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Oct 10, 2008

World undergoes nuclear renaissance

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The world is currently experiencing a nuclear renaissance as international power generation industries now look to nuclear energy as an alter- native to the global dependence on fossil fuels, states business strategy consultant and nuclear phycist Dr Kelvin Kemm.

Last year, nuclear power plants provided about 15% of the world’s electricity needs.

As of July this year, 30 countries worldwide were operating 439 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 35 new nuclear plants were under construction in 14 countries, reports the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

The NEI reports that the 35 nuclear units under construction around the globe include seven reactors in Russia, and six in China, and India.

US presidential candidate John McCain told a crowd at Missouri State University, in June, that he wanted 45 new nuclear reactors built in the US by 2030.

This would bring the total nuclear power station count in the US to 149, as the US currently operates 104 nuclear power stations, contributing 20,7% to the country’s national grid.

Meanwhile, France, which generates some 77% of the country’s energy needs from nuclear reactors, is currently developing another 1 160-MW pressurised water reactor (PWR), which is to be commissioned in 2012.

While much of Europe, and more specifically Germany, has been against the use of nuclear power, German chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that ignoring the potential for nuclear energy power generation is foolish.

Locally, State-owned power utility Eskom has plans to build as many as five large nuclear power stations in South Africa by 2025, by which time it hopes to generate about one-quarter of the country’s power from nuclear energy.

The power utility, which operates South Africa’s only nuclear plant, Koeberg, plans to spend R350-billion on generating capacity over the next five years and has invited bids for a new nuclear power station.

Construction and engineering firm Murray & Roberts has reported that it expects the tender decision to build the new nuclear power plant to be made before the end of the year; however, the company has said that it is not certain whether this target will be met, reports Creamer Media’s Research Channel Africa.

Bids for the construction of its second nuclear power plant, which is valued at about R120-billion, will be finalised either in the third or fourth quarter of this year, instead of the middle of the year target, which the company originally set, stated Eskom.

Eskom is still aiming for a 2016 commercial operation target for the nuclear station, which the utility seeks to build on one of three sites in the Western Cape.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear energy planning and economic studies section head Hans-Holger Rogner says international research on nuclear energy growth and plant development has increased over the last five years for several reasons.

“Performance has improved greatly since the 1980s, and the safety record of the types of reactors on the market today is excellent. In addition, the average load factor of the global reactor fleet has increased from 67%, in 1990, to more than 80%, since early 2000. Rising costs of the dominant alternatives, particularly natural gas and coal, energy supply security and environmental constraints are also factors that are contributing to nuclear’s appeal,” he comments.

Nuclear Sustainability
Nuclear energy research and development has been fraught with controversy and has under-gone vehement scrutiny from environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Earthlife Africa, owing to the potentially harmful and detrimental health affects of nuclear radiation.

Local environmental action group Earthlife Africa denounces nuclear energy as a viable power generation source, arguing that it is dangerous, unnecessary and is not sustainable.

The member-driven organisation argues that potential radia-tion emission, the devastating potential of major accidents and the toxic and radioactive pollution from incidents that occur on a regular basis, render the nuclear industry unacceptable.

Greenpeace argues that nuclear energy cannot reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The group published a report on the insecurity of nuclear energy earlier this year, which states that nuclear power stations only produce electricity, and that the 439 operating commercial nuclear reactors in operation around the world currently generate about 15% of global electricity.

However, nuclear power can only ever marginally address the need for hot water and central heating, and does not meet the world’s transport needs at all, reported Greenpeace.

As such, it only represents 6,5% of the world’s overall energy supply, states the organisation.

“Nuclear power cannot reduce fossil fuel dependency even if the existing world nuclear power capacity was doubled by 2030; based on International Energy Agency business-as-usual scenarios, its share of world energy consumption would rise to barely more than 10%.”

To this end, Greenpeace explains that increasing nuclear power capacity by 100% would only result in reductions of less than 5% in fossil fuel dependency, and carbon dioxide emissions.

The group says that nuclear power is unable to provide uninterrupted supply as one small fault in a large-scale nuclear power plant delivering baseload power to a centralised system can lead to loss of electricity in entire cities or regions.

The organisation cites the July 2007 earthquake, which knocked out seven large Japanese reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant, as an example.

This plant provides 6% to 7% of Japanese electricity and Tokyo depends heavily on it. The plant remains off line today and is expected to be out of operation for at least a year.

