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In an era where facts no longer matter, consequences still do

Over the last few years, we have written extensively about the strength of peoples’ beliefs and how difficult it is to change them.  In spite of this, I thought we were making progress with a push to more evidence-based decision making.  For something as polarizing as nuclear power, facts-based decision making is critical to increasing support.  (I understand the paradigm of fear of radiation is more emotional than fact based and I agree that we need to appeal to emotions to create the change we need – but let’s leave that to a future discussion.  In any case it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the facts on your side.)

With the populist surge in 2016 we have seen an accompanying rise in complete disregard for facts; all the way to the propagation of absolute lies (or “alternative facts”) to support peoples’ beliefs.  I don’t want to get into a political discussion nor take sides on right versus left.  What I do want to do in today’s post is to discuss something more fundamental – i.e. that although we are free to believe what we want – that beliefs have consequences – and that consequences matter.

So, let’s look at what happens when countries believe they can eliminate nuclear power from the mix and replace it with more wind and solar power.  Of course, I am talking about Germany.  Reducing carbon emissions is a reasonable goal as evidence (alternative facts notwithstanding) shows that climate change is impacting our environment and has long-term implications for our entire society.  On the other hand, removing a low-cost low-carbon source of energy like nuclear power because of safety concerns is based on a strong element of fear rather than evidence.  In fact, Germany’s nuclear plants are likely some of the safest in the world and there is no reason to suspect they will result in a catastrophic accident that means the end of Germany as we know it – yet that is what people fear.

So, what happens in a case like this?  The results are in.  Fossil fuel use is increasing in Germany, carbon emissions are going up and so is the cost of energy.  The German people are paying more money for an outcome that does more damage to the environment and hence, their health.  Frankly, it’s a high price to pay for the piece of mind that comes from eliminating the perceived risk of nuclear.  Or in other words, the extreme fear of nuclear is driving policy more than concern for either energy cost or the environment.

As shown above, closure of another nuclear plant in 2015 resulted in increased emissions in 2016 (the first full year it was out of service) even though there was a substantial substitution of gas to replace coal.

And after adding 10 percent more wind turbine capacity and 2.5 percent more solar panel capacity between 2015 and 2016, less than one percent more electricity from wind and one percent less electricity from solar was generated in 2016.  So, not only did new solar and wind not make up for the lost nuclear, the percentage of time during 2016 that solar and wind produced electricity declined dramatically.   And why was this the case?  Very simply because Germany had significantly less sunshine and wind in 2016 than 2015.

This analysis was done by Environmental Progress and shows that the intermittency of these renewable sources of electricity both throughout the day and from year to year mean that even huge increases in capacity of these forms of generation will continue to require fossil backup in the absence of nuclear power making 100% renewables an unachievable goal.  Another study shows that to achieve a 100% renewable system in Germany would require a back-up system capable of providing power at a level of 89% of peak load to address the intermittency.

Comparing Germany to France, France has more than double the share of low carbon energy sources and Germany has more than twice the cost of energy as France.

So, trying to decarbonize by also removing nuclear from the mix at the same time is simply too high a mountain to climb.  The following shows that German emissions were 43% higher in 2016 without the nuclear plants that have been already shut down.  Keep in mind that they still do have operating nuclear and with more plants to shut down, the future trend is not likely to change.

It’s not just about Germany.  As Japan struggles to get its nuclear plants back on line after the 2011 Fukushima accident, its use of coal has skyrocketed.  In 2015 its use of fossil fuels for electricity generation was 82% compared to 62% in 2010 when the nuclear plants were in operation.  And now Japan plans to build 45 new coal plants (20 GW) over the next decade to meet its energy needs.

Finally, we can also look at South Australia, a nuclear free zone.  Recent blackouts due in part to lower wind availability and the inability of thermal plants to make up the shortfall are also leading to questions on ‘how much renewables is too much’.

So, we can all continue to hold our beliefs very dearly and only listen to those that support them, while vilifying those that do not.  However, please keep in mind that in a world where the farcical becomes reality, results still matter.  And for now, the results are clear, taking nuclear power out of the mix in Germany is not achieving its political-planners’ goals.  Yet these results are also not likely to change any German minds when it comes to nuclear power.  But hey, why worry about the outcome when you know you are right or as said by comedian Chico Marx in the famous Marx brothers movie Duck Soup “Who you gonna believe – me or your own eyes?”?

2016 was a challenging year for nuclear power – or was It?

