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Nuclear power post Fukushima

Nuclear power post Fukushima

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Columbia University recently held a panel to determine what will happen with nuclear energy post Fukushima. Despite public concern, experts agree that new builds are forging ahead at a record pace.

Multiple core meltdowns at Fukushima have revived the threat of calamitous nuclear accidents, and swayed sentiment against atomic energy. Despite this rising unease, nuclear builds are increasing at a record pace.

Its full impact is still unknown, yet Fukushima’s fallout has thrown Germany into the arms of renewables, and has undercut France’s longstanding romance with the atom. Other nations, led by China, are still unwavering in their support of nuclear power.

Fukushima has placed nuclear safety under renewed scrutiny, and measures are being taken to mend safeguards worldwide to prevent a similar scenario from happening elsewhere.

How nuclear power will persist in a post Fukushima reality was the principal topic at Columbia University’s 7 annual energy symposium last month, and the speakers were unanimous: nuclear power will thrive in the 21st century. Here are the highlights of what the panelists had to say.

Kiichiro Sato, president of Jetro New York, spoke first.

Kiichiro Sato, President, Jetro New York

  • It is safe to visit Japan and to consume Japanese products.
  • Fukushima has modified Japan’s energy policy to focus more on renewable energy, prompting a requirement to buy green energy at a fixed rate – similar to Germany’s feed-in tariff.
  • There will be increased reactor safety inspections, and reactors may soon restart on the conditions improved safety and local approval.
  • Interest in smart grid solutions is rising in Japan.
  • Japan will spur demand for new energy technologies, including nuclear power.

The next panelist was Guy Lembach, a partner at Deloitte.

  • Germany and Switzerland made political decisions to move away from nuclear power.

    Guy Lembach, partner, Deloitte

  • Italy has placed a 1-year moratorium on new reactor builds.
  • China, Russia, and the United States are moving forward with nuclear power.
  • There are 59 projects going forward in the world now, and 24 of those are in China. In 10-15 years there will be about 150 new reactors built worldwide.
  • It is too early to determine what we learned from Fukushima; it usually takes more time to gain full knowledge following a major accident.
  • There are emergency readiness renews happening throughout the world in response to Fukushima. Countries are comparing their responses to Japan’s and are adjusting accordingly.
  • Investments being made to improve safety are being made within annual capital budgets. This is not a 9/11 type response where costs were much higher.
  • A harder look is being given to reactors located a sites similar to Fukushima. Refurbishing those reactors will be harder as a consequence.
  • Migrating away from nuclear power will mean major infrastructure costs, because the current grids are built for a few big energy suppliers.
  • Green technology is not a viable replacement for nuclear power or other base load power sources.
  • Climate change is a huge issue, and the overall carbon footprint of a nuclear plant is small compared to fossil fuels.
  • The biggest issue going forward is the cost of projects. Big projects mean big dollars, and the costs associated with adopting a newer generation of nuclear technologies are unknown.
  • 5-6 years ago nuclear power cost around US$4,400 per megawatt. That figure has risen to 6,000 today, and will go over $7,000.
  • Capital costs are the highest of all energies.

During a QA session following his speech, Lembach questioned whether there was sufficient workforce to meet the nuclear backlog and noted that there has been a loss of institutionalized knowledge. “Getting equipment and materials in place is more manageable. You can plan and work around that.”

Lembach was followed by A.T Kearne's Haischer.

  • The dust has to settle a bit before determining the impact of Fukushima.

