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Atomic risks beyond radiation

The safety of atomic energy has become a hot topic for public discussion in China since the nuclear crisis in Japan. But, writes Chen Jiliang, China also needs to consider the economics – and the security dimension – of the nuclear debate.

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It took the recent crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan to make atomic energy a topic for public discussion in China. Safety issues have been at the core of that debate. China’s ambitious nuclear power programme, further codified in the 12th Five-Year Plan, suddenly began to panic ordinary people. It became even worse when officials or industry experts attempted to offer their explanations. Poor communications strategies – and widespread public distrust of experts – meant that confidence in the technology only declined. Nuclear experts needed to justify their work to the sceptical public for the first time, leaving them frustrated with what they perceived as a scientifically illiterate Chinese public. 

The incident at Fukushima almost coincided with the 25-year anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine [Editor’s note: the unfortunate anniversary is today. Also read “Forget Chernobyl at our peril” by John Vidal and “Chernobyl – a poisoned landscape” by Robin McKie.]. The Heinrich Böll Foundation, affiliated with the German Green Party [the author is a project officer at their Beijing office], has published a series of reports about nuclear power to mark that historic anniversary, looking at the use of nuclear power in terms of its economics, the effect on weapons proliferation and its comparison with renewable energy sources. 

The reports did not only focus on safety: this is but one variable in the overall analysis. This may be because Europe has seen a lot more debate about nuclear safety than China in the last few decades – and also because the urgency of addressing climate change has changed the terms of the discussion about atomic energy. Either way, the facts in these reports provide a useful counterpoint to the firm beliefs of some regarding the safety and viability of nuclear power.

One report, The Economics of Nuclear Power: An Update, by Steve Thomas, emphasises the costs of nuclear safety. Safety is why the cost of nuclear power stations has increased fivefold in the last decade: banks will not take on the risks associated with funding nuclear-power stations. For example, six of Wall Street’s largest investment banks told the US Department of Energy that unless taxpayers underwrite 100% of the risks, they will not lend to new nuclear projects. The report also finds that where the power sector is a regulated monopoly, the real cost of capital will be relatively low – 5% to 8%. But where there is a competitive market, the cost of capital will be much higher – at least 15%.

Meanwhile, the costs of constructing a nuclear power plant – not including decommissioning costs, or the processing and handling of nuclear waste – represent 70% of total costs. International experience suggests that modern reactors require huge on-site construction, for which cost control is problematic – it often runs over budget. The designs may be changed during construction – for example, new designs may have not been certified when construction started, or an accident at an existing plant may require changes to those being built. Delays are also common. There seems to be little “learning curve” or indeed “economy of scale” in nuclear power.

The author concludes that while nuclear power plant designs can in theory meet the safety standards of regulators, the costs are prohibitive. Nuclear power plants can only be built when the government is prepared to ignore the results of public consultation and provide large subsidies. Moreover, the bills for decommissioning and dealing with nuclear waste are also left for the taxpayer to pick up.  

There are huge opportunity costs associated with investing in nuclear power instead of renewable energy. In another report, Systems for Change: Nuclear Power vs. Energy Efficiency + Renewables?, by Antony Frogatt and Mycle Schneider, the authors argue that in the first 15 years of their development in the United States both nuclear and wind power produced large amounts of energy – 2.6 billion kilowatt-hours in the case of nuclear, 1.9 billion for wind – but nuclear power received 40 times as much money in subsidies (US$39.4 billion, as opposed to $900 million). The report concludes that nuclear power spends huge amounts of money that could otherwise be invested in cleaner, faster-to-develop sources of renewable energy.  

As for the common view that nuclear energy is a large and stable producer of energy, the authors point out that such large, centralised power generation often produces surplus energy that cannot be saved. Increasing renewable-energy generating capacity requires flexible, medium-load infrastructure, rather than inflexible heavy-load power generating plants. In their vision for low-carbon generation, the authors suggest bi-directional grids so that energy consumers can also store and send power back to the grid. The smart meters and grids for this are already under development.

Finally, nuclear power can also present a threat to security and social stability. This is the conclusion of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy-– Siamese Twins or Double Zero Solution, Otfried Nassauer. Of course, atomic energy and nuclear weapons are different things, but there is little difference between refining uranium for civil and military applications – the former can easily be adapted for the latter use.

It is hard to tell during the early stages of civil nuclear programmes if there are concealed military aims. Nuclear weapons programmes in France, Israel, North Korea and South Africa all started with civil nuclear programmes. There is a lack of international consensus about whether Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful or not. The report suggests, therefore, that there is a contradiction between two of US president Barack Obama’s stated intentions: on the one hand to reduce nuclear proliferation, while on the other to expand the peaceful use of atomic energy. Even if there were no safety issues with the storage and handling of spent nuclear fuel or the safety and security of nuclear power plants, the expansion of nuclear power means the spread of nuclear materials and related technical knowledge.

Given the security situation in the world today, it is hard to be sure that nuclear know-how or materials will not fall into the hands of extremists, especially where there are unstable governments. There is the risk, for example, of someone constructing a “dirty bomb” that uses radioactive materials. Some incidents in China have shown us that even seemingly ordinary citizens can, in extreme circumstances, take terrible vengeance on society at large.

