Nuclear Power: Curse or Opportunity?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Balkan states are gambling on the nuclear option as the best way to reduce the energy shortage but whether the risks pay off remains to be seen.

The three guards stand at the gate in the 40°C afternoon heat, ignoring the bustle around them. Grim-looking barbed wire coils round the top of the tall fence, as if designed to stop convicts escaping from prison.

Seen from a distance, the nuclear plant at Cernavoda, in eastern Romania, looks peaceful and unremarkable. The five round reactor buildings stand in a row along the banks of the Danube. There is little indication the tall fence separates the two operating nuclear reactors from a 4 billion euros project that is about to begin.

After several security controls, long passageways that require password access and checks for radiation levels, we reach the heart of the plant. This is the control room. Only two men, the chief operator and the shift leader, are in charge of this windowless chamber housing dozens of items of wardrobe-sized equipment, each of which monitors various activities within the plant.

“For eight hours we don’t know if it’s raining or snowing outside,” says Alexandru Ionescu, of his shift in the control room. After four years of training, Ionescu is now chief operator, though it will take another two years of training on the job before he becomes shift leader and ‘supreme leader’ of the plant during the night shift, when the management is not there.

Romania has taken a big gamble with the plant at Cernavoda, which currently covers 18 per cent of its total energy needs. The country almost doubled its output of nuclear energy last year, when it opened its second 700 MW reactor. Its’ plans are now even bolder. By 2014, at the earliest, it wants to put into operation two of the five nuclear units whose construction began under the communist regime.

“People in Cernavoda can hardly wait for the building to begin. It is their bread and butter,” says Lucian Anghel, chief inspector at the National Agency for Employment, in the nearby port of Constanta. When the second reactor was finished last year, he said, many people in the area who worked in transport, construction, cleaning or renting apartments, lost their jobs.

Local people don’t seem to care much about the disaster caused by the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986, when a reactor exploded and the radioactive core was released into the atmosphere, killing 30 people instantly and contaminating untold thousands of others in Ukraine and in the neighboring countries, Romania included.

Two decades later, the possibility of such an accident seems far away and several Central and Eastern European countries now find themselves involved in large projects for the construction of nuclear units.

If these projects become reality, the region will be able to generate more stable, low-cost energy, which will be needed to cover the ongoing energy shortage in countries such as Greece, Macedonia and Albania.

An unexpected renaissance
Only a decade ago, few analysts could have anticipated that these countries would be developing nuclear plants, worth more than 13 billion euros in total.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, chastened by popular hostility to nuclear power, and fear of Chernobyl-style accidents, European politicians decided nuclear energy was a wild card that caused more problems than it solved.

The pace of nuclear power construction slowed abruptly. During the last 12 years, only six new units were put into operation in Europe: in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. In several countries, power stations were switched off because they were too old including Bulgaria, Lithuania, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Britain.

But attitudes are changing and many politicians see nuclear power as a golden opportunity. “We are now witnessing a renaissance in nuclear energy,” says Santiago San Antonio, director general at the European Atomic Forum, FORATOM.

New reactors are being constructed in Finland and France, while others, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia, are making plans. “I don’t think these units are enough. We need more,” adds San Antonio.

According to the International Energy Agency, IEA, 439 commercial nuclear power plants are now in operation worldwide, while 36 are under construction, representing a 9 per cent increase.

In Europe, the existing nuclear plants produce 35 per cent of the region’s energy. But, as energy consumption could almost double by 2030, their number needs to be increased if this percentage is to be maintained. It is estimated that more than 20 new reactors could be built in Europe by 2030. At the end of last year, the European Union countries operated 146 reactors, about one third of the units in the world.

Europe, however, cannot address the growth in energy demand without simultaneously addressing two major related issues.

The first is the need to move to low-carbon energy sources in order to reduce the environmental impact of industries and to slow climate change. The target of keeping global warming below 2°C this century is very tough, and the energy sector will have to play an important role if it is to be achieved.

However, powerful environmental lobbies in Europe remain broadly opposed to the nuclear option, in spite of the promise of low CO2 emissions. “Nuclear energy is definitely no answer to climate change and remains a risky technology,” maintains Georg Maue, representative of the climate division within the German Ministry of Environment.

Jan Haverkamp, a Greenpeace energy campaigner from Brussels, agrees: when it comes to arresting climate change, nuclear power is more a barrier than part of a solution. Besides, he says, “nuclear power poses an insoluble waste problem for us, which could result in more catastrophes like Chernobyl.”

The second major issue for Europe is the need to reduce dependence on imported oil from the Middle East and imported natural gas from Russia. “In the longer term, nuclear energy addresses both these issues,” says Jeremy Gordon, writer and analyst for the World Nuclear Association, a London-based global, private-sector organization.

In a desperate attempt to achieve greater energy security, European countries are now seeking other sources of renewable energies, such as wind or solar energy, as part of a long term solution. But, for the short and medium term, governments are turning to formerly-despised nuclear energy.

According to Alan McDonald department of nuclear energy at the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, nuclear energy could be especially appropriate for countries “where energy demand growth is rapid, alternative resources are scarce, energy supply security is a priority and reducing air pollution is mandated.”

If such criteria were formerly applied mainly to countries in the Far East and South Asia, they now extend to Europe and North America, too.

Not so simple in Finland
Building nuclear power plants after a two-decade break is a tough job, as Finland has learned to its cost. Technology has moved on in the meantime, as have safety requirements. A specialised workforce is no longer easily available, management may have lost its skills and prices have sky rocketed.

