The Perils of Pushing Atomic Energy as the Climate Change Panacea

Thursday, May 10, 2007

By Philip Bethge (Der Spiegel)

Is nuclear power on the verge of a renaissance? Its supporters argue that atomic energy is the only way to satisfy humanity’s hunger for more energy without aggravating the effects of global warming. Critics, however, regard the nuclear hype as over-simplistic optimism fueled by an industry in distress.

Two cooling towers at the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant in Germany: currently 435 atomic plants are online in 31 countries.

Graphic: A Radiant Future?

Nuclear energy is largely carbon neutral, which allows the industry to accept and promote the worst-case climate change scenarios while simultaneously presenting itself as a potential solution to the problem of global warming. "A lot of politicians have realized that climate change is not based on the fantasies of crazy scientists, but is rather something knocking at the door," says Robert Davies, an executive for the French nuclear company Areva NP. "Suddenly nuclear technology doesn't look quite so bad anymore."The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based think-tank, supports such reasoning. Its 2006 study, "World Energy Outlook 2006" suggests that nuclear energy could contribute significantly to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Atomic Renaissance or Wishful Thinking?
For now, new anxieties over a potential global climate catastrophe are replacing old fears of a nuclear meltdown. Even in Germany, which decided in 2000 to gradually phase out nuclear power, such arguments are becoming widespread. Michael Glos, Germany's Economics Minister and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, believes that extending the lifespan of the country's nuclear power plants is essential to meeting the country's climate protection targets.

Critics, however, question the underlying nature of that argument. Nuclear power simply doesn't have the ability to influence global warming decisively, says Henrik Paulitz of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). "The effects of atomic energy on the world's climate are minimal and will remain minimal," he says, adding that electricity produced by nuclear power accounts for only 3 percent of global energy consumption. "Even a massive increase would therefore hardly have an impact."

Graphic: Radioactive Legacy

Moreover, issues like plant safety, radioactive waste, the decoupling of nuclear proliferation from civilian usage, and the rapid depletion of the world's uranium deposits remain unresolved. "There are absolutely no solid indications of an atomic energy renaissance relevant to energy economics or climate policy," nuclear energy critic Klaus Traube wrote in a study for DNR, an umbrella organization for nature and environmental protection groups in Germany. Traube, who worked in the nuclear industry before becoming an outspoken detractor in the 1970s, considers enthusiasm for new reactors the wishful thinking of an industry in distress.Nuclear expert Michael Sailer from the Institute for Applied Ecology in Darmstadt, Germany, also thinks the industry's optimism is unfounded. "My prediction is that in 15 years we won't have any more nuclear power plants around the world than we do today," says Sailer. He concedes, however, that several new nuclear reactors will be built in the coming years, but he's also convinced that even more aging power plants will be shut down. "If the technology is revived at all it will be for military reasons."

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects global energy needs to surge by 53 percent by 2030. In that same time period, the demand for electricity will double, largely due to the extra gigawatts that rapidly developing countries like China and India will require.

At the same time, many industrial countries will need to modernize their existing power grids. Germany alone will have to replace half of its power plant capacity in the next two decades.

Just how society can satisfy its thirst for power while simultaneously combating climate change is one of the most pressing questions currently facing the international community. The nuclear industry's argument is simple: without new reactors, targets to reduce global warming are simply unattainable.

A New Push
With some 435 nuclear power plants in 31 countries, the sector has entered into the competition to provide a bigger piece of the future energy pie. And if its rhetoric is to be believed, that's just the beginning.

China alone plans to build around 13 new reactors. Russia intends to build eight plants. India, Japan and South Korea all want new reactors. And both Britain and the United States are trying to make extremely expensive nuclear power plants more palatable to energy companies. The Bush administration, for example, is offering financial insurance against construction delays, credit guarantees and a simplified regulatory process for companies building new plants.

