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Nuclear electricity: Alternating between hope and fear

Like the courtesan in the novel of 19th century French writer Balzac, atomic energy is a mélange of splendor and misery. It is at once a wellspring of great expectations about reducing reliance on fossil fuels and ridding nations of dependence on imported oil, and a hot bed of nightmares worthy of Dante’s infernal imagery about the land of eternal sorrows.

The world seems to vacillate between going full hog and yelling “Forget it!”

Reactor going critical -- going critical!
China wins the gold medal in the race to expand nuclear power, according to data published by the London-based World Nuclear Association. The Middle Kingdom has seven reactors under construction and another 102 planned or proposed. Russia gets the silver with a total of 44 in the three categories combined; and the United States earns the bronze with 32, although all of them are planned or proposed -- none is being built right now. South Africa (26), India (25) and Ukraine (22) take fourth, fifth, and sixth places, respectively.

The 36 reactors already under construction globally will increase the capacity of nuclear power generation by eighth percent. If additions from the 97 planned and 221 proposed projects are combined with those in the process of completion, worldwide atomic energy- generating capacity will increase by almost 90 percent.

National governments and private firms act as if they had implicitly accepted the presence or imminence of “peak oil.” Prospects of irreducible excess demand in long-term hydrocarbon markets; climate change, which threatens carbon-fired facilities with increasingly harsh financial penalties; and slow expansion in the use of renewable energy are turning fission-based electricity into the default choice -- big time. According to the International Energy Agency, the world may need 1,300 new atomic power-generating units by 2050 (over four times more than currently planned and proposed) to avoid severe energy shortfalls, to keep the ever-faster growing number of light bulbs burning.

Intentions are grandiose but you cannot take the “renaissance of nuclear energy” to the bank just yet. OECD countries, which account for nearly four-fifths of globally operating reactors, are mired in an apparent schizophrenia over the issue. While France, Canada, Japan, and the U.S. are working on reactor modernization and indulge in daring plans about cross-border fuel cycles, Chancellor Angela Merkel (an accomplished physicist) wants to end nuclear power in Germany, once and for all. Belgium also sees its energy future in wind farms and solar panels. Some countries (e.g., Finland, France, and Slovakia) are actually building reactors; others plan or intend to do so, and some (e.g., Australia and New Zealand) neither plan nor intend to go down the nuclear path. Italy recognizes the need for and is willing to invest in reactors as long as they are somewhere else (e.g. Slovakia).

Despite all their efforts to counter the trend of sky-rocketing greenhouse gas emissions, some high-profile environmentalists, among them Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and James Lovelock, originator of the “Gaia Hypothesis,” now lend moral support to the nuclear industry. But former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who wields considerable influence in worldwide environmental issues, is not stoking the fires of reactor-building euphoria; and anti-nuclear organizations are becoming galvanized as they brace for the fight of their lives, from Japan to France, from Kazakhstan to California.

OECD nuclear energy expansion does not seem to go anywhere. Reports on the 27 new reactors (14 under construction and 13 planned) would add 45.4 gigawatts of production, a large number by itself but a rounding error compared to the 2007 output of 2172 terawatts. A dozen reactors are scheduled to be scrapped by 2012.

There are many arguments against nuclear power. Despite abundant supplies of uranium (the key exhaustible natural resource upon which it depends), it is too expensive (“will never work without state support”). Dependent upon capacity and technical characteristics, published estimates indicate a range of $4.5-$12 billion per plant with the typical up-to-date project around $9 billion.

Health and environmental concerns add the greatest weight to public aversion of nuclear energy. Opponents elaborate on uneven assessments of “incidents” such as fires, explosions, and radioactive leaks (intentional or otherwise) at power stations and interim storage facilities. They speak of poorly explained, frightening distribution of potassium iodide pills to residents living in the vicinity of nuclear facilities, and research-supported evidence of above-normal clustering of certain ailments, including infantile leukemia (Journal de Geneve, 02/11/08). They criticize the much-touted possibility of planet-wide collaboration to reprocess spent fuel.

The dark cloud of Chernobyl hangs over a fission-powered world.

Proponents of the build-up have a relatively easy time with such objections.