As a result of a combination of all these problems, the new Finnish nuclear power plant at Olkiluoto, on the Baltic shore, the first such project to be launched after a 20-year gap, has exceeded its budget by 25 per cent and is now more than two years overdue.

“Ever since the beginning, the schedule has been delayed. Of course, I was worried,” says Jarmo Tanhua, president and CEO of Teollisuuden Voima Oyi, the company operating the two existing nuclear units at Olkiluoto with an individual capacity of 860 MW.

A single-lane road leading through the thick pine forest to Olkiluoto ends suddenly at the gate of the plant, in front of the two huge nuclear blocks painted in the classic cherry colour of the region. The platform of the nuclear factory looks like a giant anthill. More than 3,200 people are working round the clock here to build one of the world’s largest nuclear units, with a capacity of 1,600 MW.

“It is tougher than I expected,” one Polish worker says, while carrying some materials. Cranes surround the reactor building, which will be more than 60 metres high, and the smell of hot iron floats in the air.

When building work began in 2003, it was thought the reactor would cost 3 billion euros and become operational in 2009. Latest estimates, however, put the cost at more than 4.5 billion euros, while the deadline has been pushed back to 2011.

“Some of the difficulties experienced at Olkiluoto are linked to the fact that this reactor is the first of its kind,” says Julien Duperray, spokesman of the French company, Areva, which is in charge of the project.

But Greenpeace’s Haverkamp insists the problems are more fundamental: “The project in Finland is a construction disaster,” he argues. In his view, the desire to complete the project as soon as possible means safety prescriptions have been sacrificed and the only reason construction continues is because it is difficult to stop such large projects, once begun.

Being slow starters may help
Countries with ongoing nuclear projects are carefully monitoring the experience of the Finns, who have practically been forced to recreate the basis for the nuclear industry.

The most advanced project currently underway is the 1,600 MW reactor that Areva is building at Flamanville, in western France. Work officially started in late 2007, but “it is very likely to follow the same route as that at Olkiluoto”, says Haverkamp.

More than 30 nuclear units are about to be built worldwide during the next years, according to the IAEA, mostly in the fast-developing Asian economies of China and India, and in Russia and the US.

The Balkan countries have not yet started any new nuclear construction projects but are in the process of obtaining financing and building permits. The process promises to be difficult. The Slovak government recently asked the Slovak company Slovenske Elektrarne, which plans to build a third and fourth unit at the Mochovce power plant, each with a capacity of 440 MW, to conduct a full environmental impact assessment as a pre-condition for receiving an operational license.

In Bulgaria, where the European Union forced the authorities, a few years ago, to shut down four of six reactors at Kozloduy, the amount of power produced by nuclear energy has fallen from 42 per cent of the country’s needs to 32 per cent.

However, Bulgaria is now planning to increase this percentage by building two additional units of 1,000 MW each at Belene, on the Danube, in a project estimated at 4 billion euros. The first reactor could become operational as soon as 2013.

“We cannot guarantee that we won’t have problems regarding workers and building materials but so far we are on track,” says Vasil Bandov, site manager at the Belene nuclear power plant.

The nuclear project at Belene started in 1985 but was abandoned in 1992, due to the democratic changes in the country and the risks it implied. The skeleton of the reactor building stands alone on the plant site, surrounded by a fence meant to keep out curious visitors.

If Bulgaria’s state National Electric Company manages to find the money for 51 per cent of the 4 billion euros project by next spring, the old reactor building will be demolished and construction will start from zero. Atomstroyexport of Russia and Areva have already been selected to build the reactors and RWE from Germany was preferred, in October, to invest in the project and own 49 per cent of the plant.

But Greenpeace is as unimpressed by this project as it is by the new plant under construction in Finland.

“The Belene project will be built in an area that suffered greatly in the 1977 earthquake,” warns Haverkamp, referring to the quake that killed more than 100 people in the Bulgarian town of Svishtov, some 200 km away from Belene. He says the project is already three times more expensive than parliament initially agreed in 2003 and will end up costing more than 7 billion euros.

Romania is experiencing similar cost-related problems with its nuclear plant. The two 700 MW nuclear units were initially estimated, in 2006, at 2.3 billion euros, but more recent official estimates put the price at 4 billion euros. If costs of raw materials and equipment continue to grow at the same rate, it is unlikely this figure will be the final one.

“By the end of December we have to reach an agreement with the investors,” says Teodor Chirica, general director at Nuclearelectrica, the state-owned company that will own 51 per cent of the project, the same percentage as the state in Bulgaria. The difference is that the rest of the shares will be split among six international investors.

One advantage for the Balkan states when it comes to constructing nuclear plans is that they will benefit from the experience that construction companies such as Areva have accumulated while working on other nuclear units.

This potentially means fewer problems regarding authorisations and safety regulations. But the large number of projects that may end up being built in the region almost at the same time will create new problems of their own, an obvious one being a shortage of qualified workers.

“As soon as the contract with the investors is signed, we will start hiring people and train them,” says Ionescu from the Cernavoda plant. For the second nuclear unit, which became operational in 2007, the recruitment process had begun years in advance.

The success of the nuclear projects in Central and Eastern Europe, and the degree to which they will address Europe’s growing energy demands, depends now on their ability to attract financing and to keep the construction on track.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network

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Dr Nick (not verified) Says:
Thu, 2008-12-11 10:57

way too long article, lost interest nearly halfway.