There is no shortage of people happy to see 2016 come to an end.  It has been an extraordinary year characterized by strong popular revolt to the status quo resulting in unexpected government changes in places like Britain and Italy and a surprising result in the US election.

For those of us in the energy industry it has also been a challenging year.  Oil prices have remained low depressing economies supported by oil.  North American gas prices seem to have no bottom and these historic lows have led to dysfunction in electricity markets.  This coupled with highly subsidized prices for renewables has resulted in tremendous economic pressure on American nuclear plants with a number of them closed and more slated for early closure.  The most recent was just this month as Entergy announced that Pilgrim would be closed early in 2018.

In other countries, Japan continues to struggle with bringing back its nuclear fleet in a timely manner; South Africa seems to have postponed the bulk of its nuclear plan; and Vietnam cancelled their nuclear projects outright.

What makes these changes of more concern is that on the surface they are said to be a result of challenging nuclear economics rather than any specific anti-nuclear attitude.

But all this negative pressure also helped to put the need for nuclear in perspective.  More and more countries have accepted that meeting climate goals will require continued use of nuclear power.  Its 24/7 reliable low carbon generation can be the back bone for a healthy economic low carbon world.  As shown by the IEA in their World Energy Outlook 2016 (WEO) in the figure below, there is strong growth expected for nuclear in the New Policy Scenario (base case) and that the number of nuclear plants will have to more than double for their 450 (low carbon) scenario.

Source: World Energy Outlook 2016

While the press has been consumed with the challenges, there has been a string of good news for the sector this year.  In Britain, there was a final commitment to the Hinkley Point C project and in Switzerland the early closure for their nuclear plants was strongly rejected in a referendum.  In the United States, while the focus was on the plants that have closed and that may be closing both Illinois and New York states have taken government action to keep their plants open recognizing their essential contribution to both the local economies and to their carbon emissions targets.  Also in the US, Watts Bar 2 came into service as the country’s first new nuclear plant in more than two decades.  And so far, it looks like the incoming administration, while not necessarily on the side of combating climate change, will be supportive of nuclear energy going forward.

Here we are; another year has come to an end and once again it has been a tumultuous year for nuclear.  But overall, I believe it has been positive and we are well placed for 2017.  There is a broad recognition of the importance of nuclear to meet climate change targets and there is a better understanding of the problems with market structures in supporting low carbon economic generation that is needed.  All of this without even mentioning China which continues with its strong nuclear expansion.

One thing is clear.  The world needs more nuclear if we are to have a reliable secure low carbon generating system.   With the IEA forecasting a doubling of plants in the next 25 years, we had better get on with it…….

Thank you for continuing to read this blog – wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2017.

Want to minimize radiation from power generation – build more nuclear

Yes, you read that right.  For years, there have been efforts to demonstrate that people who live near nuclear plants or work at nuclear plants are getting sick from all that darn radiation they are receiving.  Over the years these stories have been debunked as study after study has shown that there is no impact from radiation from living near or working at a nuclear plant.

But now a study has been done that shows that of most of the options to generate electricity, nuclear actually releases the least amount of radiation.  This is documented in UNSCEAR’s, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, on its study to consider the amount of radiation released from the life cycle of different types of electricity generation.

The Committee conducted the comparative study by investigating sources of exposure related to radiation discharges from electricity-generating technologies based on nuclear power; the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and biofuels; and geothermal, wind and solar power. The results may surprise some, especially those that strongly believe that nuclear pollutes the earth with radiation, coal with a range of air pollutants and carbon, and that solar and wind are environmentally wonderful.

solar-panels-and-wind-turbines

Coal generation resulted in the highest collective doses to the public, both in total and per unit energy.  Coal radiation emissions result from coal mining, combustion of coal at power plants and coal ash deposits.  The study also considered occupational doses to workers.  Here is the biggest surprise.  As stated “With regard to the construction phase of the electricity-generating technologies, by far the largest collective dose to workers per unit of electricity generated was found in the solar power cycle, followed by the wind power cycle. The reason for this is that these technologies require large amounts of rare earth metals, and the mining of low-grade ore exposes workers to natural radionuclides during mining.”  It is important to note that in all cases these levels of exposure are relatively low and have little impact to public health.

This study only addresses normal discharges during the lifecycle of the station.  Possible larger releases as a result of nuclear accidents are not considered and we recognize that many will argue it is accidents and their consequences that create the largest fear of nuclear power.

