Fukushima and the Rationale for Nuclear Power

Like everyone else in the nuclear community I have been thinking about the Fukushima nuclear disaster although I went on a month long vacation in the South Pacific when thankfully I didn’t think about it at all.  Since the accident I’ve had a number of media requests to comment but I’ve declined them all in favour of putting down my thoughts in this blog – so here goes.

My first point is that Fukushima doesn’t mean the end of nuclear power.  As the world population increases and an ever larger proportion of it demands the high consumption life style of the developed world there will be a rapidly growing demand for energy, particularly high quality electrical energy. The foregoing plus the low carbon character of nuclear technology dear to the remaining believers in climate change summarize the main arguments in favour of nuclear energy.  I’d say that this reasoning is plausible with due deference to Vaclav Smil’s observation that all energy predictions turn out to be wrong (an idea amply demonstrated, for example, by the energy demand projections of the Ontario Power Authority).

There is another factor that I would call nuclear inertia, namely those jurisdictions most dependent on nuclear power will have the greatest difficulty getting out of it. France is one such jurisdiction with around 80% or more of its electricity generated by nuclear reactors.  There is no obvious way that the French could get out of nuclear energy even if they wanted to.  On the other hand countries such as Switzerland and Italy that have resolved to go non-nuclear in the wake of Fukushima can relatively easily exit the nuclear arena as they have announced they will.  It is even easier for Thailand and Malaysia which were looking at reactors but have now have decided against them.

Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power is by far the most significant for the future of nuclear energy. The issue is not whether the German decision will cause others to drop out in the short term but rather it is whether Germany can succeed in the longer term in shedding its nuclear stations.  If it convincingly shows that it can replace the nuclear share of electricity (20%) by renewables and conservation over the next decade then I’d say the nuclear future in North America and Europe would be clouded.

I believe Germany has a good chance of achieving its goal. It has considerable experience with renewables, a very strong high technology industrial base, and most importantly the political will and public support needed. During the transition period, they can import coal-generated electricity from Poland and ironically nuclear electricity from France if needed. I think the odds are that they will succeed.

In terms of the world outlook, it appears that nuclear power will continue its strong growth in China and India with moderate increases also in Korea and Russia. These countries have concluded that they don’t have any other choice.  Although I’m particularly concerned about issues of the supply chain, quality control and business corruption, all things considered I have no doubt that the nuclear enterprise will continue unabated in Asia.

Looking at our situation in Canada, I don’t see how Ontario could feasibly get out of nuclear in the short term. The government of Ontario has been experimenting with renewables but in my opinion has made a huge blunder by entering into a sole source contract (said to be worth $7 billion) with Samsung apparently aimed at increasing “green” manufacturing in the province.  As with all too many of Ontario’s transactions with business the contract is secret and the opposition parties can’t even find out what it would cost to cancel the contract.  The bottom-line here is that Ontario unlike Germany would be totally incapable of any transition out of nuclear.

The New Brunswick follies continue over the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau reactor and the main issue has now become the content of the contract between AECL and New Brunswick with reference to cost overruns. You guessed it:  the contract is secret. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy to see New Brunswick shafted by its own obsessive secrecy and likely the same will happen to the current Ontario government with regard to the Samsung contract. The only possibility of a Canadian retreat from nuclear power that I think we’ll see in Canada is Quebec will not go ahead with the refurbishment of the Gentilly II reactor and ultimately decommission it. Much of the reason for this decision will be based on the poor performance of the Point Lepreau project with only a small push from Fukushima.

ORIGINALLY POSTED  June 3, 2011

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