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Global nuclear power programmes under scrutiny following Japan incident

March 31, 2011 2:19 pm

The accident at the nuclear facility in Fukashima illustrates that nuclear energy may still not be safe. Does that mean that we must not generate power anymore by nuclear facilities? Not per se, because which alternatives do we have?

Conventional power plants, like coal and gas generated plants, emit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. For instance, in Japan the carbon dioxide emission of coal power plants is about 990 grams CO2 equivalent per kWh, versus 22 grams CO2 equivalent per kWh for nuclear power plants. Roughly stated, the CO2 output of nuclear energy is approximately 2% of coal generated power.

Of course, sustainable energy like for instance hydro and wind power, also has low carbon emissions. However, in this case, power can only be generated if there is a certain amount of wind or water current available. Germany, the biggest contributor to the European economy, will shut down all seven of its nuclear reactors built before 1980. This will put upward pressure on carbon prices in the EU as countries have to purchased more emissions allowances to counterbalance the use of coal and gas power plants.

Nuclear power plant shutdowns present long term problems

In short, although it is understandable that governments are shutting down nuclear power plants, this is not a long term solution.

A possible solution for a safer generation of nuclear energy could be the so called High Temperature Reactors (HTR), which are still at the prototype stage. An accident similar to what occurred in Japan would be unlikely, because of the different cooling system of the core. The traditional cooling system occurs with water. A HTR is cooled by a gas system, where the temperature will not rise above 1600 degrees Celsius. So the HTR is ‘inherent safe’, unlike the power plants with an active cooling system powered by diesel generators. In China, the first HTR power plan is being built and it is expected that the power plant will be operational in the year 2015.

In Europe, like in Finland and France, so called third generation power plants like the most modern European Pressurized-water Reactors are being built. These power plants are much safer than the second generation nuclear power plants because of four separate safety facilities and a ‘core catcher’. A ‘core catcher’ is a concrete water basin which catches nuclear fuel. Passive safety systems are built in.

Carbon dioxide emissions should be taken into account

From a carbon dioxide emission point of view, the use of the more recent types of nuclear power plants, is defendable. However, still the biggest downside remains: the nuclear waste. If this problem could be solved, the world would be brighter with less carbon dioxide.

So far the closing of nuclear facilities in Europe has caused a tremendous increase in power and carbon prices, and thereby it is proven again that governments are the biggest manipulators of prices.