Even before the recognition of climate change and “peak oil” (two factors that now contribute significantly to perceiving nuclear electricity as potentially economical), investment in atomic energy ceased to be a confirmed loss-maker. Scientific-technological progress over decades pruned the costs of operation and maintenance, and dramatically increased capacity utilization. Reactors originally believed to remain in good working condition for 30 years can now be kept safely in business for well over half a century -- enough time to see the flow of return cover invested capital. The entire one-fifth increase in reactor-generated electricity in the United States since 1996, when the country last saw the inauguration of a new reactor (TVA’s Watts Bar 1), may be attributed to advancement in knowledge and the fruits of experience.

Concerning the health issue, nuclear advocates dismiss medical “cluster studies” as statistically flawed and tendentious. They point to France, Switzerland, and Japan. All three countries are among the top ten nations ranked according to life expectancy, yet reactor-generated electricity represents 77 percent, 43 percent, and 28 percent of total output, respectively, far above the worldwide average of 16 percent.

Nuclear renaissance men agree that lack of transparency about radioactive danger is unacceptable but education, ethical training, and the prospect of mandatory prison sentences for irresponsible actions would eliminate the problem. They love to discuss Chernobyl. It is clear by now that the 1986 accident was the result of criminal negligence and reactors have become much safer since then. If Ukrainian society were not certain about this, why would the country, which gets about half of its electricity from atomic energy, intend to more than double the number of reactors?

With regard to the environment, the advocacy goes; nuclear power protects it by reducing the need to burn fossil fuels.

Doubtlessly, technical development and experience have led to significant improvements in reactor operations. Emergency procedures, designed to prevent or minimize damage to humans and the environment, are impressive. And pro-nuclear forces certainly spare no effort to get this message out.

Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, atomic energy stations in France welcome visitors for guided tours, complete with reassuring, slickly edited video presentations. Many graduate with hope from the “School of Nuclear Knowledge for the Masses,” but there is also no shortage of dropouts and competent critics.

A deep-seated feeling that nuclear energy is basically wrong permeates minds to varying degrees across the planet. Fear remains the watchword of a fundamental, enduring stricture behind building reactors and cob-webbing the planet with routes that forward deadly material in increasing volumes on land and sea and through the air.

The most venomous and mercilessly accumulating leftovers of the grand feast on split nuclei (estimated at 300,000 tons worldwide -- and growing by over 10,000 tons per year) are at the center of preoccupation. This sinister cargo loses its potency through radioactive decay so slowly that it will represent grave danger for a longer time than homo sapiens has been around.

Would you mind holding on to these spent fuel rods for a few hundred thousand years?

The nuclear build-up in China alone will catapult the world into a multimillion-ton radioactive waste disposal and storage problem during the 21st century. Compared to the engineering and organizational tasks it presents, the construction of the Great Wall and production of Beijing Olympic spectacles combined may be considered just a warm-up.

Is global society becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice who awakened forces beyond his power to control? There is no easy answer.

Despite some unfavorable experiences over the years, the international scientific-engineering community appears to be confident that the disposal of low and intermediate level nuclear waste (the bulk of dangerous material in terms of volume) is now safe. However, no such consensus exists about high-level remnants. Agreement is restricted to wanting to bury this unavoidable by-product of nuclear electricity in so-called “geological depositories.”

The basic idea is to place securely sealed material into deep (half-mile) bedrock in areas that have been immune to physical and chemical disturbances over a very long period. The nuclear industry swears by this solution, but many first-rate scientists remain skeptical. Although probabilities of adverse developments may appear negligible now they grow exponentially over the vast temporal landscape considered. Hydro-geological, seismic, elevation-altering, and climatic changes may intrude upon the containment and isolation of toxic plague.

Meaning in documentations and instructions, expressed in contemporary language, will sink in the ocean of time. In the long run, all languages and symbols are dead. Would you guess that “Hwæt, we Gar-Dena in geardagum” means “Lo, we of spear-armed Danes in old days?” And this opening line of "Beowulf," written in old English, is only about one thousand years old. You can imagine what sense “The second compacted bentonite casement of vitrified radionuclides below the ceiling contains weapons-grade plutonium” would make to someone 10,000 years from now. Even nonlanguage-based symbols (the semiotician’s solution to this problem) may change overtime. In 2000 years, skull and crossbones might become the logo of a popular snack that looks like shards of glass. The “operator’s manual,” information stored on microchips or in electronic databases could be destroyed, misplaced, or forgotten.