Even atomic energy-free nations could soon give in to the nuclear temptation. Australia, which until now has only mined uranium, is making its foray into a nuclear era. A government study has recommended the country use the ore it currently ships abroad, and conservative Prime Minister John Howard hopes the first Australian reactor will go online by 2020.

The "low estimate" of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pegs the number of 1,300-megawatt reactors to be built by that same year at 40. At least on the surface, the nuclear industry's future seems bright.

A short time ago, few would have guessed that global leader Areva would still be building parts for nuclear power plants at its St. Marcel facility in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. "Five years back, we were about to close the factory," says Areva project manager Laurent Foechterlen, as he walks through the 34-meter high production hall. "But we've doubled our capacity since 2001."

The visitors Foechterlen greets at Chalon come from China, Brazil, the United States, Britain and Sweden -- and they have apparently secured the company's future. Factory manager Pascal van Dorsselaer is expecting a "tsunami of future orders."

More than a dozen steam generators are awaiting their final touches at the factory on the banks of the Saône River. Eventually, the massive machines will use nuclear heat to convert water into steam, which will, in turn, rotate massive turbines to create electricity. Nearby, workers have turned their attention to reactor pressure vessels weighing tons and destined soon to hold fresh fuel elements in China.

Though the factory may be bustling, it doesn't hide the fact that most Areva customers are only buying replacement parts to lengthen existing reactors' lifespans. The company rarely secures orders for new reactors.

The construction of a new third-generation nuclear power plant in Finland has even turned into a PR disaster for Areva. The Olkiluoto 3 reactor was supposed to be a model of economical and catastrophe-proof nuclear technology. But its construction is already 18 months behind schedule and the €3-billion ($4 billion) price tag isn't even expected to cover the company's costs.

"Areva is going through a difficult phase," French Economics Minister Thierry Breton said recently. Indeed, the Olkiluoto fiasco might have already cost the firm an order from China worth billions. Beijing instead opted in December for four new reactors from U.S. competitor Westinghouse. "The AP1000 from Westinghouse hasn't been built yet, the design could be flawed and have risks," complains Areva manager Foechterlen. Of course, whether the company's own new reactor will prove itself under real-world conditions is equally uncertain.

Betting on a Core Catcher
The French are betting on the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), jointly developed by German industrial conglomerate Siemens and an Areva unit previously called Framatome. The reactor uses less uranium, produces less waste and at the same time generates more electricity than previous models. It has a four-part safety system. A massive ceramic tub, or "core catcher," underneath the reactor pressure vessel is supposed to, in the case of a meltdown, absorb the molten core.

But the underground construction is controversial. Nuclear energy opponents fear the core catcher -- or ashtray, as it is sometimes jokingly called -- could actually increase the risk of an accident. "If the melted core in the basin comes in contact with water there could be a dangerous steam explosion," warns Paulitz from the international physicians group. Scientists conducting experiments to test the issue in Karlsruhe, Germany, twice watched as "test equipment weighing tons" blew up.

Paulitz also considers pressurized reactor's use of digital control technologies to be a "dangerous experiment on a mass scale," and is skeptical of just how much the reactor's double-walled safety hull can withstand.

A study commissioned by utility giant Electricité de France revealed that an attack with an airliner similar to those used on 9/11 would be too much for an EPR plant to withstand. When French nuclear energy opponent Stéphane Lhomme revealed the previously secret study's results, which he claims to have found "in the mailbox," he landed in jail for five days.

The industry is hardly more transparent in Germany when detailing the risks inherent in nuclear technology, and the current debate about lengthening the lifespans of the country's reactors is only increasing misgivings about major utility providers. RWE AG, Vattenfall AB and EnBW AG are trying to keep their oldest reactors hooked up to the power grid longer than previously allowed under an agreement to phase out nuclear energy in Germany (see related sidebar below).

