Saturday, 19 July 2014

Nuclear's carbon footprint should not be overlooked

In his Green Column ‘Britain Pushes Hard on Nuclear Power’ (New York Times, 9 July 2014,(
Stanley Reed provides a fair account of a complex series of development’s on the UK’s nuclear energy policy, except in one particular.
He states:a nuclear power station, once built, produces carbon-free energy for decades.”
This is highly misleading, as a nuclear power plant is part of a complex chain of industrial nuclear activities, from cradle-to-grave, each of which has their own “carbon footprint.”

The uranium mined for the manufacture of the nuclear fuel needs to be processed and “enriched” (concentrated), to maximise to ability to extract the energy from the uranium. This enrichment process is heavily energy intensive.
For example, in the United States, the giant Oak Ridge K-25 uranium enrichment complex in Tennessee (whose demolition is being completed this year, having been closed in 1987) had several large coal-fired plants powering its gaseous diffusion enrichment activities.

More modern enrichment plants for commercial nuclear fuel feedstock manufacture use, significantly less energy in the centrifugal enrichment processes, but still emit greenhouse gases.
Once the nuclear fuels rods have been irradiated (‘cooked”) in the reactor core to release energy to generate power, they become part of the radioactive waste burden. They have to be actively cooled for several years before dry storage for centuries. All of these activities involve greenhouse gas, including carbon dioxide, emissions.

The other downside of nuclear energy, often overlooked, is it is uniquely unforgiving if attacked by terrorists. We know from several foiled terror plots, such suicide attacks have been in their plans.

Britain Pushes Hard on Nuclear Power

New York Times, JULY 9, 2014


Green Column



LONDON — There are few places in the West where companies that build nuclear plants are welcome to construct new ones. That lack of choice probably accounts for a lot of the appeal of a nearly 500-acre stretch of scrubland called Moorside near the Irish Sea in northwest England.

Last week, Toshiba, the Japanese industrial giant, and GDF Suez, the French utility, said they planned to build three commercial nuclear reactors there at a cost of at least 10 billion pounds, or about $17 billion, beginning around 2020.

Even though Britain has not built a nuclear power station since the mid-1990s it is a hot prospect for the nuclear industry. The British government — unlike many of its Western counterparts — wants new nuclear power plants and appears to be willing to compel taxpayers and consumers to pay for them. It is a large and risky bet that energy prices will rise and that nuclear plants can be built without the delays and cost overruns that have plagued recent nuclear projects in France and Finland.

The British government is intervening in a big way in what had been one of the more open energy markets. The government is responding to worries, including fears that Britain, which has an aging fleet of nuclear and coal plants, may not have enough generating capacity to keep the lights on in the coming years.

In addition, a nuclear power station, once built, produces carbon-free energy for decades — a characteristic that will help Britain meet the government’s targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In the first quarter of this year, Britain obtained 37 percent of its electricity from low-carbon sources, including 18 percent from nuclear power.

The government is open to financing and other help from just about anywhere in its efforts to encourage construction of new nuclear plants and other low-carbon forms of electricity generation, like offshore wind turbines. British utilities have been unwilling to build nuclear power plants at home, and with the exception of the French, European utilities are also wary.

The nuclear project that has advanced furthest, Hinkley Point in southwest England, which will cost at least £16 billion, is to be built by a French utility, EDF, with help from Chinese nuclear companies and possibly other international investors.

Most of the countries in the global business of building nuclear power plants, including Russia and South Korea, are giving Britain a look. British energy projects are also attracting attention from the sovereign wealth funds of oil-producing countries and elsewhere that have cash to invest and want to earn steady returns for decades. Abu Dhabi, which has one of the world’s largest pools of capital, has made investments in British offshore wind projects through its renewable-energy arm, Masdar.

Under an agreement signed last year, the electricity generated by Hinkley Point will be guaranteed a wholesale price almost double the current price of power for 35 years, indexed to inflation, promising an estimated 10 percent rate of return.

Whether the government’s nuclear push is smart policy is a different question. Building a nuclear plant requires years, if not decades, of expensive design and regulatory work. A natural gas-fired power plant could make money with a 40 percent lower electricity price than is being guaranteed for Hinkley Point, according to Roland Vetter, an analyst at CF Partners, an energy trading firm based in London.

The financing of new nuclear plants in Britain has also raised concerns. For one thing, the European Union is looking into whether the arrangements for Hinkley Point are contrary to rules on state aid. A ruling against the plant would hurt other nuclear projects.

Nuclear power may be carbon free, but it can be harmful in other ways. After decades of operation, the nuclear industry in Britain is still searching for a way to safely dispose of the waste it generates. And nuclear energy always carries the risk of catastrophic accidents as the Fukushima disaster of 2011 in Japan showed.

Another big concern is whether the British government is making the right call when others in Europe are going the opposite direction. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany responded to the Fukushima disaster by accelerating the phasing out of nuclear power in her country. Aging plants would not be replaced, while the buildup of wind and solar power was greatly expanded. The decision has hurt the financial performance of the big German utilities and raised electricity rates for consumers, but some observers think Germany could wind up looking smart.

“The risk of having those old plants up and running after their useful life is just not worth it,” said Francesco Starace, the chief executive of Enel, an Italian utility.

Britain’s push to build new nuclear power plants is risky, he said. “The sheer size, long time scale and the recent history of cost increases in the nuclear industry around the world only add to the uncertainty that these projects can be completed on time and at a reasonable cost to consumers,” Mr. Starace said.






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