Viewpoint: Fukushima makes case for renewable energy

The Fukushima accident has highlighted one of the most important issues concerning nuclear power - that of safety and risk.

Fukushima reactor The risk of containment damage at Fukushima was put at one in a million, per reactor per year

The accepted wisdom has been that the consequences of a catastrophic nuclear accident may be large, but that the frequency is low.

The industry and nuclear regulators calculate this on the basis of the likelihood of an accident for any one operating year. In the case of the design of the first four reactors at Fukushima, the Japanese Nuclear Energy Safety Organization estimated in 2002: "The frequency of occurrence of a core damage accident is 1/100,000 or less per one year for one reactor and the frequency of occurrence of an accident leading to containment damage is 1/1,000,000 or less per one year for one reactor."

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Whereas nuclear costs have tended to go up, renewables have gone down”

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Given that only a few decades, rather than millennia separate the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (which were also thought to be at minimal risk of core damage) it is clear that nuclear operators and/or regulators are significantly underestimating the inherent risks associated with nuclear technology.

The Cancun Summit in December 2010 agreed: "Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and that all Parties share a vision for long-term co-operative action."

To meet UN targets, emissions must be cut by about 80% by 2050, which will require decarbonising the energy sector.

At the same time, traditional energy forecasts anticipate rapid increases in energy demand, driven primarily by the need to fuel the growing economies in Asia, particularly China and India. The International Energy Agency (IEA) assumes that global energy demand will increase by 47% by 2035.

Energy efficiency

Supporters of nuclear power believe that it should play an increasingly important role in this new, highly efficient, zero-emissions energy sector.

However, nuclear power is not currently a global technology, being employed by only 30 countries with just six - USA, France, Japan, Germany, Russia and South-Korea - producing almost three-quarters of the nuclear electricity in the world.

Olkiluoto Finland's Olkiluoto nuclear plant is late, and 50% over budget

The total contribution to global commercial energy production is around 6%, compared to 25% for coal 23% for natural gas.

For nuclear power to play a significant role in meeting future energy demand a significant scaling up of its use will therefore be required, amplifying many-fold the existing problems of nuclear safety, siting and waste management, as well as causing new worries about the proliferation of nuclear materials.

Given the scale and urgency of the problem, it is essential that low-cost technologies with a proven track record of coming in on time and budget, and with global appeal, are prioritised.

The number one priority must therefore be energy efficiency, which not only addresses climate change and energy security problems simultaneously, but also brings demonstrable and rapid economic benefits.

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Renewables along with energy efficiency can deliver all or virtually all of our global energy needs”

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The second area is renewable energy, which, to the surprise of many, has entered the mainstream in the last few years. For example in the EU, renewables installations provided the majority of new capacity in 2008 and 2009, while in Germany they are now bigger contributors to electricity than nuclear power.

This deployment at scale has demonstrated not only the technical capabilities and environmental advantages of wide-spread use of renewables, but also the economic benefits, with reduced dependencies on fluctuating fossil fuel prices.

Nuclear power on the other hand has, at best, had a chequered history of delivery. The most recent example in Europe is the infamous Olkiluoto reactor in Finland, whose original start-up date was May 2009 but which is now at least three-and-a-half years late, and more than 50% over budget.

So whereas nuclear costs have tended to go up, renewables have gone down, and in many conditions are now the cheaper option.

Cascading problems

As a result of Fukushima, most commentators believe that the engineering and financial costs associated with nuclear power will increase further.

Woman outside Fukushima evacuation centre Fukushima provided 3% of Japan's electricity

In particular it is expected that there will be a greater emphasis on protecting plants from broader environmental threats such as flooding, storms and droughts (which are expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change).

It is also likely that the cascade of problems at Fukushima, from one reactor to another, and from reactors to fuel storage pools, will also affect the design, layout and ultimately the cost of future nuclear plants.

Numerous studies have shown that renewables along with energy efficiency can deliver all or virtually all of our global energy needs, and that therefore nuclear power does not have to be part of the future (see Related Internet Links at the bottom of this page).

Meanwhile, the ongoing disaster at Fukushima has highlighted the environmental, societal and economic impact that nuclear power can have in extreme conditions.

As Japan addresses the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, too much worry, time and effort are having to be spent trying to secure and make safe one facility that provided just 3% of the country's electricity.

Antony Froggatt is a Senior Research Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resource Governance programme at Chatham House, in London.

His viewpoint follows an earlier argument in favour of nuclear power made Oxford University's Wade Allison -Viewpoint: A new way to look at radiation

A selection of your comments:

The renewable forms of energy that are steadily available are a small fraction of the renewable energy total target. Wave and tide combined will never give us more than 5% total consumption. There simply is not the storage capacity available, technology is not there yet. We will be dependent on thermal power station sources for decades to come. The greenest baseload source of power is nuclear.