In Germany, 17 nuclear reactors are online in commercial use. Together they produce a total of 21,426 megawatts of electricity. The oldest reactor, Biblis A, has already been online for 33 years. In 2005, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) registered 135 incidents involving these reactors. Defective components and operating errors were among the most commonly reported problems. The last major incident happened in July 2004, when contaminated water from the Neckerwestheim II reactor leaked into the Neckar River in south- western Germany. Under a deal reached by the Social Democratic and Greens- led government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2000, Germany's oldest reactors from the 1970s must go offline by 2009 at the latest. All remaining reactors must be shut down by 2021.

The German Environmental Ministry isn't pleased about it either. "Today these nuclear reactors wouldn't even be approved if they wanted to start operating as new ones," a ministry source said. "The older nuclear power plants have a long list of incidents that have been reported."The ministry provides a particularly unsettling example of one such incident involving a hydrogen explosion in 2001 at the Brunsbüttel reactor near Hamburg: "Experts reported that had the incident taken a slightly different course it could have led to a core meltdown with radioactive contamination."

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has steadfastly refused to extend the operating life of older plants. A member of the center-left Social Democratic Party -- which is the junior partner in conservative Angela Merkel's governing coalition -- he suspects the industry is merely waiting for any excuse it can find to roll back Germany's plans to phase out the use of nuclear energy.

Still, many energy experts believe the dismantling of the German agreement is inevitable. "For me it's a political no-brainer that the lifespan of Germany's nuclear power plants will be extended," says Fritz Vahrenholt, the CEO of wind power company REpower Systems AG. "We need this extension to buy time for a conversion of our power plants to CO2-free energy sources."

Of course, Vahrenholt has his reasons to praise atomic energy -- Areva owns 30 percent of REpower -- but he has no illusions about the long-term prospects of the technology. "The use of nuclear energy will not be anything more than a bridge to future energy supplies. Uranium stocks will last only a few decades longer than reserves of oil will."

Stretching Uranium Supplies and Securing Waste
Even though all of the known uranium deposits will be depleted in approximately 70 years, the nuclear lobby never tires of inflating estimates of how far the ore deposits will stretch. Assuming new uranium reserves can be found and future nuclear power plants will require less fuel, stocks will last for "at least 200 years," claims energy giant E.on, citing data from the German Economics Ministry. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates there will be enough fuel "for millennia" and France's Areva even goes so far as to claim resources are "practically unlimited."

Areva engineers are speculating that technological advances will keep them in business. The idea of basing the industry's economy on plutonium has many dreaming of an inexhaustible supply of atomic energy. So-called fast breeder reactors would convert uranium into plutonium, which in turn could be used in new fuel elements. That would theoretically increase uranium supplies sixty-fold. But the track record of breeder reactors has been disappointing. Almost all attempts to operate such facilities have ended in fiasco. Germany gave up on the infamous Kalkar fast breeder in 1991 after 18 years of construction and an investment of almost €4 billion.

The nuclear community hopes to revive the breeder because without it atomic energy's renaissance will be impossible. Only the breeder reactor can ensure there's nuclear power for the rest of eternity.

French soldiers at La Hague install a radar system to help secure the nuclear waste facility.

Reprocessing facilities like France's plant in La Hague will also be necessary. Near the large construction site for the new Flamanville reactor, the facility's towering chimneys have been part of the countryside for over 30 years. Over 6,000 people work there to break down 1,600 tons of spent fuel elements each year. Technicians separate plutonium and uranium from used fuel rods and later mix the remaining highly radioactive fission product with glass to create something that looks like volcanic rock. Large canisters store the waste in cooled vertical shafts underground. All of the radioactive waste France has accumulated over the last 40 years lies under an area of land barely the size of a gymnasium."A nuclear power plant supplies a million people with energy while creating only the equivalent of a two-euro coin of waste annually," says Eric Blanc, deputy director of the La Hague facility. "Nuclear waste can be kept at our storage facility without any problem for at least 100 years."