So why talk about this?  The reality is that this information is not likely to change even one single mind on whether someone supports nuclear power or fears it.  We live in a world where facts no longer matter – the only truth is the one that any one person believes.  Well, we believe that scientific study remains the best way forward to establish truth and that studies such as these are part of the path forward.  No one electricity generation technology is perfect.  Coal is cost effective and technically strong, but is also a strong emitter of a range of pollutants (including radiation); renewables such as solar and wind are clean but their resource is intermittent and they have issues with both their front end (mining of rare earths) and disposal at the end of their life cycle.

Nuclear power continues to have a good story to tell, with respect to its economics, reliability, environmental attributes and the many good jobs it creates for local economies.  Concerns about nuclear relate mostly to one major issue – fear of radiation.  And fear is a strong emotion that is not easily changed.  But at least what we have here is another study to show that radiation emissions from normal operations of the nuclear fuel cycle is not something to fear – and in fact if you really want to minimize the collective dose to the public, nuclear power remains the option of choice.

Fighting for the environment – keep nuclear in the mix

Earlier this month I enjoyed a week of vacation sitting on the beach in front of a beautiful camp (or cottage, cabin or country house, depending on where you are from) staring at a stunning view of the north shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh water lake.  This is pretty far north (at the 49th parallel), and this year the summer has been very hot.  Once again, July has been the hottest month ever recorded.

Environment

It’s times like this of quiet reflection that the issue of environment comes to the forefront.  Contrast this idyllic view to that of some of the world’s cities where pollution is rampant and health is impacted every day.  This is the short term need – make the air breathable for all those that are having their health impacted negatively by pollution primarily coming from burning coal to generate electricity and from burning fossil fuels in cars each and every day.  And then there is the issue of climate change.  Harder for many to understand as the consequences are not as easy to see in the short term; but clearly the environmental issue of our time.

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those people that believe we should directly tie the future of nuclear power to climate change but rather that the case for nuclear needs to be made on its merits – reliability, economics, sustainability and yes, its environmental attributes.  In fact, today environmental attributes of any generation technology should be the price of entry – low carbon and low polluting technologies are the ones that should make the list to be considered for deployment.   However once on the list it is the other attributes that need to be considered when planning and implementing a robust electricity supply system.

Looking at this beautiful view, I find it hard to understand how so many are trying to disadvantage the environment by excluding nuclear power from the list of technologies that are environmentally friendly.  And not just for new generation, but many are fighting to close existing plants that have been providing clean, economic and reliable electricity to the grid for decades.  Examples abound.

In California, a decision was recently taken to shut down Diablo Canyon in 2025 rather than extend its life and replace it with renewables and demand management.  This decision has recently been severely criticized by Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists who has asked the Governor for a debate on the issue stating “Retirement of the plant will make a mockery of California’s decarbonization efforts. Diablo Canyon’s yearly output of 17,600 gigawatt-hours supplies 9 percent of California’s total in-state electricity generation and 21 percent of its low-carbon generation. If Diablo closes it will be replaced mainly by natural gas, and California’s carbon dioxide emissions will rise…” [Read the entire text of the letter here]

In New York state there has been an important victory as nuclear has been included in the clean energy standard as legislators have acknowledged the important role that nuclear plays in reducing carbon emissions; and in fact accepts that meeting carbon objectives is simply impossible without nuclear.   However, this is just a first step. It protects existing nuclear but also maintains the future target of 50% renewables, making nuclear a bridge to the future.  Well if existing nuclear is good, then so should new nuclear – but that fight is for another day.

Of course the battle to include nuclear as a low carbon energy option is not uniquely a US issue.  A new study * by the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Studies suggests that “a strong national commitment to nuclear energy goes hand in hand with weak performance on climate change targets”.  While the authors do note that “it’s difficult to show a causal link”, this does not stop them from suggesting it is likely there.   It is easy to say that Germany has done a good job and reduced its carbon emissions by 14% since 2005.  What is not said is that Germany’s carbon reduction efforts have really struggled since it closed a number of nuclear plants in 2011 after the Fukushima accident and has yet to get back on track; which was likely a key factor in Sweden where the Greens have accepted the need for continued nuclear operation to meet its climate goal.

Here in my home jurisdiction of Ontario Canada, we had the largest carbon reduction in all of North America as coal was removed from the generation mix in 2014.  This was not done by replacing coal with renewables although renewable generation has increased, but was made possible by refurbishing and returning nuclear units into service.