Sweden suffered similarly in 2006 when safety problems shut down four reactors, cutting off 20% of Sweden’s electricity supply, reports Greenpeace.

Nevertheless, Kemm comments that nuclear energy is a viable and unavoidable energy source in the long term.

He says that nuclear power plants are not more difficult to operate than coal-fired stations, and that, while radiation is a danger, nuclear reactors are as safe and easy to operate as are other large industrial operations, such as a chemical plant.

“Nuclear is not dangerous – no more so than many other day-to-day things we deal with, and not more so than a big petrochemical plant, for example,” states Kemm.

He adds that the quality of uranium used to power a nuclear reactor, which is a device in which a nuclear chain reaction is initiated, controlled and sustained at a steady state, is far below that required to power a nuclear bomb.

The quality is related to the enrichment of the uranium: in the case of a power reactor, the enrichment is less than 10%, but in the case of a nuclear bomb, an enrichment of greater than 90% is required.

Kemm states that the possibility of nuclear explosion at a nuclear reactor is nonexistent.

He proposes that the nuclear fraternity and technical bodies have a responsibility to quell the negative perceptions surrounding nuclear power generation.

Nuclear Rethink
Cochair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and former Greenpeace member and its cofounder Patrick Moore states that in his time at Greenpeace, the organisation was focused on the destructive aspect of nuclear technology and nuclear war.

“We made the mistake of lumping nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, as if all things nuclear were evil. I think that’s as big a mistake as if you lumped nuclear medicine in with nuclear weapons,” states Moore.

Moore told Engineering News in an earlier report that nuclear energy is a superior power generation alternative to the use of fossil fuels in power generation.

“As an environmentalist, and someone concerned about both climate change and human health, I think nuclear is superior, because it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases and it doesn’t produce air pollution in the same way that fossil fuel combustion does,” says Moore.

South Africa’s only nuclear power generation plant, Koeberg power station, is situated 30 km from Cape Town, in the Western Cape.

The power station powers a large part of the Western Cape and supplies about 6,5% of South Africa’s total electricity needs.

The pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) is the second nuclear energy project to be undertaken in South Africa, and which is set to contribute 165 MW to the Western Cape region, where the first reactor plant will be commissioned.

Eskom states that the Koeberg nuclear station plays a vital role in ensuring a reliable supply of electricity to the Western Cape, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.

Koeberg has been generating electricity for the last 25 years after the contract with a French consortium was signed in 1976 for the construction of the plant.

The power station started its commercial operation in 1984, supporting the economic and industrial development of the surrounding area.

Kemm says that Koeberg currently supplies about half of the total power requirements of the Western Cape.
“Koeberg is the only nuclear power station in Africa. It produces 1 800 MW, or 900 MW for each of the two reactors at the plant,” says Kemm.

Koeberg has produced more than 81 000-million kilowatt hours of electricity since 1984, using 7,5 t of uranium.
Kemm says that nuclear energy is the future of global electricity generation, and supports government and Eskom’s plans to build a second nuclear power station in the Western Cape, which will cost about R120-billion.

“In South Africa, we have had a rethink and focus on where we stand with nuclear energy,” he comments.
Kemm refers to the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) nuclear energy policy, which was approved by Cabinet earlier this year.

He says that South Africa has one of the most forward-looking nuclear energy policies in the world.

The South African Cabinet approved South Africa’s nuclear energy policy, in June this year, clearing the way for the country’s planned nuclear drive.

The policy will allow South Africa to diversify its primary energy sources, and move away from an overreliance on coal for electricity generation, which currently accounts for over 90% of the country’s power gener-ation.

Government stated that the approval of the DME’s nuclear policy was due to the fact that South Africa was among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases.

Kemm will advocate the bene-fits of nuclear technology and power generation at a Nuclear Conference, which will be held in South Africa next month.

The Nuclear Conference, to be hosted in Johannesburg, will create a platform to discuss the latest developments and the roles of nuclear energy, as a key power generation source for the future.

In a report, last month, international news agency Reuters reported that State-power utility Eskom is nearing a decision on whether to award a contract to build a second nuclear power facility to French energy company Areva or nuclear power company Westinghouse Electric, a unit of Japan’s Toshiba.

The consortium led by Areva is proposing to build two 1 650-MW reactors, while Westinghouse wants to build three 1 140-MW reactors, reported Eskom.

Edited by: Laura Tyrer

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