The Areva manager fails to mention, however, that a gram of plutonium is so dangerous that if inhaled as dust it would give hundreds of people cancer. Greenpeace claims that traces of the highly toxic substance from the La Hague facility's wastewater have appeared in samples from in English Channel for years.

More than anything, it's the use of plutonium in making bombs that hinders the nuclear industry's peaceful ambitions. After America dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced in his historic "Atoms for Peace" speech on Dec. 8, 1953 that "this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind." But half a century later, the nuclear disasters at Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have long since blurred Ike's grand vision. Civilian reactors and military bombs continue to be nuclear "Siamese twins," argues Rebecca Harms, a Green Party member of the European Parliament.

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was supposed to stem the spread of nuclear weapons, but its inadequacy is all too apparent in the wake of atomic bomb tests in Pakistan, India and North Korea-not to mention Iran's brash nuclear ambitions. In 2005 alone, the IAEA cataloged 103 cases of illegal trading or "unauthorized activities" involving nuclear materials worldwide.US President George W. Bush believes the nuclear fuel trade can still be brought under control. His administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Program aims to restrict fuel reprocessing and the plutonium industry that goes with it to the United States and select partner countries. These nations would supply other program members with fuel elements for their conventional nuclear power plants. The plan sounds great but probably isn't realistic. India, for example, was insulted when it was asked to join the GNEP as just a customer and not a reprocessing nation.

An Uncertain Bet
Whether nuclear energy is experiencing a renaissance or is simply benefiting from a reinvigorated public relations campaign is unclear. One thing seems certain, though: Countries like China and India will not be able to continue growing at a furious pace without new reactors to power their economies. And France and the United States, both already heavily dependent on nuclear power, will need to at least replace their aging plants and could build new reactors as well.

It comes down to basic economics. Despite the extremely expensive initial investment of €3-4 billion per power plant, nuclear energy could soon become competitive once again. According to the MIT study "The Future of Nuclear Power," the future price of carbon dioxide emissions will be critical. A further increase in the price of natural gas and oil could also give atomic energy a boost.

But the nuclear renaissance remains an uncertain bet. Little has happened so far: In 1990 there were 83 reactors under construction worldwide; in 1998 that figure dropped to 36 and fell further to only 29 today. And the World Nuclear Association has pegged the number of planned reactors at 64, which isn't exactly encouraging.

Whether the world is prepared to continue to accept the risks inherent in atomic energy remains in question. Around 300,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste has piled up in the 50 years of its civilian use. Some 10,000 tons are added each year, yet there is not a single permanent storage facility for radioactive waste anywhere in the world. And a truly safe reactor, which automatically stops a nuclear chain reaction during an accident, remains undeveloped.

Graphic: The Power of the Atom

The industry promises that fourth-generation nuclear reactors will be highly efficient, produce little waste and contribute minimally to nuclear proliferation. Those are the standards the US government is pursuing with its "Generation IV International Forum" initiative, which has encouraged the development of new reactors since 2000. There are plenty of ideas: reactors that use liquid salts to work at high temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Celsius and extremely fast reactors that can be cooled by gas, sodium or lead. But prototypes of such reactors won't be ready before 2030. Until then, power plants barely indistinguishable from current ones -- such as the European Pressurized Reactor -- will have to champion the atomic cause. Regardless of the industry's rosy outlook, catastrophic accidents like the one at Chernobyl in 1986 remain possible. Another meltdown could stigmatize the technology once again and raise questions about the billions already spent on its development and whether they should have gone toward newer and more environmentally safe technologies.

The nuclear industry's proponents are fond of arguing that atomic energy could combat climate change, but critics say this is nothing more than a last-ditch effort by a flagging industry to save itself. Nuclear critics have actually calculated the number of new reactors necessary to enable a notable reduction in CO2 emissions.

"Thousands of new nuclear reactors would have to be built to replace only 10 percent of fossil fuel energy sources," says Paulitz. "That isn't just horrifying vision for the environment, but also one for security policy."

Der Spiegel, 2007

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