I have written extensively about peoples’ belief systems over the years and this is what is standing between nuclear and success.  Ask anyone in the street about clean electricity and you will hear that renewables, primarily wind and solar, are what is needed to transform our energy systems.  Ask about nuclear and the response is much more likely to be mixed.

It is great news that many environmentalists are now seeing the necessity of nuclear in the mix.  As concluded by James Hansen in his letter” It would be a tragedy if we were to allow irrational fear to harm the climate and endanger the future of our children and grandchildren.”  So if we are to avoid a tragedy, we in the nuclear industry have a lot of work to change the narrative and continue to increase public support.  The agreement in New York is a good beginning but the hard work has only just begun.

* The study referenced above was retracted by the authors on November 25, 2016 as they admitted mistakes in the analysis.  The link to the retraction on Retraction Watch is here.

Dreaming of a future with abundant clean reliable energy – then dream about nuclear

When we look to the future, people the world over are hopeful for an era of abundant reliable electricity supplying all of our energy needs; all at a reasonable cost and with little to no impact to the environment. Unfortunately, in many western countries the politics of electricity planning has become largely a case of exploring the depths of our imagination with no real path to achieving this essential goal.

As stated by Malcolm Grimston at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Annual Symposium last month in his brilliant talk “Sclerosis at the heart of energy policy” (in advance of a book he has coming out), we have become so accustomed to reliable and cost effective electricity supply that we can no longer ever consider a scenario where this can be at risk. He noted we even use the less than frightening phrase “keeping the lights on” when talking about reliability which greatly understates the importance of reliable electricity supply to our modern society. (As he said, he turns out his lights every night without concern – certainly a large scale disruption to our energy supplies would be much worse than having the lights go off.)

Given we can’t imagine electricity reliability to be at risk; and given we have relatively slow growth in most western advanced economies there is a major reluctance to take decisions to protect and invest in our infrastructure for the future even while we want to work towards decarbonizing the system. Yes electricity demand growth is modest, but our lives depend more on reliable electricity supplies than ever before. Without electricity society quickly becomes paralyzed with no ability to communicate, travel, maintain our food supply, sanitation, deliver health care and so on…in fact it is very difficult for us in all of our modern comfort to imagine how severe the consequences would be. Therefore in our great complacency we continue to do nothing because we all expect that the next great technological breakthrough is just around the corner. All we need to do is wait and advanced renewables will be available so we can have clean limitless energy forever. And so goes the narrative.

Ben Heard in his excellent WNA presentation “World without Nuclear” quotes Naomi Klein as she spoke to the media against the nuclear option in South Australia – “What’s exciting about this renewables revolution spreading around the world, is that it shows us that we can power our economies without the enormous risk that we have come to accept”. She said the latest research showed renewables could power 100 per cent of the world’s economies. “We can do it without those huge risks and costs associated with nuclear so why wouldn’t we?” she said.

But of course if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ben’s presentation goes on to review 20 studies that suggest that a world powered by 100% renewables can be a reality. However, in his review he rates most of these studies as poor. Overall he concludes that there is actually scant evidence for 100 % renewable feasibility while the literature affirms large dispatchable, i.e. guaranteed 24/7 supply is indispensable. His final conclusion is that global decarbonization requires a much faster-growing nuclear sector.

Fast Decarbonization

Reproduced from Agneta Rising Presentation at the WNA Annual Symposium 2015

But how can we have more nuclear when it has this perception of huge risks? We have written extensively on the issues associated with the perception of nuclear as a dangerous technology when in reality it has the best safety record of all technologies out there so we won’t talk about that again now. In his presentation Malcolm Grimston places much of the responsibility for this public perception squarely on the nuclear industry noting that the industry “spends half of its time implying that it is the new priesthood, with superhuman powers to guarantee safety; and the other half of its time behaving as if radiation is much much more dangerous than it actually is.” While it is hard to know what comes first, the fear or the industry reaction to it, we certainly agree that Malcolm makes a good point.

Then there are those that say nuclear power is way too expensive to be part of our future electricity system even though there is no doubt that wind and solar power are clearly the more expensive options. The most recent edition of “Project Costs of Electricity”; an important report that is now in its 8th edition from the IEA and NEA looking at the costs of various forms of electricity generation has just been published. (This report is a must for anyone seriously looking at trends and costs of electricity generation around the globe.) While the report acknowledges the huge gains made by renewables in reducing their costs, it also demonstrates that nuclear power is one of the lowest cost options available depending upon the scenario. Of more importance, the report notes that the belief that nuclear costs continue to rise is false stating that, in general, baseload technologies are not increasing in costs and specifically “this is particularly notable in the case of nuclear technologies, which have costs that are roughly on a par with those reported in the prior study, thus undermining the growing narrative that nuclear costs continue to increase globally”.