Giant asteroids and comets ruffled the Earth in the past; they will again in the future. What if this happens within a 500-mile radius of the deep geological depository? The rarity of such events, reassuring in the short run, metamorphoses into uncertainty (coin-tossing) over the long run, flirting with total certainty over the extreme long run.

Nonetheless, everybody agrees that there is nothing better out there. This is the best science can offer. And it should be put into practice sooner rather than later. Top experts in nuclear technology and management warn that the present and growing stock of high-level waste in temporary storage facilities -- deemed to be substandard in a number of locations around the planet -- poses a mounting threat.

The first geological repository is expected to be commissioned in Sweden in two years. Canada, Finland, France, Germany, and the United States are conducting in-depth research and have advanced plans to build such facilities. The U.S. has an operating geological facility for military-generated radioactive waste in New Mexico, which helps in the study and implementation of a future civilian repository, most likely at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

A site near the Central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk (less than 400 miles north of Mongolia) is Russia’s apparent choice for geological burial. The status of the project is unknown.

Not surprisingly, there is a great of deal anxiety when the selected spot is relatively close to inhabited areas. As amply demonstrated by the examples of Gorleben (at the former frontier between East and West Germany), Meuse (Department in Northeastern France), or Yucca Mountain (80 miles from Las Vegas), protests erupt and no-end-in-sight litigation about what, how much, and how -- if at all -- begins as soon as intentions are announced. Such reaction may be expected in all countries where social and legal traditions keep fears at bay about state-hooliganism riding roughshod over public dissent.

The result of the struggle between categorical necessity and militant “not in my backyard” opposition is a barely-recognized tendency to externalize environmental costs; that is, to pass the radioactive bucket to someone else. In the growing worldwide traffic of nuclear waste, it is difficult to differentiate between technically and economically justified movement of particle-emitting substances (e.g., for reprocessing spent fuel or making use of another nation’s comparative advantage in disposal) and a purely nationalistic motive that may be summed up as “Get this stuff out of here -- as quickly and as far away as possible.”

Elegant electric trains run on “clean, reliable, and nonpolluting nuclear electricity” between London and Paris, while casks, tanks, and pools containing mortal substances, sometimes leaking into groundwater, accumulate in thousands of acres, with nowhere to go. (So far, reprocessing has not proven itself as a solution to the disposal problem.) The best some rich countries can do is to buy time by passing the irradiated hot potato to the poor ones (one of the Central Asian “stans,” for example).

The moderately good, the very bad, and the terribly ugly
There is a head-spinning array of international agreements, talks, conferences, joint resolutions, and technical symposia involving waste disposal (with recent emphasis on reprocessing), clean-up of contaminated sites (particularly in former Soviet states), anti-proliferation measures, and safety issues. Since 2006, the U.S.-initiated Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), designed to create a permanent circular flow of nuclear fuel among nations while minimizing terror threat, has enjoyed some initial success. Private, public, and mixed cross-border cooperation aiming at planet-wide equilibrium in the flow of radioactive mass and addressing waste disposal and security problems are positive developments. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under the aegis of the United Nations, provides the multilateral framework for these activities.

But there is more to international relations in this field than what meets the eye. Below the surface of apparent cooperation lies "radioactive counter-mercantilism." While the pre-Enlightenment doctrine of mercantilism inspired nation states to maximize gold, the current radioactive version of this zero-sum game is inducing them to minimize nuclear goo within their borders. Primary destinations are countries in narrow economic straits. They need the revenue generated by accepting the dangerous excrements of others who gulp down megawatts of clean energy. The profit motive makes targets of even well-to-do states. If paid enough, some business firms become willing partners of another country’s desire to get rid of the fissionable detritus by coaxing out exemptions to legislated import bans.

