THE SALIENT POINTS
Nuclear power for over 40 years has contributed significantly to world energy needs, currently providing more than 6% of primary energy and 17% of global electricity. Low environmental impacts and a vast fuel resource potential should allow it to contribute substantially to meeting the Agenda 21 sustainable energy challenge. But today's energy planners are confronted by public apprehension about nuclear power and unrealistic expectations for new energy sources. Will future generations applaud us for retarding and perhaps even abandoning nuclear power, or will they condemn us for not fully utilizing it?
The salient points brought out in this brochure that are vital to a sound assessment of the nuclear power option, an assessment that must be made in comparison and in perspective with the risks and benefits of the various alternative energy options, are summarized below.
The Energy Challenge
Agenda 21 and energy
- The Agenda 21 message from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was unambiguous. Environmentally sound energy approaches are necessary "to control atmospheric emissions of greenhouse and other gases and substances." Energy will continue to play a principal role in promoting economic development and improved human well-being. But the current global pattern of energy supply and use is not sustainable.
- The increase in global energy consumption in the coming decades will be driven principally by economic development and population growth in today's developing countries, where most of the projected two-fold expansion in world population during the 21st century will occur. A 1995 WEC and IIASA study projects by mid-century a range of energy demand increase from 50% to more than 250% for a high economic growth case that shows a 50% increase before 2020.
- The persistent heavy global dependence on fossil fuels - 87% of commercial primary energy - is having serious local and global environmental consequences. In developed countries there has been progress in reducing environmental pollutants through costly pollution abatement technologies, but globally there remain serious impacts through persistent releases. In developing countries, particularly owing to increasing energy use and the high up-front costs of abatement techniques, the picture is one of increasing releases with suspended particulate matter being of special concern.
- Little progress has been made in reducing fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions that are forecast to lead to atmospheric warming with global and regional climate change. The overwhelming majority of signatories to the 1992 FCCC, who are committed to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, will not meet that goal. The WEC reports that the developed countries are currently in aggregate about 8% above their 1990 levels. Of equal importance, the present developing countries account for over 35% of emissions today, evolving to about 50% by 2020.
- he 30% increase to date of the atmospheric CO2 concentration from the pre-industrial level is believed to be a major contributor to the measured global mean surface temperature increase of between 0.3 and 0.6 °C. Stabilization at current levels in the decades to come would require emission reductions that are unrealistic. All that can be realistically accomplished is a slowing of the rate of the global concentration increase to allow ecosystem adaptation to climate change. Today's continuing high emissions are likely to cause more rapid climate change that would require more dramatic emission reduction in the future to reach stabilization.
Energy mix strategies
- Long term energy mix strategies exploiting the maximum potential of non-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources need to be developed and implemented as rapidly as possible. For many decades, fossil fuels will continue to be the major energy source. The WEC and IIASA middle economic growth case projects at mid-century more than a two-fold increase in fossil fuel consumption with a two thirds share of global energy, some 20% less than today.
- The supply potential of renewables is difficult to assess since they are only emerging technologies and currently not suitable for meeting baseload energy demand. The WEC projects that they will not be economically competitive for large scale production in the decades to come and even with adequate support they could reach only a 5–8% share of commercial energy supply by 2020 (including a 2% non-commercial share). The hydroelectric potential is limited and its share is forecast to remain around the current 6% level.
The nuclear power potential
- There is no consensus concerning the future role of nuclear power. While it stagnates in much of Europe and in North America, it continues as a strong option in a number of Asian countries. Economics and security of supply have been considerations in the choice of nuclear power along with an awareness of its environmental benefits - from mining to waste disposal and decommissioning, it produces remarkably little environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The WEC and IIASA energy study projects a varying nuclear power contribution, some twenty-fold increase to a total phase-out by the end of the next century.