We will have more to say about this report in upcoming posts. But for now, let’s all do more than dream about a future of abundant, reliable, clean and yes, economic electricity; let’s make this dream a reality by making sure that the electricity system of the future includes highly reliable 24/7 nuclear power.

Reliability means being connected – we need a strong integrated electricity system with nuclear generation as its workhorse

It was with great fanfare that Tesla launched its home battery recently.   Headlines like “Tesla launches Powerwall home battery with aim to revolutionize energy consumption” were the norm as the public read about this revolutionary jump forward in energy storage. A recent article on where famed author Margaret Atwood is investing says it all …. “if [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk was putting his Powerwall on the market, I would certainly buy a piece of that. My feeling is that, once that becomes affordable, everyone is going to do that. I think that’s definitely the wave of the future.”

After all, this is the dream isn’t it? We can all generate our own electricity with clean energy efficient solar panels and store enough on our home batteries to keep us going when the sun goes down. What can be better for our common future?

Well, in fact, just about everything.

It must be my age and my years in the energy industry that remind me of what are the real essential attributes of electricity supply. Reliability and Economics. Yes, that’s right. For anyone who works in a modern electricity utility, that is what they focus on; delivering cost effective reliable electricity to users. And in today’s energy intensive world where we need electricity for every aspect of our hyper active and energy intensive lives, this is even more critical. We have all experienced temporary blackouts and know well the negative impact it has. The problem then with renewable energy generated at home is that, at least for now, it is neither reliable nor economic. Since the announcement from Tesla there have been a number of articles that explain this in detail, but of course supporters will just say that in time all problems will be solved. And frankly they may be right.

solaratnightv1

So let’s step back and ask ourselves a more important question – are we trying to solve the right problem? Most people have no idea what it takes to generate and deliver the electricity (the so-called “grid”) we take for granted in the modern world. In fact, many just think electricity is something that comes out of the wall outlet. What we all want is that when we turn on the switch, or plug in our phones, it just works. We are not in any way prepared for a world in which we say – oh, it’s cloudy so we better not charge our iPhone today! I love the recent TV ads where BMW is explaining how they build their new I3 electric car in wind powered factories. Yet, do any of us really think that on days when it is not windy, these factories sit idle? No, of course not.

In most advanced economies around the globe we have achieved a high level of reliability in electricity supply. In fact this is one of the measures that makes an economy ‘advanced’. The problem is that much of our electricity is generated with fossil fuels; primarily coal. (Coal continues to be the largest source of Germany’s electricity where BMW has its factories, at nearly 50% of total supply). And along with this comes both pollution and a high level of carbon emissions. Therefore, the only way to address these environmental issues is to reduce the use of fossil fuels, not to eliminate an integrated grid.

Just like being connected to the internet improves our lives, so does being connected to a reliable electricity grid. Do we really want to live a life where if it is cloudy for a few days and our batteries run dry we do without? Of course not. Just imagine how much excess battery capacity we would each need to avoid this possibility. Even Elon Musk notes that his battery is currently for emergency backup – not for daily use – and yes it would be great to have some amount of reasonably economic backup for when we experience an outage. But as is starting to be seen in California where there are numerous discussions of the “duck curve”, people want it all – they want to generate their own electricity when they can believing this is the best approach, but they also want the system to be there just in case they need it; and at a moment’s notice. The result – higher costs all around. The less the grid system is used, the more it costs to keep the infrastructure in place to make up the shortfall when needed.

The answer is simple, let’s take what works and make it even better.  That is a large interconnected grid that includes large scale reliable economic generation based on nuclear power, and hydro where available, supplemented by wind and solar depending upon the local availability of these resources. To be reliable and cost effective, a system needs generation that can run all the time, not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. As storage technology improves, it can then contribute to both help manage the intermittency of renewable generation as well as flattening the demand curve to enable an even larger share of nuclear generation.

Remember, our economy, and in fact our very way of life, is completely dependent upon the availability of reliable, clean and economic electricity. So while we may dream of not needing the grid as we each generate our own electricity, what we really need is a strong well interconnected grid made up of reliable economic nuclear power as its work horse, with wind, solar and other forms of generation contributing when they can; all coupled with new forms of large scale storage to both even out demand and supply. Now this is more likely to be the system of the future.