Therefore, there are more issues at stake than just the safe operation of nuclear power plants. People should not ignore other issues, such as social stability, the environment and economic sustainability. China’s policy-makers and nuclear experts are probably confident in the safe operation of China’s nuclear power sector. But the development of nuclear power is not only a technical issue: if we do not take economic, environmental and social factors into account in the decision-making process, we risk losing the confidence of the public – and may make them shoulder difficult long-term risks.

Chen Jiliang is project officer with the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Beijing office.

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A True Statement about Nuclear Power

A most excellent and concise statement of the very obvious non-viability of the nuclear power option. As you show, nuclear can only survive if the public subsidizes and holds the industry harmless from the cataclysmic disasters that runaway reactors can unleash. All that I would add is that large nuclear facilities are the "juciest" of targets for military or terrorist strikes and hugely multiply nuclear or conventional attacks. High velocity penetrators, even without explosive warheads, fired from makeshift guns or dropped from airplanes could penetrate the containment and destroy the fuel assemblies, leading to meltdown. A one or two million dollar investment by a terrorist could cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage with a well executed attack on a poorly defended nuclear plant.

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A.Jagadeesh Nellore博士(美联社),印度

Atomic Risks

Excellent post on Atomic Risks beyond Radiation. Everybody is now concerned on it after Chernobyl and
Fukushima nuclear plant disasrers.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India.

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What are you targeting exactly with the Chernobyl birthday?

What are you targeting exactly with the Chernobyl birthday? Is it the danger producing electricity from atom? Or is it the risk of a government change after a nuclear accident? Would you advise a better social consensus in China whether giving up to the civil nuclear industry? Or would you advise improving the present social consent in order to continue the planning of the 12th Five-Year Plan? Why don't you compare the situation in Russia and the situation of Japan? In Russia it seems that the Chernobyl disaster has founded a change of the political system while in Japan it seems on the contrary that the Fukushima disaster is going to create a worldly admiration towards the Japanese social consent after the Tsunami and the fighting of the radioactivity. The influence of Germany makes you not audacious enough to ask what would be the main aspect of a such blow in China!

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Nuclear power: Sino-foreign varies?

I like the way this article argues and its view. From the investor's perspective(government investment or private one, it is perfectly justified to seek profits. However, as the author mentions, opportunity costs do deserve our attention when it comes to capital investment, that is, optimization of social resources.

Technically, nuclear plants in China and abroad are the same. However, given the external conditions of the China's unique capital market and public administration, they are indeed distinct. China's poor information disclosure on nuclear power engender us to suppose that, obstacles like excessbudget or deferment are inevitable. Government-funded nuclear plants featuring on long service life have rendered to be questionable the safety of nuclear plants and the reliability of the electric power they produce.

In short,if not properly handled, nuclear power, clean and expensive, would perhaps become a stumbling block on our way to low-carbon development, after all, capital available is limited too.

However, it is by no means an easy job to deter those gigantice interest groups domestic and abroad. Nevertheless, considering the numerous nuclear weapons produced irrespective of staggering prices, I somehow calm down.Who would concern about the cost of weapons?

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No special purpose

I'm the author himself, I didn't write it in some particular purpose but to provoke discussion on nuclear power in china from abroad experience. Just because the Twelfth Five Year Plan is so important that broader debates and distinct opinions are needed. All decisions are resulted from interest balancing, this article is only adding weight to one side.Frankly speaking, the core problem is not whether we should develope nuclear power, but whether the energy policy is made in a transparent and open way with broad public discussion and participation.

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4、如果说到中国人民如果将来可能在自己的领土上面临核电站带来的灾难,我相信中国人民一样可以拿出抗击汶川地震一样的民族团结精神出来,并同样能得到全世界的赞赏。但到那时,再来反思“what if”会不会太无谓?太迟了?

reply to meleze

1、The question you asked that "do you have better suggestions if china drop nuclear power? And then how to push the society to achieve the goasl set in the twelfth five year plan?", I think, has ben answered in the article: The author illustrates by using the data from the US that we should take into account the huge opportunity costs caused by investing nuclear power instead of renewable energy in energy strategy. Isn't it a people-oriented strategy if money paid in nuclear power development can be used to develop cleaner and safer renewable resources?

2、You said "In Russia it seemed that the Chernobyl disaster led to the alteration of political system", would you please reread your history and geography textbooks - the tragedy of Chernobyl in 1986, taking place in Ukraine under the former soviet political system, is still memorized and reflected by present Russia, Belarus, Armenia, etc. Question: is there any comparative relationship between the political and cultural systems at that time (when Chernobyl disaster happend)and that of japan's in 2011?what kind of conclusion are you expecting to be drawn by comparing both?

3、You also mentioned that "on the contrary, in Japan it seems that the Fukushima disaster drew admiration towards Japan's social consistence on resisting the radioactivity". I don't quite understand the logic of this comment. You can't neglected the truth that Soviet citizens in 1986 also held together, the death in fighting with radioactivity was quite noticable. People in radioactive zones are still living in grief nowadays.The international community are still giving assistance to Ukrainian after 25years.

4、If we Chinese in the future are confronted with nuclear disasters on our own land,I believe we will display the spirits of our national unity just as we did after Wenchuan earthquake, and win global acclaimations. But will it make any sense to suppose "what if" by then?