- Various groups dealing with energy such as the WEC and IPCC have recognized the potential of nuclear power for reducing the environmental burden from energy production if it can be made more publicly acceptable by alleviating safety, waste and weapons proliferation concerns. A distinctly supportive message emerged from the leaders of the seven leading economic countries and the Russian Federation at their Nuclear Safety and Security Summit held in Moscow during April 1996. It declares:
"... we are committed to measures which will enable nuclear power ... to continue in the next century to play an important role in meeting future energy demands consistent with the goal of sustainable development ... "
Nuclear Power Facts
Radiation and toxic pollutant effects
- The fear of radiation health effects is central to public concerns about nuclear power activities. Radiation is a fact of everyday life. On a global average, radon gas released from the earth accounts for almost 49% of the annual individual radiation exposure, with an additional 40% of natural exposure from cosmic radiation and radioactive material in the earth and internal to our body. The remaining 11% is human-made, almost totally due to medical exposures. Nuclear power related activities add a minimal 0.006%. Natural background exposure is location dependent, with exposures some 10–20 times the global average not uncommon in high radon gas locations.
- Radiation health effects are exposure dependent, with very high exposures leading to severe disability or death within a short time. Very low radiation exposures are assumed to produce health effects principally as cancer deaths late in life. The fifty year study of some 87 000 relatively highly exposed atomic bomb survivors, contrary to initial expectations of high numbers of radiation induced cancer deaths, projects some 600 in addition to some 16 000 due to other causes - a 0.7% increase in the anticipated cancer death rate. The expected several year loss in average life expectancy will not materialize as above average health care for the survivors through early diagnosis and treatment of medical disorders, including cancer, is leading to increased longevity.
- There has been no credible documentation of health effects associated with routine operation of commercial nuclear facilities anywhere in the world. Widely accepted studies demonstrate no correlation between cancer deaths and plant operation. Studies reporting a linkage have been shown to be incorrect. UNSCEAR reports that radioactive releases from coal power plants, due to radioactive impurities in coal result in higher radiation exposures to the public than those from nuclear power plants.
- Fossil fuel combustion produces noxious gases and a wide range of toxic pollutants that are the largest source of atmospheric pollution. The releases are responsible for a wide range of respiratory disorders and illnesses including cancer. The WHO estimates that annual deaths due to indoor and outdoor air pollution from energy use account for 6% of the total 50 million annual global deaths. Ingestion of heavy metal pollutants can cause a wide variety of substance specific health disorders.
- Extreme concerns about radiation are demonstrated by a widely held public conviction that plutonium can be significantly more harmful than toxic substances. Plutonium can be extremely hazardous only when finely dispersed in sufficient concentration and inhaled. However, a scenario to disperse sufficient quantities of plutonium, transported in strong structural containers, into the atmosphere to cause significant health effects in populations is extremely difficult. By contrast, many of today's energy related toxic pollutants, including easily inhaled particulates that are probably the main mortality factor due to fossil fuels, have high potential health effects.
Safety and severe accidents
- The serious environmental consequences of the Chernobyl accident compared with the inconsequential environmental consequences of the TMI accident confirmed the importance of a strong structural containment enclosing the reactor primary system. Excluding the Chernobyl type plants that are now not expected to be built, the remaining 427 nuclear power plants in the world, with the exception of some of the early Soviet designed units, have containments around the principal reactor primary system components. There is already an accumulated operating history equivalent to an average 20 years of operation for each plant.
- A 1996 IAEA, WHO and European Union international conference reported that the Chernobyl accident resulted in 31 short term deaths and some 800 normally non-fatal thyroid cancer cases among children that is projected to rise to several thousand. For the most affected population of 1 116 000, the report projects some 3500 radiation induced cancer deaths, mainly late in life, in addition to some 200 000 anticipated cancer deaths from other causes - somewhat more than a 0.3% increase in the cancer death rate. Significant mental health disorders could be a consequence of the accident's broad and severe psychological, economic and social impact. Sustained impacts on ecosystems have not been observed.
