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Nuclear power: Energy solution or evil curse?

26 April 2011

Explosions and meltdown fears at Japan's damaged nuclear plants have renewed debate about the safety of atomic energy and cast doubts over its future as a clean energy source. Environmental groups and others have been quick to point out that this is a total vindication of their stance against any form of nuclear-sourced energy.

Walt Patterson at the London-based foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, questions why any government would build nuclear plants when there are so many others sources of energy generation. "Why turn to the slowest, the most expensive, the narrowest, the most inflexible, and the riskiest in financial terms?" he asks. But proponents of the nuclear option insist nuclear power has the lowest carbon footprint, the latest reactors are perfectly safe, and it produces sustainable energy at a cost that is competitive with other methods.

Safety addressed
The facilities north of Tokyo were damaged after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,000 dead and at least 10,000 missing. "Putting things into perspective, when the loss of life in Japan is probably going to be much higher than presently recorded, the problems with the nuclear reactors are a high-profile side-line," says Ian Hore-Lacy at the World Nuclear Association (WNA). He points out that although the facilities were built in the 1960s, there have only been minor radiation releases. A disaster on the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union is highly unlikely, according to experts, because Japan's reactors are built to a much higher standard and have much more rigorous safety measures. "New reactors are much more sophisticated," Mr Hore-Lacy says. "They are one or two orders of magnitude safer than older models." He insists the very latest nuclear reactor models have passive cooling systems, so if they were to experience any disaster such as those currently being experienced in Japan, it would not present any danger whatsoever to the public.

An incident at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and the Chernobyl accident in 1986, raised concerns about the safety of the nuclear power industry as well as nuclear power in general, slowing its expansion for a number of years. But the public perception of the nuclear industry has to be balanced with the compelling need to reduce dependence on oil, gas and coal, along with the climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions they produce, proponents insist.

Nuclear programmes around the globe
-Some 31 countries currently operate nuclear power stations;
-There are 443 operational nuclear reactors worldwide;
-There are also another 62 under construction, 158 on order and a further 324 proposed;
-China is currently building 27 plants, while 50 are in the planning phase and another 110 proposed;
-In the US, 31 states have operating reactors and in seven of those, nuclear accounts for the largest percentage of the electricity generated;
-France uses nuclear plants as its primary source of electricity, providing 75% of its needs.

Source: WNA and Nuclear Energy Institute

Mr Hore-Lacy is adamant that the only way enough energy can be sustainably produced to cater for the increasing global demand is with nuclear power. "Nuclear power has two distinct advantages over coal and gas," he says. "First there is the question of energy security."
He explains that uranium, used in the production of nuclear power, has the advantage of being a highly concentrated source of energy, which is easily and cheaply transportable, and that the quantities needed are very much less than for coal or oil. "One kilogram of natural uranium will yield about 20,000 times as much energy as the same amount of coal," he says. The second issue is that of the carbon footprint. Nuclear energy is considered by proponents to be a clean alternative to the expensive exploration of oil and gas - both of which are faced with dwindling reserves. However, that is not a view shared by everyone. "Nuclear power needs climate change more than climate change needs nuclear power," says Mr Patterson of Chatham House.

Anti-nuclear campaigners say the crisis in Japan is a timely reminder of the dangers of atomic energy, particularly in a region known for its seismic activity. They advocate the use of alternative systems to meet the global demand for energy - the most popular being solar energy, biomass energy, hydropower and wind turbines. All systems have their drawbacks, however, whether it is the cost of installation, the transformation of farming land, or the site of large structures on the landscape. The European Gas Advocacy Forum has issued a report saying that natural gas should play a key role in reaching Europe's 2050 climate targets in the most cost-efficient manner. Rune Bjornson, at the Norwegian energy company Statoil, says natural gas is cost competitive, with CO2 emissions being 70% lower than those of coal.
Meanwhile, the WNA's Mr Hore-Lacy says that once a nuclear reactor is up and running, the operators are "laughing all the way to the bank". He maintains that the biggest disincentive to building more nuclear power plants is raising the capital for the initial start-up cost - some 80% of the required amount. "Once it is running, the actual price per kilowatt of energy produced is cheaper than other methods, and running costs are minimal," he says.
But everything comes at a cost. Governments, companies and individuals have to decide upon a balance between environmental concerns, and the price they are willing to pay, or can afford, for their energy. And the crisis in Japan has upset that balance for many.

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