It’s time to put nuclear on the offensive – and make it the low carbon energy generation option of choice

Have you ever seen something that just amazed you? We were wowed by a recent YouTube video showing what the Chinese have achieved in turning conventional high-rise construction on its head. A 57 story building was built in 19 days – yes – 19 days! Who would ever believe this could be possible? I live in Toronto, a city that has been undergoing a huge hi-rise building boom over the last few years and the time it takes to build these tall towers can be measured in months and years, not days. This just shows what can be achieved when the imagination is let loose and innovation results in outcomes never before thought possible.

We first wrote about the importance of innovation in the nuclear sector last year. In its history nuclear power has shown incredible innovation, leading the way in a range of technologies especially with respect to delivering a level of safety and security not seen in any other industry. More recently there have been dramatic improvements in operations as the global fleet has reached a level of performance never even dreamed of in the early days of the industry. Current new build projects are using the most up to date methodology in modularization and other advanced construction techniques.

And yet when the IEA issued the 2015 version of its Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP 2105) report focusing on the need for energy technology innovation if the world is to address climate change; it doesn’t mention this innovation, nor does it include discussion of potential future innovation with respect to the nuclear option.

As stated, “Energy technology innovation is central to meeting climate mitigation goals while also supporting economic and energy security objectives. Ultimately, deploying proven, cost-effective technologies is what will make the energy system transformation possible. Continued dependence on fossil fuels and recent trends such as unexpected energy market fluctuations reinforce the role of governments, individually and collectively, to stimulate targeted action to ensure that resources are optimally aligned to accelerate progress. Establishing policy and market frameworks that support innovation and build investor confidence over the long term is a first-order task to deliver.”

The report is clear when it says that “Innovation support is crucial across the low-carbon technology spectrum”. The discussion focuses on renewable technologies in the short term due their relative readiness and lack of a need for long term investment in development; and carbon capture (CCS) in the medium to longer term even though it requires substantive investment in development as it remains essential to address the large number of fossil plants being built and still in operation by 2050 that will require decarbonizing.

As usual, the same issues that have plagued nuclear for the last 30 years; primarily public acceptance issues, mute a positive discussion for the nuclear option. While recognizing its importance in achieving increased energy security, diversity of fuel supply and lower emissions, the report goes on to state “this awareness has yet to be translated into policy support for long-term operation of the existing fleet and construction of new plants” … “to recognize the vital contribution that nuclear energy can make.”

Yet the actual IEA scenarios have changed little from last year. As shown below, when considering technologies individually (rather than grouping into “renewables”), nuclear actually plays the largest role of any single technology in meeting carbon reduction targets showing that, even as it is stands today, the nuclear option is absolutely essential to moving to the IEA 2 Degree Scenario (2DS).

ETP2015

This can only be the case if nuclear is currently meeting its responsibility to be economic and reliable while being an essential large scale low carbon option. Given that we know the largest challenges in building new nuclear plants is related to their relatively high capital costs and long project schedules relative to other options; consider the role nuclear can play if improvements similar to those demonstrated in the Chinese YouTube video were implemented. Not marginal improvements, but mind blowing changes in approach that shake current thoughts about the costs and schedules of nuclear projects to their very core. This is the way forward. While discussion of next generation plants and SMRs is of interest, we need continued innovation that takes what we know now and improves it beyond what anyone can imagine.

The report shows that government investment in nuclear R&D has been dropping and in renewables has been increasing. This investment must be refocused on project improvement and innovation rather than the traditional areas of research such as safety and waste management where it has been spent for decades. While important for the nuclear industry, too much of this spending is focused in these areas just to pander to the ongoing public beliefs that safety and waste issues remain unresolved. Rather, emphasis should be on continuing to improve new build project performance. Let’s think about new build nuclear in the same way we think about renewable technologies; that more investment and research will lead to shorter construction schedules and lower costs. It is time to let the innovation genie out of the bottle, stop being on the defensive and move forward with great things. With changes like this, the nuclear share will grow well beyond current expectations bringing a real solution to climate change while keeping electricity bills low and system reliability high.

So remember, nuclear power is essential in achieving increased energy security, diversity of fuel supply and lower emissions; and is already expected to have the largest impact on meeting climate goals of any other single technology. Today’s plants are economically competitive and provide safe and reliable electricity. Talking about investing in energy innovation without a discussion of investing in nuclear, when it’s currently the best option available, is absurd. Governments need to recognize the incredible innovation already achieved by the nuclear option, and unleash even greater potential by investing in this well proven technology.

A nuclear future means clean, reliable and economic electricity; yet fossil fuels reign supreme

This past month, following the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima accident, it is good to see there is less emphasis on the nuclear accident and more discussion of the significant natural disaster – the tsunami and earthquake that killed some 20,000 and destroyed so much, leaving 300,000 homeless. It is now clear that the nuclear accident will not be a cause for radiation-induced cancer, food is not contaminated, and most people can return to their homes should they so desire. While there continues to be a big mess to clean up and many important lessons in managing nuclear accidents to learn, there is no disaster in terms of either immediate or long-term health impacts. Yet we still see news such as was reported this week- that Fukushima radiation has reached the west coast of Canada – one then has to read the report to find out it is so minute as to be a non-event.

So now 4 years on, if we look at China one could conclude the nuclear industry is booming. CGN reported 3 new units were connected to the grid in March, with 2 more expected to be connected within this year. Overall China now has 24 units in operation and another 25 under construction targeting 58 GW in service by 2020 and then accelerating from there to bringing as many as 10 units per year into service in the 2020s targeting about 130 GW by 2030. Two new reactors have just been approved in the first approvals for new units post Fukushima. In addition to this, China is now developing its Hualong One reactor for export as it strives to become a major player in the global nuclear market.

Hongyanhe3

                                          China Hongyanhe 3 completed

China’s commitment to nuclear power is strong and unwavering. An important reason for this rapid expansion is the need for clean air. Pollution in China is a real and everyday problem for its large population. The Chinese see nuclear power as path to ultimately reducing their need to burn coal and hence help the environment.

On the other hand, in Germany a decision to shut down some nuclear units in 2011 immediately following the Fukushima accident and to close the rest by 2022 has led to a large new build construction program of lignite-fired units to meet short term energy needs. With several under construction and some now in operation, coal is producing about half of Germany’s electricity. Keep in mind that these new plants will likely be in service until about 2050. This is while Germany supposedly is focusing its energy future on ensuring a cleaner environment using renewables. I would expect their goal would be easier to reach without a number of new coal-fired units going into operation to replace clean carbon free nuclear energy.

Germany lignite

The lignite coal fired power plant Frimmersdorf

It is with these two extremes in mind that I noted when attending the Nuclear Power Asia conference in Kuala Lumpur this past January that while almost all South East Asian countries are planning to start nuclear power programs, they have had little success in getting them off the ground. Currently Vietnam is in the lead and countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are continuing with their plans, but with little progress. For example, Indonesia has been talking about nuclear power for more than 30 years. With a need for 35 GW of new capacity in the next five years and an annual expected growth of 10 GW per year after 2022, it is easy to ask why a decision for new nuclear seems perpetually stalled while there has been no problem building new fossil plants.

While in Malaysia I couldn’t help but think – why is it so difficult to make a decision to invest in new nuclear plants, especially for first-time countries? Is it a fear of nuclear itself and the issues associated with public acceptance – or is it the commercial aspects whereby nuclear plants have relatively large capital expenditures up front raising financing and risk issues? Or, more likely, a combination of the two.

At the same time as decisions on new nuclear seem to be so difficult to take, literally hundreds of coal plants and thousands of gas fired plants are being built around the world.   If the environment is actually important, why is it so easy to invest in fossil stations and so hard to invest in nuclear? One simple answer is the size of the global fossil industry. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have huge industries with fossil fuel development being an essential part of their economies. The public is comfortable with this industry and many either work in, or profit from the industry in some way. The same is even true in Germany, where coal and lignite mining is entrenched. While committed to reducing hard coal use over time, once again this is an important industry in the short term.

For a country looking at nuclear for the first time, like those in South East Asia, there has to be a strong base of support to get the industry off the ground. They need to be serious about their consideration of the nuclear option, not just dabbling with little real interest. While these countries have modest research and other programs, there is simply not enough going on nor a strong belief that there are no alternatives to garner the political support to move forward. Starting a nuclear program is a large undertaking and the fear of securing public support and concerns about safety and financial ability to support the program are paramount. This makes it difficult for decisions to be taken. A strong and committed view from within government is needed and this can only be achieved with a strong need for energy and an even stronger belief that the public is on side.

China has passed this milestone and now has a large and vibrant domestic industry. Government support is assured so long as the industry continues to thrive. To the Chinese, the issue is clear. Nuclear plants are economic and their environmental benefits are essential to helping solve their huge environmental issues. The Chinese have CONFIDENCE in their ability to deliver safe, economic and reliable nuclear power stations.