Kevin, Fife

What the author has forgotten with his accident statistics is that Japan has no other choice as to what fuel it uses. Wind / Wave is no good as Japan is hit each year by typhoons which would destroy any offshore farm. It's not very sunny and there is not enough empty land for solar to be viable and the country has no coal/oil or gas reserves so that is not an option.

David Bagnall, London, UK

We can do without nuclear if we import an incredible amount of solar energy from North Africa, but that brings in its own energy security problems. Nuclear is the only tested technology that can plug the gap, and there are far worse options (such as continuing with coal and other fossil fuels) in terms of environmental pollution (radioactive and otherwise).

Tim , Oxford

All those probabilities of 1 in a million are not based on reality, but crunched out by management and politicians to get approval for new nuclear plants. As an engineer, I welcome technological change, but all real world engineering must take into account the risk of failure, and most importantly, the consequences of any failure. Until the world has a better solution, we need to save energy.

Vivek, Zurich, Switzerland

The incident being played out in Fukushima has little or no bearing as to the safety of Nuclear Power in a geologically stable country with little to no chance of disastrous tidal waves.

Robert, London, England

Wind and solar power are unpredictable so are fine as part of a mixed portfolio of energy generation where controllable sources can adjust to fill the gap. But wind and solar on their own wouldn't work without huge, expensive and importantly as yet non-existent energy storage systems buffering demand.

Mark Crankshaw, Royston, UK

One thing is clear: Nuclear energy is not without risk. 40 year old plants will now be pressed for service past their original expiration dates. The nuclear age may have begun in 1945, but with aging power plants that cannot afford to be taken out of service, the age of nuclear risk is certainly here.

Charles Burch, San Francisco, USA

Windmills were common and extremely useful in the past, yet today's wind turbines are massively more efficient and productive. Intermittency is easily solved through storage solutions (such as water elevation) and connecting international smart grids - which is already underway. On a global scale the wind blows 100% of the time.

G Walker, London, UK

To put things into perspective: 1000s of people have died since commercial aviation began, but no one is insisting we ground the industry; 3000 people die on British roads every year, but no one is insisting that motorised road transport by replaced by the more sustainable and safer horse-drawn cart. The most important lesson to be learned from Fukushima is to keep a level head and make a rational choice for the future.

Iain T, Sheffield

The biggest problem facing nuclear energy isn't the cost, it's the scalability. It just doesn't keep pace with demand by the time it gets built more power will be needed.

John Airey, Peterborough, UK

A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering showed that the lowest costs of electricity generation per kWh were by gas fired or nuclear plant. In contrast, the cost of electricity generated by onshore wind farms was over twice as expensive and by offshore wind farms over three times as expensive. These costs included allowance for standby generation capacity.With renewable energy at 6% of the UK capacity in 2009 and planned to increase to 31% in 2020, maybe consumers should start to budget for VERY significant rises in electricity bills.

David Daniels, Horsham, UK

We need to to stop listening to the nuclear lobby and put more money into renewable energy production. It's a no brainer. If only our parents hadn't been so seduced by Science, we would already be self sufficient with renewables, and have no need for dangerous nuclear power.

Prof Greg Keeffe, Manchester

What happens when the wind does not blow - a winter high pressure over Britain lasted two weeks in 2010/2011 winter, so wind produced nothing then? Ideally I agree that renewables would be a perfect solution, but cannot, regrettably,see them as anything other than fringe providers.

Ted Bowness, Kendal, England

The major risk associated with civil nuclear plants is ignored in risk assessments; that of a military strike in time of war. Any guesses as to when the next developed countries' war will be?

Bob, Duns, Scotland

We are now at the point where we can shift the bulk of motor fuel production to a renewable (biomass) basis. The combination of this and solar and wind turbine stationary power production would bring us pretty close to carbon neutrality. Right now it's simply letting the capital investment continue at its current pace. In 30 years time the majority of our power production will be renewable.

Meredith Poor, Austin, Texas

Renewables (like energy efficiency measures) are ideal for deployment massively in parallel, in thousands of places at once. Germany has demonstrated that, adding in a single year new renewables capacity which then generated more than a nuke's worth of real electricity.

Steve Plater, Sevenoaks, UK

But renewables are not safer. The Japanese reactors are not killing people. Have you never looked up how many people die of falls cleaning solar panels? It is quite a big figure. Renewables are really killing people!

Vikki Bracken, Paignton

We don't need renewable or nuclear fission power. What we need is a massive injection of funds into Nuclear Fusion a totally safe and zero waste source of power. We simply do not have the time or funds in this country to replace fossil fuel power stations with renewables especially since the figures for wind power recently quietly released show the vast majority of wind turbines produce less than a third of the electricity it was claimed they would.

Chris Jacobs, Kinver, UK

But let's be clear - all 'renewables' are not the same. We need to look under the covers. Like a lot of EU states the UK is planning to get half its renewable energy in 2020 from burning biomass. Most the UK's biomass fuel will be imported, for example wood pellets from as far away as Australia to be burnt in Tilbury power station - set to be the world's biggest wood power station. Burning wood generates as much if not more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as coal. It is only 'carbon neutral' when new tree growth in the future has absorbed the emissions happening now.