Smuggling spent fuel and radioactive waste into developing countries, an activity even more odious and unscrupulous than illegal arms trade and drug trafficking, has become a major international concern. It raised anxieties about acts of terror involving “dirty bombs.”

All eyes on Russia
One day the international community might look with favor upon centralizing the disposal of intermediate and high-level radioactive waste. This solution could turn out to be safer and economically more sensible than the current ad hoc, unbridled national variety approach. Many countries, in particular small ones, lack appropriate sites and are technologically unprepared for long-term storage. Some may not even produce enough of the most contaminated material to justify the heavy investment and possible long-run, unknown risks involved in such projects.

What nation would be able and willing to become the custodian of the planet’s most harmful vestiges? Russia is the only realistic answer. Although Australia has also been named as a geologically able candidate, observers find it extremely unlikely that it would be willing. The Commonwealth does not have a single reactor and shows no inclination to participate in the unfolding push toward nuclear energy. Therefore, it is unreasonable to assume that Australian society would volunteer the continent to become the epicenter of a global disposal scheme.

Russia, a nuclear power profoundly challenged by its own home-made waste problems, has the scientific knowledge and experience needed for the job. Barring the recurrence of a Tunguska-like asteroid or comet explosion, which occurred one hundred years ago, vast and sparsely populated Siberia is the safest and most reasonable place to swallow the world’s radioactive refuse for centuries without a click or blink on the Geiger counter anywhere near population centers.

But why would Russia agree? Richer than Croesus in natural resources, awash with hard currency from the sale of natural gas, oil, and a long list of industrial metals, the Eurasian giant is hardly starved for the revenue that burying irradiated skeletons would bring.

Geostrategy provides the answer.

Radioactive Great Wall of Siberia -- just in case
Military strategists, never ceasing to scan the distant horizon in search for plausible threats, thrive on thinking the unthinkable. They like to assume that friends turn into foes and favorable circumstances vanish into thin air; they are daring posers of “what-if”questions. While most hypothetical calamities remain moot and fade into irrelevance, the passage of time has proven to be a merciless producer of surprising turnabouts and unimagined novelties.

Only in this way can one see logic behind EU-East’s desire for a missile shield and understand the angry reaction it has prompted. And only in this perspective does it make sense to disperse contaminated areas in unpublished locations across Mid-to-Southern Siberia.

Dynasties come and go -- good neighbor and partner today, a hyper-power starved for land and natural resources, with a centuries-long (not entirely unjustified) historical grudge tomorrow. A network of isotope cemeteries and geological depositories could serve the political goal of lining up the international community behind the sanctity of Russia’s territorial sovereignty. It would also be a powerful deterrent and potential tactical asset in helping to avoid the absurdly bad option of hand-to-hand entanglement in case the worst happens. Such thinking fits the profile of a nation known for its imagination and aptitude at chess.

It is conceivable that the policy of exiling the world’s most dangerous radioactive elements to Siberia is already in effect without formal agreement and fanfares. Negotiations about expanded cooperation between the international community and ROSATOM (Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency, the successor of the Ministry of Atomic Energy – MINATOM) through IAEA never seem to stop. Managing spent fuel and radioactive waste and leasing storage space in Russia feature importantly in these negotiations. (Bilateral U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation that also includes waste disposal issues has been recently suspended, but is expected to resume once the dispute over Georgia calms down.)

Although all this is pure conjecture, the accelerated rush toward atomic energy without multilateral harmonization in dealing with radioactive dregs is shadowed by economic, technical, and political nonstarters.

Upcoming U.S. presidential election important for nuclear energy
The current U.S. administration places heavy emphasis on the “electro-nuclear” in its strategy to address energy security and climate change.

In recent years, application for building and operating reactors has been streamlined in the United States; regulatory delays hampering the commencement of ready-to-go power generation have been eliminated. Federal loan guarantees and tax credits, in addition to the new, fast-track licensing process, have indeed sparked interest among utilities and other investors.

At present, the U.S. plans to build 12 stations; another 20 are proposed. They would increase the country’s nuclear electricity-generating capacity by “only” 41 percent, less than half the expansion that reported plans and proposed reactors would bring worldwide.