- Building on the large accumulated operational experience, today's reactors incorporate improved safety measures and are designed to rule out an environmental release in the event of a severe accident. Advanced nuclear power plants currently under development range from evolutionary types with enhanced safety features to entirely new designs which introduce innovative concepts incorporating passive safety features based on natural convection coolant flow, making safety less dependent on active components such as pumps and valves.
- Over the years, a global nuclear safety culture has evolved. Binding international conventions, codes of practice, non-binding safety standards and guides along with international review and advisory services now exist. A Convention on Nuclear Safety that entered into force in October 1996 calls for examination of national safety reports covering civil nuclear power operations. The recent updating of the international regime for civil liability for nuclear damage that includes a Convention on Supplementary Funding along with the new Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management are further evidence of the growing infrastructure and legal commitments that bind countries in nuclear safety matters.
- For comparative purposes, a review of large energy related as well as other industrial accidents is needed. The 1984 Bhopal industrial accident caused some 3000 early deaths and several hundred thousand severe health effects. Hydroelectric dam failures and overtopping have caused thousands of deaths and massive disruption in social and economic activities. Severe coal mine accidents causing several hundred fatalities are not rare. Explosions and major fires in the oil and gas industry have involved both occupational and public fatalities and injuries. A pipeline gas leak explosion in the Urals caused 500 fatalities. Energy sector accidents have also led to extensive environmental damage, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident in Alaska.
- The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which was indefinitely extended in 1995, now commits more than 180 countries to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons and to accept comprehensive IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear activities. The safeguards system has recently been reinforced by additional measures to detect clandestine weapons activities. They provide for greatly increased information from States regarding their nuclear activities, broaden inspector access to locations and institute the use of sophisticated environmental sampling (air, water and soil) and other technical measures that increase the assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.
- The availability of plutonium for weapons is not dependent on continued civil nuclear power activities. Nuclear arsenal reductions by the Russian Federation and the USA within the next decade are expected to make available, in addition to highly enriched uranium, some 100 tonnes of plutonium. There is currently some 160 tonnes of separated non-weapons grade plutonium from reprocessed spent fuel. The global cumulative amount of plutonium contained in spent fuel will be about 1000 tonnes by the year 2000. It is a continually strengthened non-proliferation regime that will remain the cornerstone of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Power Advantages
Limited environmental impacts
- Full energy chain analyses show that there are a wide variety of significant issues and impacts linked to energy options. While the principal focus has been on environmental emissions, other significant impacts such as land disturbance and population displacement together with their economic and social implications have been less emphasized. Major impacts such as depletion of natural resources and large fuel and transport requirements, which influence a wide range of areas including occupational and public safety as well as national transport systems, are generally ignored.
- The extraordinary high energy density of nuclear fuel relative to fossil fuels is an advantageous physical characteristic. A 1000 MW(e) coal plant annually requires 2 600 000 tonnes of coal and a comparable nuclear power plant requires only 30 tonnes of uranium. The energy density of fossil and of nuclear fuel allows for relatively small power plant sites of a few square kilometres (km2). The low energy density of renewables results in high land requirements: solar parks larger than 20 km2, wind fields larger than 50 km2 and biomass plantations larger than 4000 km2.
- The quantity of toxic pollutants and waste generated from fossil fuel plants dwarfs the quantities from other energy options. A 1000 MW(e) coal plant, depending on sulphur content, on average produces annually 44 000 tonnes of sulphur oxides and 22 000 tonnes of nitrous oxides that are dispersed into the atmosphere. Additionally, there are 320 000 tonnes of ash containing 400 tonnes of heavy metals. Abatement procedures themselves can produce as much as 500 000 tonnes of associated solid waste. A 1000 MW(e) nuclear power plant does not release noxious gases or other pollutants and produces annually only some 30 tonnes of high level radioactive spent fuel along with 800 tonnes of low and intermediate level waste.
