24th Mar 2019

Nuclear sector hopes CO2 will lift Chernobyl curse

For the millions of Europeans who mistrust nuclear power, it may cause goose-pimples to think that at least six new plants will soon join the 152 reactors already fizzing away on EU soil. But despite fresh talk of how nuclear can cut CO2, the industry is still struggling to get over the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

A visitor to a typical reactor could be convinced the atom is a magic key to the EU's energy woes: standing on the core, just 10 metres under one's feet, splitting uranium atoms generate enough power (1,100 MW) to light up all the homes in Finland for a year. There is no sound. There is no smell. As you leave, a scanning machine says "You have not been contaminated."

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  • Europe by night: nuclear power supplies a third of all EU electricity and 14 percent of all power, but its share is going down (Photo: wikipedia)

Nuclear power emits just 20 grammes of carbon per kilowatthour of electricity compared to 800 grammes in a coal plant. It is twice as cheap as wind-generated energy. And it has added security appeal: unlike the Arab states and Russia's grip on oil and gas, over 60 percent of uranium is in Canada, Australia and Africa.

Pro-nuclear lobbyists, such as Brussels-based Foratom, say the past two decades have seen safety technology improve in leaps and bounds: modern plants train staff with computer simulations; digital sensors monitor minutiae of pump and valve operations and up to four layers of safety systems exist in case one layer fails.

In the future, plants are to be cheaper and safer. The new reactor being built in Olkiluoto, Finland will have 1,700 MW of capacity, include a core-catcher (a steel-alloy basket capable of sealing off a melting reactor core) and its own waste-disposal site.

"When you work on this basis, you can in principle, eliminate serious accidents," Foratom director and former nuclear plant manager, Werner Zaiss, says. Twenty years from now "fourth generation" reactors will work at 2,000 MW and recycle their own waste, he predicts.

When EU leaders in March fixed their CO2 targets, the summit conclusions noted "the commission's [positive] assessment of the contribution of nuclear energy in meeting growing concerns about...CO2 emissions," in what Foratom sees as a big step in regaining credibility.

"In the European Commission, we are seeing a tendency to talk about it [nuclear power] in rational terms, it's usefulness or not, instead of in ideological terms," Foratom's spokesman and former European Commission environment department official, Mark O'Donovan, said.

In this climate, Finland, France, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia plan to start up new reactors between 2009 and 2015. The UK, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech republic, Hungary and Slovenia have reopened the debate on newbuilds. Germany and Belgium are talking of cancelling phase-out schemes.

Nuclear not so rosy

But despite the lobbyists' efforts, the situation is not as rosy as it seems. Before Chernobyl, Europe was building 10 new reactors each year with over 170 units running in 1986. Then, all building stopped. And the current fillip still has a long way to go to address 20 years of under-investment.

Foratom itself says six new reactors per year for the next 10 years are needed just to maintain market share. The European Commission forecasts the primary energy market share of nuclear will decline from 14 percent in 2007 to less than 12 percent by 2020 and keep falling by one percent per decade on present trends.

Despite Brussels' purported ideological shift, the current Barroso commission does not plan to do much to help the nuclear industry. The most concrete plan by 2009 is to boost research grants and set up a new high-level working group in summer, to look into harmonising EU safety standards and better use of decommissioning funds.

The trauma of Chernobyl - which killed and is still killing tens of thousands of people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia - means that openly backing nuclear power remains politically risky in many EU states.

In a February poll by the commission, 53 percent of Europeans said the risks of nuclear outweigh the benefits and 73 percent wanted no new plants: for every eastern European who sees a cheap way of meeting EU goals and reducing Russia dependency, most people in Austria and Denmark, and every other person in France and Germany, wants less nuclear, not more.

Despite the technological innovations, recent studies indicate that public fears are grounded in more than bad memories or left-wing "ideology," as Foratom suggests.

A May report by six Austrian, German and US scientists called "Residual Risk" showed that between 1986 and 2006 French plants alone reported 1,615 "anomalies" to the UN, 59 "incidents" and one "serious incident" on the so-called INES scale.

The study looks in detail at events such as the 25 July power outage in Forsmark, Sweden, which saw a blackout in the plant's main control room, concluding that a culture of secrecy and complacency is creeping into the nuclear profession in Europe.

"Many nuclear safety events occur year after year...and very serious events go either entirely unnoticed or remain significantly under-evaluated," it says.

Apart from the doomsday scenario of another Chernobyl-type meltdown or the growing risk of "dirty bomb" terrorism as fissile materials proliferate, the issue of what to do with nuclear waste remains among the biggest unanswered questions in the EU public's mind.

Waste conundrum

Europe's reactors currently generate 40,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste a year. Much of it is treated with nitric acid at reprocessing plants in the UK and France and used again. But over 2 million cubic metres is currently being "stored" at surface or near-surface sites close to nuclear plants in Europe, in a still-warm pile built up over the past 50 years.

Looking to Olkiluoto, Finland, where a new permanent disposal facility is being built that could pave the way to other such sites in Europe in future, Foratom's Dr Zaiss believes "the [waste] problem has been solved" in technological terms.

But anti-nuclear NGO Greenpeace says the solution exists on paper only, with similar schemes in the UK and US abandoned in the past due to fear of groundwater contamination.

"Olkiluoto is just another experiment at this stage," the NGO's nuclear expert, Mark Johnston, said. "When the energy commissioner [Andris Piebalgs] went there this month [1 June], all he saw was a hole in the ground."

Meanwhile in the Baltic Sea, Greenpeace ships routinely track containers of depleted uranium from the UK and French reprocessing plants to St Petersburg, Russia, where they are sent on to Krasnoyarsk in "big, empty" Siberia.

The waste is ostensibly to be re-enriched and re-exported, but Greenpeace fears much of it will simply be left to rot. "The UK and French sites handle waste from all over Europe, so they are all implicated," Mr Johnston said. "It's supposed to be for short-term storage. But in practice it will be for ever, so it's disposal not storage."

The safe handling of nuclear waste in Russia, made harder by its own ageing reactors and decommissioning of nuclear submarines, is of "particular concern" to Europe, an internal European Commission paper on Russia relations written in Spring, says.


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