    Patrick Haischer, partner, A.T Kearne

  • Nuclear power has a future on a global scale.
  • China has an aggressive plan to increase its installed capacity. It is currently 10th place in the world; by 2020 it will match the United States (the current leader), and double that size by 2030.
  • There will be a delayed or reduced future reliance on nuclear power in France.
  • Germany made a rapid decision to dump nuclear power post Fukushima that was influenced by electoral politics.
  • A rational, unemotional debate on the merits and dangers presented by nuclear power is needed. There is blame to go around for activists for and against nuclear power.
  • Coal has killed more people than nuclear power, and will likely in the future.
  • Nuclear accidents come “in big chunks,” and get the same attention as an airplane crash as opposed to a car accident.
  • Denial of the possibility of major accidents is an equal mistake. “Black swans happen.” Risk management and understanding their impact is crucial.
  • The nuclear industry learns from accidents: plants become safer, but there are still factors that aren’t considered until accidents happen.
  • 110M people live within a radius of 50 miles away from a nuclear plan. “That’s very close.”
  • Why not locate nuclear plants in far off places like Arizona's deserts. It’s a good idea from an economic perspective and for the transmission of power.

Areva's David Saltiel spoke next.

  • The topic of energy is extremely important in the long-term, yet important choices are being treated like

    David Saltiel, advisor to the CEO and director of strategy at Areva

    quarterly reports.

  • “This is the infrastructure on which the future is being built.” Politicians need to stop thinking about it in “drill, baby, drill” slogans.
  • In November, the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operators (INPO) reported that only 10 people had higher than normal radiation doses from Fukushima.
  • Do not think about nuclear in isolation; it is part of energy policy.
  • Cheaper energy is the U.S. energy policy, and that has been one of the government’s most consistent policies over the past several decades. Security, climate, environment, and energy independence come in occasionally, but cheap dominates.
  • Other paths are not cheap, and we’ve been unwilling to do that. The key debate to have is do we forego cheap coal and move on to other energy sources.
  • There’s a need to focus on the risks associated with every energy source – not just nuclear. The structure of risk and managing it is the discussion we now should have.
  • Any decision on nuclear power should be balanced by discussion of the risk of other choices (climate, emissions, economic, etc.).
  • The media focuses on events like terror or Fukushima, yet fossil fuels create risks every day with asthma and other chronic diseases.
  • Fukushima shouldn’t change the nuclear argument: the fundamentals are the same as the day before.  “Step away and think about the bigger picture of energy policy.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory's Carol Kessler followed Saltiel.

  • Nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear safety are not diametrically opposed objectives.

    Carol Kessler, chair, nonproliferation, Brookhaven National Laboratory

  • Non-proliferation has helped establish treaty commitments for the peaceful use of nuclear technologies, nuclear safety, and security.
  • Japan honored its treaty commitments well, but there is a host of questions about how well it followed through by allowing private energy companies to take an inordinate amount of responsibility for responding to the Fukushima accident.
  • The treaties’ fundamental reason for being is you must have a strong, effective, nuclear regulator capable of enforcing its rules and policies.
  • Iran is the poster child for not doing what they committed to.
  • Treaty compliance will be an interesting issue moving forward as the rest of the world develops nuclear energy.
  • There as been success establishing a framework of treaties in the Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia.
  • Treaties assure the world and your own people that you’re doing the right thing with nuclear energy.

Bloomberg's Christopher Gadomski was the final speaker.

    Christopher Gadomski, Lead analyst, Bloomberg New Energy Finance

  • It’s too early to tell Fukushima’s impact on global nuclear markets. 13 new reactors have been taken off of the world list as a consequence so far. At the same time, a record 65 new reactors are being constructed.
  • Other places in the world benefit from decisions made by other countries to develop nuclear power including Poland, which wants to wean off of coal power plants to reduce its Co2 emissions and improve energy security, and the Czech Republic.
  • With climate change, why would the world take the greatest source of carbon free energy off of the table?
  • It is fair to question whether reactors such as Indian Point, located 35 miles away from New York City, and Diablo Canyon, located near fault lines in California, should be closed at the end of their useful life.
  • If we shut down nuclear power plants what do we replace the power with? Natural gas will add additional Co2 into the atmosphere. “That’s a very real threat.”
  • The United States needs to understand demand erosion better. What steps can energy efficiency contribute to reduce demand for new nuclear build?
  • The cost of competing technologies is an unknown variable in the future of nuclear power. Solar power’s price will soon drop 50 percent. What impacts will that have on the nuclear market and others around the world?
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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure