The public perception of nuclear energy has taken a battering in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident, but nuclear generation isn't going to go away
It had been a painfully sluggish process, but since the nightmare scenario of a complete meltdown of a nuclear plant 25 years ago at Chernobyl, the public had, inch by inch, been creeping towards a grudging acceptance of a nuclear future.
That fragile tolerance was reflected in a report published late last year by the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) that proclaimed that 47 per cent of people supported, and only 15 per cent opposed, the building of replacement nuclear power stations – an increase on previous years.
But at 2.46pm on 11 March that all changed. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami wreaked havoc along Japan's north east coast causing damage to several nuclear power plants – the most telling at Fukushima. As the magnitude of the problems facing the stricken power plant became apparent, the hard earned support for nuclear energy began to ebb away.
Countries that had been planning to build new nuclear power plants, or extend the lives of existing ones, began to question their strategies. In the UK, secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, charged the UK chief nuclear inspector to deliver a report into the implications of events at Japanese nuclear reactors on existing and new plants in the UK. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately called a three-month moratorium on planned plant live extensions for eight ageing nuclear facilities.
And in the US, where the expansion of nuclear power has received wide bipartisan support from president Barack Obama and lawmakers in Congress, some began to call for a slowing of new nuclear construction.
Losing the PR war
In the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima, support has now dropped to 35 per cent and opposition has increased to 28 per cent, according to GfK NOP's new survey for Friends of the Earth. Almost half of the people surveyed, 44 per cent, said they are worried about the safety of UK nuclear plants, with support for replacement nuclear power stations dropping compared to previous studies. Fewer than 10 per cent now believe nuclear should be the priority for energy investment in coming years.
'The situation at the Japanese nuclear power station has added to the distress and suffering of the Japanese people following the tsunami,' Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns for Friends of the Earth, says. 'While the UK is not at risk of major earthquakes and tsunamis, our nuclear stations are vulnerable to sea surges, rising sea levels and terrorist attacks. We can keep the lights on and cut reliance on oil and nuclear by building a safe and secure energy future based on cutting waste and harnessing our vast renewable power potential.'
'The incident at Fukushima is clearly a very serious matter,' Dr Tony Whitehead of the IET says. 'It is not surprising that public confidence in nuclear power has been shaken by the recent events in Japan. In the light of recent events, I think the public and decision-makers in government are absolutely right to ask again how safe modern nuclear power really is – and to expect, and receive, clear, authoritative independent evidence-based answers to their questions.'
Not surprisingly, nuclear experts are rallying to the defence of the nuclear industry. 'I do think there will be some people who now feel they are not so sure about the safety of nuclear power,' Jeff Eerkens, research professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says. 'But after they assess the actual final results – no-one in the public killed by the radiation – and realise that the fear-mongering propaganda by some anti-nuclear clubs is excessive, many will return to approving nuclear if they realise the gravity of the approaching energy crisis.
'Most rational people are willing to accept some risks to be able to live with today's modern conveniences instead of the middle ages. The assertion by anti-nuclear clubs that thousands of Japanese can still die in coming years from delayed radiation-caused cancers is without substantiation. In fact, there is evidence that exposure to low-level nuclear radiation actually benefits people's health, a phenomenon called hormesis.
'While there were zero nuclear fatalities and measures have been taken globally to re-check all reactor core cooling systems and used-fuel pools for possible improvements, some anti-nuclear groups still want to shut down all existing nuclear plants and cancel all planned new-builds. This is as absurd as halting all air travel and aircraft manufacture because of 9/11.'
Paul Wilson, associate professor and chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concedes that there will be a short-term decline in public acceptance of nuclear energy. 'This has already been documented in a few surveys in the last week or so,' he points out. 'The longer-term effect will depend on a lot of other factors, most importantly how this incident in Japan comes to a close. After that, it will also be important to see how this is processed by different societies around the world. As I said to a colleague yesterday on this subject, 'we are still writing the story of this event, and only just beginning to tell it'.'
But despite the events in Fukushima, the fundamental arguments for nuclear energy remain the same. 'The positives of nuclear are no greenhouse gas emission, less mining, and low operation costs,' Todd Allen, scientific director at ATR National Scientific user facility, points out. 'The negatives of nuclear are long-lived waste disposal challenges, high construction cost, and perceived safety concerns. The conversation about nuclear will get louder, but I believe we will get back to the same discussion that was occurring before the earthquake.'
But as Andrew Klein, professor at the department of nuclear energy and radiation health physics at Oregon State University explains, the battle for hearts and minds of the public must be won. 'Public acceptance is important to the continuing development of any technology – and is based upon a full understanding of its real risks and benefits,' he says. 'The benefits of nuclear energy include being the only realistic replacement for fossil fuels in the large-scale, base-load production of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. Risks include accidents with the potential for releasing radioactive material to the environment.'
As for the long-term viability of the nuclear industry, the consensus would seem to point to a business as usual scenario after a slight hiatus for evaluation of both requirements and safety. 'Globally, there are plans to increase capacity and continue construction projects already underway,' Shelley Goldberg, director global resources & commodity strategy at Roubini Global Economics, says. 'While the world is reassessing its nuclear endeavours, only Germany and Italy have called for a temporary cessation, while Japan is likely to do the same.