The Bush Administration would like to correct this potential relative decline by building perhaps as many as 130-230 new reactors. Compared to that, Republican Presidential Candidate McCain counts as a moderate. He wants “only” 100 new projects, 45 of which should be completed by 2030.

The success of domestic promotion of atomic energy is dependent upon a widespread, international ramp-up of reactor construction. Without it, currently available methods of balancing radioactive charge-discharge flows are uneconomical.

The Advanced Energy Initiative (2006), which includes the quoted Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), may be seen as a major effort to push the world toward atomic energy. The recent U.S.-sponsored removal of India from the embargo list of the 45-nation Nuclear Supplier Group is consistent with this goal.

In strong relief with the Republican ticket’s nuclear gung-ho, Democratic Presidential Candidate Obama is rather reserved. Although his energy plans do not rule out reactor-building in principle, he is visibly concerned about safety and would prefer to go in the direction of solar and wind energy in a concentrated private-public national effort reminiscent in some ways of the Manhattan Project.

Whereas Senator McCain appears to be “French” in his outlook on nuclear energy, Senator Obama comes across as “German” -- that is, he leans forcefully toward wind and solar sources, leaving atomic energy in an extinction-bound limbo.

The difference is significant but ought not to be overstated.

An Obama victory would not stop the powerful U.S. nuclear industry from pressing its case and McCain wants a national debate on his program with no assurance of clear win. The anti-nuclear movement is strong, well-organized, and legally savvy in the United States.

Nonetheless, with 24 percent (104 out of 439) of the planet’s reactor fleet under U.S. flag, and keeping in mind the still significant role the United States plays in world affairs, the upcoming electoral decision could change the angle of the rudder that determines our civilization’s energy course.

Beyond good and evil
The dream of “closed fuel cycle” is the focus of a reactor-powered global energy future. Heavy fissile matter is pumped through a near-perfect loop, producing only crumbs of super-toxic disposables. There are three alternatives for achieving such quasi-steady throughput: reprocessing conventional fuel, reprocessing MOX fuel, and fast breeders. The reality is that the first possibility failed a decade ago, the second is on trial now, facing an unfriendly jury; and the third lacks the infrastructures necessary to even try it.

The model of reprocessing used fuel (i.e., separating plutonium, the physically most efficient as well as most harmful input of nuclear energy) centered on France’s La Hague plant. A few West European countries and Japan invested in La Hague in exchange for having their plutonium shipped back for re-use. The rub came in three flavors: It was too expensive, it got partner countries stuck with more dangerous radioactive waste than they sent for reprocessing, and there was public outcry about transporting irradiated material, particularly plutonium, across national frontiers and oceans.

The MOX (short for mixed oxide), a plutonium/depleted uranium cocktail, is a close substitute for enriched uranium. It can serve existing reactors without significant new investment. MOX is used in a handful of countries (e.g., France, Japan, and the United States). Its strong selling point -- high concentration of energy-generating potential -- also defines its disadvantage: too much plutonium is involved, raising handling and transportation hazards. The debate over MOX sharpened concerns about inadvertently playing into the hands of terrorists, opening new pathways for the proliferation of nuclear arms.

The immediate fate of MOX will be determined by U.S. lawmakers and the prospects are not bright. There is a lack of full Congressional support for large-scale reprocessing at the Savannah River Site (SC) plant, scheduled to begin operations in 2010.

Breeder reactors constitute the third alternative for building a self-sustained circulation of nuclear fuel. These are predicated on reprocessing since they generate new fissile or fissionable material from waste products. Currently, Japan, China, and Russia appear to be committed to developing breeder reactors for commercial use.

Preoccupied with engineering and economic issues, the nuclear industry has a fatal political blind spot. The international community lacks the level of cohesion and integration that a comprehensive global synchronization presupposes. But admittedly, this perspective is based on the limiting conviction that industrialized democracies lead the world.

The development of nuclear technology and international organization could go on without the West. If the U.S.-Europe (mainly France)-Japan trio fails to provide leadership in reprocessing regular fuel or MOX, the Russia-China duo will take over. The emerging Sino-Russ atomic energy conglomerate includes as many people as the entire world population one and half centuries ago, when capitalism was already a well established global system.

Should nuclear energy experience a general decline through capital starvation, the closely related slow accumulation of practice-based knowledge and the undersupply of research cadres would retard, if not prevent, transition from fission- to fusion-based energy. Fusion-generated power, which is in an experimental stage, represents a different ballgame with regard to sustainability and pollution. Its main input, lithium, is superabundant and its leavings decay in decades rather than hanging around forever.

If fusion power were available, opposition to atomic energy would be much weaker than it is today. But it is not available and when it will be remains uncertain.

Under present technology and practices, atomic pros and cons differ in their assessments concerning the likelihood of major accidents. Theoretically, the cons win because the pros may claim that, if all goes well, the probability of a huge mishap is extremely small but they cannot say that it is zero. And therein lies the grand illusion. Given that even the tiniest chance tends to grow with broadening reliance on nuclear energy and the passage of time, increasing also the quantifiable, stupendous negative consequences of an accident, the difference between something “surely cannot happen” and “almost surely will not happen” tends to widen. Thus, in terms of stochastic credibility the opposition has the more realistic forward look.

Paradoxically, opponents to nuclear power come across as emotive and instinctual and the proponents appear as representatives of technically-informed reason, charged by history to exorcise unfounded superstitions. When the affable yet authoritative pro-nuclear physicist, full of understanding sympathy and belief in his lore, poses the question in a public debate “What scientific proof would assure you that atomic energy is safe?” the opponent knows that avoiding a straight answer is the best option.

The conflict has the appearance -- but not the substance -- of cerebral rationality facing off with visceral contrariness. Lopsided atom propaganda flatters itself of being a myth-buster. In truth, it is also a myth-maker and myth-taker.

Besides death and taxes you can also count on human error. It remains irradicable, particularly in the context of immense, complex systems that horn into the mystery of subatomic universe, an undefined space where the knowable mixes with the unknowable. Scientific hubris smiling at this may be reminded of what Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, said about radioactive waste in 1955. He advised that burying it 3-meters deep would render it harmless for humans (quote from Der Spiegel, 28/2008). What a genius and how wrong he was.

The relentless drumbeat of antinuclear forces is fueled by a simple but unappeasable reasoning. Reports claim that an area no larger than a football field is all that would be needed to bury the super-lethal waste accumulated thus far in the U.S. This may be true, but if we also take into account the area indispensable for the long-run isolation of “simply” lethal fissionable waste as well as areas of exclusion around waste sites, we are talking about significant acreage. If we also consider all permanent storage facilities, burial sites, and safety zones required for the transportation and isolation of dangerous radioactive material that would result from the envisaged global expansion of nuclear capacity operated for a century or more, we are de facto shrinking the planet’s usable surface (“Ricardian land”) while global population is growing: Contradictory and unsustainable claims. And if, consequently, nuclear power is only an interim response, then why not skip it and go directly and aggressively to the equilibrium solution of renewable energy?

One strike and we are all out, at least economically.

You can imagine what a single major accident anywhere would do to public acceptance of reactors everywhere. The grim sight of columns of trucks evacuating hundreds of thousands of people and TV screens showing the horrors of radiation sickness to billions of viewers would dispel in an instant the belief that nuclear power is “clean, reliable, and nonpolluting.”

Decades of good-will building and resentment control would come to naught. Angry crowds would demand the immediate freezing of reactor construction and elimination of government support. A chain reaction of aborted plans would be hard to contain as the wave of bankruptcies and subsequent bursts of economic hardship moved across the planet, propelled also by damage inflicted on international trade. Imports from the country that suffered the accident could stop altogether; even commodities shipped through or near it would be suspect of contamination.

All these arguments notwithstanding, atomic energy seems to be poised for a quantum leap. The swelling global population’s werewolf-like appetite for energy provides the big push; while our culturally ingrained faith in humanity’s boundless ability to master nature flashes a subliminal green light.

So navigates the world between the Scylla of devastating economic hardship and the Charybdis of deadly radiation poisoning.

Editorial Notes: Peter Pogany is an economist and author of the book "Rethinking the World." Other articles by Pogany on Energy Bulletin. -BA

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