After more than a decade in which nuclear energy was seriously out of favour in most developed countries, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the current ‘nuclear debate’ is that there is a nuclear debate at all. Public opinion in countries like the UK has swung behind proposals to build new nuclear stations alongside renewables as the main plank of achieving targets in greenhouse gas emissions and preserving security of energy supply at a reasonable cost.
Why the change? The reasons are to be found both in developments in nuclear technology and changes in the environment in which all energy technologies compete.
Nuclear power derives energy from fission of uranium (or thorium or, indirectly, plutonium). As a technological concept it is in its infancy. In contrast to other ways of making energy which have centuries or millennia of development – the Chinese were using wind energy 3,000 years ago, for example – nuclear fission as a practical possibility was first demonstrated as recently as December 1942. Yet by the early years of the twenty-first century nuclear power was producing one-sixth of the electricity used by the world and was the largest source within the European Union. However, investment, which had been running at over 30,000 MW per year in the mid-1980s, has been below 10,000 MW since 1990.
The technology was not standing still, however. The ‘availability factor’, which put crudely measures how rarely a plant breaks down, rose from 74 per cent in 1991 to 83 per cent in 2005; that of the main global design on which most new plants are based, the Pressurised Water Reactor, is over 90 per cent. Plant design has moved towards passive safety features, which rely on the laws of physics, rather than engineered safety delivered using valves and pumps. Reactors which have been built in the Asia-Pacific region over the last decade have proved considerably quicker and cheaper to build and more reliable in operation than their predecessors in the 1970s and 1980s. The safety record remains impressive – just one accident with demonstrable off-site consequences (Chernobyl in 1986) and that in a design which had been denied a license in the UK on eight separate grounds, the most serious of which being a tendency to ‘run away with’ itself if operated at low output, the main cause of the accident. Greenhouse gas emissions are close to zero while uranium as a resource is much more abundant and less geographically concentrated than the fossil fuels, especially oil and gas. Furthermore, since such a small proportion of nuclear costs are accounted for by the fuel itself (compared say to gas-generated electricity) it has proved largely inflation-proof at a time when the oil price (and on its back gas and coal prices) has increased from below $10 a barrel in 1998 to nearly $80 a barrel in August 2006.
Improvements in nuclear technology have been accompanied by much greater challenges in the energy industries, especially in the UK. We need three things from our energy industries – secure supplies at reasonable cost without unacceptable environmental consequences. Through the 1990s this all seemed very easy. The UK was moving to a competitive model of energy delivery and switching from coal to gas (based on our own North Sea reserves), thereby destroying the malign power of the mining unions while delivering greenhouse gas emission reductions and lower costs.
Now Britain is coming to terms with becoming a net energy importer for the first time since the invention of the steam engine as our gas reserves become depleted. While it is true that among the G8 industrialised nations only Canada remains a net energy exporter, there are concerns about the UK’s geographical position, at the end of some very long pipelines or other distribution networks from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, where most of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves are to be found. In early 2006, President Putin’s decision to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine only served to emphasise the danger of becoming too dependent on imports from that part of the world. The failure of large-scale renewable projects, for example in Germany where the inherent intermittency of wind power has caused major challenges, is leading to revision of some of the more extreme claims made by renewable researchers and manufacturers. And perhaps most worryingly of all, after a decade in which greenhouse gas emissions had fallen significantly the period 1999 to 2006 (projected) rose by nearly seven per cent. Although the UK’s Kyoto commitment on greenhouse gas emissions looked secure, performance was woefully short of the 60 per cent reduction target by 2050 - especially when one keys in that nuclear power stations, the main source of very low carbon energy, would be coming off line - and indeed only one, Sizewell B, would continue to operate beyond 2025.
Barriers to new investment remain, notably the failure of the UK to deal with radioactive waste as a social issue as effectively as has been done in Finland and Sweden, though it is now widely accepted that there are no insuperable technical problems. Major infrastructure projects of all kinds often get bogged down in the planning and licensing process, prompting the government to look at ways of streamlining these processes. The high capital costs of nuclear investment are difficult to handle in competitive markets. But the nuclear programme of the mid-1980s shows that, once a programme has been started, nuclear plants can be brought on line at a very high rate with demonstrable effects on security of supply and greenhouse gas emissions – France is the shining example in these respects. Several countries are now talking of joining the 30-odd nations which use nuclear power while many of those which have been lukewarm in recent years are seriously re-examining the option, and indeed Finland is constructing a new reactor at present. Nuclear energy remains the only proven large-scale option that can deliver major saving in greenhouse gas emissions.
Malcolm Grimston is an associate fellow at Chatham House, and co-author of Double or Quits – the global future of civil nuclear energy (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).