'China expects to surpass the US as the world's biggest user of nuclear-power fuel. It is unlikely to pull back its nuclear commitment and its proposed 2020 installation targets – 60 reactors each requiring 400 metric tonnes of uranium to start operating – are not likely to decrease dramatically following review. India has reaffirmed its ambitious nuclear programme, which, along with China's, accounts for a significant portion of planned capacity.'
Along with the pause there is certain to be thorough scrutiny from nuclear regulators around plans for new facilities. 'There will be a pause, perhaps for six months, during which every existing nuclear plant's emergency safety systems will be re-inspected and strengthened to assure they function properly under natural disasters,' Eerkens explains. 'Emergency safety systems of new-build designs and constructions will also be re-examined to insure that calamities such as happened in Japan can be overcome and handled better.
'Germany may take a little longer to return to nuclear because of the Green Party's stranglehold on German politics. But I believe it also will resume nuclear power expansions after it fully comprehends the severity of the looming no-oil crisis and insufficiency of solar and wind power. Germany has some excellent nuclear reactor designers and construction companies.'
That local needs, local opinion angle is something that Allen expands on. 'I think the plans will follow the enthusiasm of each country,' he says. 'The Asian countries will likely continue to be strong because they need the power. The US programme growth will be slow but not stalled. Germany, where there are strong anti-nuclear sentiments, will likely see the strongest pushback.'
According to Dr Shelby Brewer, chairman and chief executive officer at Commodore Nuclear, the key word when assessing the future of nuclear energy is 'long-term'. 'There is no way for the US to wean itself from imported oil without electrifying its transportation sector, and that means a heavy role for nuclear electricity generation,' he says. 'So my reasoning is 'it must be, ergo it will be'. We will have competent adults setting energy policy.'
However, the continuing political support for nuclear, particularly in the UK and US, appears to be driven more out of necessity than any trust in the technology. If we do not use nuclear energy to generate electricity then the only viable alternative is coal.
'The current alternative of carbon-based fuels is not that attractive,' Paul Turinsky, professor of nuclear engineering at North Carolina State University, adds. 'For example, the estimate is that there are 4,000 deaths from coal for every one death from nuclear when generating the same amount of energy.'
With the situation at the Fukushima plant still unstable it is far too early for any rational debate about what went wrong, but there is a growing clamour from the public and media for explanations.
'Though it is still early to predict, it appears to me that the primary lessons to be learned from the events in Japan are three-fold,' Andy Klein, professor at the department of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University Corvallis, says. 'The first is that we do not fully understand enormous earthquakes and tsunamis. The plants in Japan were designed to safely shutdown during large earthquakes – and all of the plants responded correctly and safely to the initial earthquake event. However, the tsunami was almost three times larger than the greatest tsunami expected at the site – thus overwhelming the backup diesel generators and the power lines to the site that would have provided the necessary electrical power to maintain the long-term cooling of the shut down reactors and the large pools of water used for storing used fuel from the reactors.
'The second and third lessons to be learned are related to the importance of those backup power and water supplies for the long-term safe shutdown of nuclear reactors. With adequate backup, electrical power and water, these reactors would not have experienced the over-heating of the reactors and used fuel pools that resulted in hydrogen explosions that destroyed three of the secondary containment buildings and released radioactive material into the environment. 'It is important to note that the Fukushima Daiichi site went without adequate backup electrical power and water supplies for more than ten days after the earthquake – a very long time. The nuclear industry will evaluate these lessons and apply them to the continued safe operation of current plants and to future developments.'
Contingency plans for Mother Nature
The real lesson, however, would appear to be that nature can be even more destructive than we imagined, and that we should design our reactors and their safety systems with even more redundant contingencies than we already have. 'Of course, one can only go so far – it is impossible to design against a hit by an asteroid,' Eerkens adds. 'The Fukushima reactors were designed 50 years ago (40 years operating), and in hindsight I would not put decay coolant pools to cool used fuel elements next to the reactor containment vessel in one and the same building. Instead of water cooling for a year, I would recommend that used fuel elements be put in ultra-strong dry casks after one month or less, and be shipped to a used-fuel reprocessing facility to recover U-238 and plutonium for use in GEN-IV reactors.'
Philip Thomas, professor of engineering development at City University London, argues that for a real solution we require a game-changing technology, but adds that one already exists. 'Fast reactors that can convert U-28 [99 per cent plus of natural uranium exists as this isotope] into burnable plutonium at the same time as generating electricity,' he says. 'Uranium utilisation can then be increased by a factor of 60.
'Fast reactors are very similar in operation to thermal reactors, but their capital cost is greater by 50 per cent to 100 per cent, which means that the transition using fast reactors is not going to happen until energy costs get higher than they are now. A reasonable estimate of when they will be needed is 2040.'
Safety over expense
A competitor technology to fast reactors is the use of thorium as the basis for nuclear generation instead of uranium. Thorium has the very distinct advantage of being relatively plentiful, but, on the other hand, first-generation designs are more expensive than equivalent uranium technology.
'However, novel approaches to producing power from thorium are being examined, which have some good safety features and might, with development, become competitive with uranium-fuelled fast reactors,' Thomas adds.
'The speed of development of new thorium designs is again likely to be dictated by economic rather than technical constraints, but it may be that proven designs will be available by 2030 or thereabouts.'
But the overall lesson of Fukushima is the message that James Lovelock has promulgated: we will experience big nuclear accidents from time to time, but we can and will live with them. *