenfish
Quentin Lancrenon – Project Analyst, Green Solutions at Greenfish
Djef Brak – Consultant at Greenfish
Olivier Claes – Consultant at Greenfish
Toutia Daryoush – Project Assistant, Green Solutions at Greenfish