Robert Palgrave, Woking, England

If the chance of damage to a reactor is 1/100,000 per reactor per year, with 442 power stations currently operational, most with multiple reactors, some of which have been running for up to 44 years - then the chance of having 3 severe incidents in this period seems quite believable. I don't think regulators are "significantly underestimating the inherent risks" at all.

Delos25, Bristol, UK

In the cold spell at the end of last year I understood that the UK's windfarms were operating at around 10% of their capacity. If that is true then wind energy appears to be little use when you really need it. Tidal energy is surely the answer as the moon is unlikely to leave orbit.

Mike Ballinger, Coventry

I would receive more radiation exposure from a transatlantic flight than by spending the day walking around the Fukushima plant in it's current state. To call it a "disaster" is tabloid at best and completely inaccurate and irresponsible.

Martin Packham, Austin, TX

There is a problem with your conclusion that "the number one priority must be energy efficiency". Whilst this does undoubtedly deliver significant economic benefits, the extent that it addresses climate change and/or energy security is unclear. We must take into account the rebound effect, and potential for 'backfire'. Over the last 300 years lighting has become more and more efficient, yet energy use for lighting has consistently increased due to the increase in uses and applications developed.

Anonymous,

Using Germany as an example, one that is extremely aggressive in it's use of renewables. Current renewable electricity production is 17%, the goal by 2020 is 35%. Nuclear produces just over 20%. It has been suggested that all nuclear power stations could been closed by this date, assuming this is the case Germany will have gained 1 or 2% of low carbon energy generation. The majority of the rest of production will be from fossil fuels. Abandoning nuclear now, at least in Germany, will ensure that coal and gas will rema!

Huw Leggate, Dublin

The problem is with the construction of the plant, not with nuclear power! If Japan had relied on "green" energy, then the country would be in total black out. Tidal power, wind turbines, solar farms, all very nice, but would be wiped out by an earthquake or tsunami.

Matt Aldridge, Northampton

The future must lie with a Nuclear backbone based on failsafe uranium and thorium based reactors with a hefty portion of renewable sources thrown in. Relying on any one area of technology leaves you open to inherent weaknesses of that technology.

Simon Watson, Newcastle Upon Tyne

Investing heavily in nuclear power will leave us in the same position as we are in now. If we produced all of our electricity using nuclear fission, Uranium would become a rare commodity just like fossil fuels. Current reserves are enough for around 80 years at a current production level of only 13% of world electricity production, and a lot less if we made all our electricity this way.

John , Scunthorpe, UK

I would refer to an article in New Scientist this week about the actual amount of recoverable 'renewable' energy. In particular, global energy needs are already so high that extracting a substantial quantity of renewable energy will affect tides, winds or the earth's reflectivity such that we will also affect the climate.

JV, London

A recent study by a group looking at wind farms for Caithness claimed to identify73 wind-farm-associated human fatalities from the 1970s to 2010. At least 598 workers died in the oil industry between 2002 and 2007 according to the US Labour Statistics Bureau. In 2006 alone more than 4000 miners died in China. DfT statistics show that there are 500+ motor-cycle fatalities in the UK every year. Right now we have two confirmed deaths at Fukushima. We will not know the final toll from all consequences of the nuclear issues in Japan for some time, but whatever the personal tragedies that have and will arise, the direct consequences of the Fukushima nuclear component are likely to remain small compared to those of the tsunami itself, the recurrent deaths in other energy industries, and other everyday risks we all accept routinely.

Professor William Shaw, UCL, London, England

Tsunamis do happen in the UK (1607), as do tidal surges (1953) and hurricanes (1987). All UK nuclear plants are coastal and at risk. check out the UK Environment Agency flood risk map for Dungeness. Nuclear is an intermittent power, plants in France have to power down each summer as they cannot be cooled, and nuclear power stations spend years offline for maintenance. Nuclear is much more expensive than many renewable alternatives, even before you take into account the infinite costs of decommissioning and guarding waste for millennia.

John , London

An engineer from the 60's, I was once a champion of nuclear power. 'It' is not the problem. We (humans) are! We cannot be trusted. Despite 1:10^6 probability per operational year some idiot(s) took the decision(s) to build nuclear plants on the edge of an active plate, in a high-quake region.

Peter Pollard, Munich, Germany

There is an alternative. Thorium. It's far more abundant than uranium, you can use all of it (rather than the 0.7% of uranium which is 235-U), proliferation risk is drastically reduced, and it can transmute its own waste stream (meaning the waste you are left with becomes less radiotoxic than coal ash within a few hundred years). Used in an accelerator driven sub-critical reactor (ADSR), the risk of meltdown, or dangerous radiotoxic leakage, is precisely zero. And it should be several times cheaper than any current form of electricity. China and India are quietly funding its research.

James Perry, Cambridge

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