- Full energy chain studies demonstrate the significant greenhouse gas emissions that can be related to significant fuel extraction, transport, manufacturing and construction activities. Nuclear power and wind are on the low side of full chain emissions, with solar photovoltaic releases higher owing to greenhouse gases released during silicon chip manufacturing. As methane gas is a more effective greenhouse gas than CO2, the natural gas full chain - depending on gas extraction and pipeline losses - could have carbon emission values similar to the coal energy chain.
- A single 1000 MW(e) coal plant emits some 6 000 000 tonnes of CO2 annually. There is no economically viable method to abate or segregate the enormous quantities of the energy related emissions. Today, nuclear power and hydroelectric each avoid annually some 8% of global CO2 emissions from electricity production.
- A Human Disruption Index, the ratio of human generated additions to the natural baseline situation for energy related environmental factors, indicates annual additions above the baseline of 5 million tonnes of oil into the oceans and of almost 400 000 tonnes of lead and 20 000 tonnes of mercury into the environment, to mention just a few examples. With a large inventory of radioactive material in the earth and a significant continuous release of natural radon gas to the atmosphere, additions from nuclear power activities have a negligible impact on the natural radioactivity baseline situation.
Small waste quantities
- Managing nuclear power waste has distinct advantages as the quantities are remarkably small relative to the energy produced. The small quantities permit a confinement strategy, with the radioactive material, beginning with the nuclear fission process through to waste disposal, essentially isolated from the environment. In sharp contrast, disposal of the large quantities of fossil fuel waste follows an alternative dispersion strategy involving the environmental release of waste products - noxious gases and toxic pollutants - and the shallow ground burial of solid waste also containing toxic substances, there being no practical alternative.
- The relatively small quantity of spent fuel discharged annually from all operating nuclear power plants worldwide, some 12 000 tonnes, can be readily stored for eventual reprocessing or disposal. The volume of high level liquid waste from reprocessing 30 tonnes of spent fuel released annually from a 1000 MW(e) plant is some 10 cubic metres. Final deep underground disposal of spent fuel and vitrified reprocessing waste is blocked not by technical, but by political obstacles. There is a growing recognition that management of indefinitely toxic waste and radioactive waste warrants a harmonized approach.
Security of supply
- There are proven reserves of coal sufficient for some 200 years, of natural gas for 60 years and of oil for 40 years. New technologies to increase fossil fuel extraction could be developed, but financing and price volatility could then become leading concerns. Known uranium reserves ensure a sufficient supply for at least 50 years at current levels of usage. Recycling of separated plutonium from spent fuel would increase the energy potential of today's uranium reserves by up to 70 times, enough for more than 3000 years at today's level of use. Uranium used in a complete fuel cycle not only maintains itself but also significantly increases the resource base.
- Where indigenous fossil fuel resources are lacking, nuclear power can contribute substantially to security of supply, as it does in Finland, France, Sweden, the Republic of Korea and Japan. Strategic fuel inventories to last many years can be readily set up as the quantity of fuel required is small.
External costs of energy generation
- High initial capital investment is adversely affecting nuclear power's economic advantage of having low fuel costs. Its economic competitiveness would significantly increase if externalities - the considerable indirect and external costs of energy generation and use not generally included in the market price - were taken into account. Indirect costs, such as those for waste management and decommissioning, are already components of nuclear power generation costs.
- There would be an even greater impact if external costs for local and regional environmental and health impacts were included, perhaps through more stringent regulatory requirements and various ecological surcharges. If future market based actions to restrain CO2 emissions were to include a cost applied to fuel that takes into account the production of greenhouse gases, nuclear and renewable sources of energy would have an additional major advantage.
A wide range of applications
- Nuclear power as a multipurpose power source provides baseload electricity and offers a wide range of potential applications in the non-electric sector. The various reactor types - water cooled, liquid metal fast breeder and gas cooled reactors - can provide heat energy from room temperature to the 1000 °C necessary for high temperature industrial applications. District heating, seawater desalination and industrial process applications already exist. As nuclear power supplies energy for extended time periods without refuelling it has potential maritime applications, as already seen in military vessels and Arctic Sea ice-breakers.