On the other hand, the Germans have decided their fear of nuclear is stronger and more urgent than their need to reduce their carbon emissions in the short term even though they had a large and strong domestic nuclear industry. In this case, Germany is an outlier and to this end they justify building new coal units even when their overriding goal is environmental improvement.

I am confident that nuclear plants will expand their already important role in the future electricity mix of the world and, as such, the industry needs to find new and innovative ways to make taking a nuclear decision easier. This includes ways to gain a higher level of public support, ensure that project risks are manageable and that costs can be kept under control. In some future posts, we will talk about some of these ideas and how we can unlock the global nuclear potential.

How can Nuclear Power Build Trust in a time when denying science is rampant?

Recent public outcry as a measles outbreak has managed to impact much of North America has once again showed the nature of public deniers of science. In this case it is concerns about vaccinations that have led to numerous children falling sick with measles. While not considered a highly risky disease, some children get very sick and some may actually die. The main concern is that it is very contagious so that without vaccinations it moves quickly within a community to infect large numbers of people, greatly increasing the public risk.

This is only the most recent large scale public outcry where science is ignored. It is the same as those who deny climate change and those who deny the safety and benefits of nuclear power.

April 15, 2014

The role of nuclear power in combating climate change has once again been demonstrated in the most recent update of the IEA Nuclear Power Roadmap.

  • Based on the 2 degrees Celsius (°C) scenario (2DS) – nuclear power would continue to play a major role in lowering emissions from the power sector, while improving security of energy supply, supporting fuel diversity and providing large-scale electricity at stable production costs.
  • Global installed capacity would need to more than double from current levels of 396 gigawatts (GW) to reach 930 GW in 2050, with nuclear power representing 17% of global electricity production and a formidable growth for the nuclear industry.
  • Governments have a role to play in ensuring a stable, long-term investment framework that allows capital-intensive projects to be developed and provides adequate electricity prices over the long term for all low-carbon technologies. Governments should also continue to support nuclear research and development (R&D), especially in the area of nuclear safety, advanced fuel cycles, waste management and innovative designs.

This means that a larger commitment to nuclear power is an important element of any strategy that has a chance of getting climate change under control.

The report also notes that public acceptance continues to be one of the major impediments to a stronger commitment to nuclear power in many markets. Concerns about safety, costs and waste disposal continue today; the same issues as they were back when I started work in this industry more than 30 years ago. While science can clearly demonstrate that nuclear power has benefited the environment, by avoiding significant amounts of pollutants and carbon emissions; is very safe; and that waste management is more of a social issue than a technical one: public attitudes remain very hard to change.

Generally the public has very different views on key issues than scientists. In this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) a significant number of discussions were about how the public thinks about science issues and how scientists communicate about their work. On key issues the difference in opinion according to PEW research is striking. While 57% of the public believe that eating GMO food is unsafe, 88% of scientists believe the opposite. Only 68% of adults believe vaccinations should be mandatory while scientists are at 86%. And finally only 50% of the public believe that climate change is man-made while 87% of scientists believe in man-made climate change. Clearly there is a huge gap between science and public beliefs. We in the nuclear industry are not the only ones to suffer from this lack of effective communication.

I have long noted when told the industry must better educate the public that in reality, the public does not want an industry science lesson which tends to be the approach most used in the past. In fact, when this approach fails, experts just shake their heads and try again. In reality what the public want to know is that the industry is safe, and that this safety is in the hands of experts that they trust to deliver upon this promise. We see that one of the largest impacts of the Fukushima accident in Japan is the loss of trust in both the utility and government by the population. The impact to the public of this is significant – the health impacts of the fear of radiation and the accident is far larger than the actual health impacts of any radiation to the public.

Trust is not something that is built overnight. It takes years, even decades to develop trust with the public – and only a moment to destroy it. People are skeptical (as they should be) and unfortunately are always ready to believe stories that discredit those they don’t trust.

So why do I bring up the measles outbreak? Because we finally have an incident where the public seems outraged at deniers and supportive of science. Measles vaccinations are safe. Millions of doses have been safely given to children over decades. They save lives. And those that disagree have been putting not only their children at risk but also the children of their neighbours and colleagues. One has to ask, how can any educated, concerned adult put his or her own children at risk? Clearly they believe that the risk of vaccination is higher than the risk of the disease. In the midst of all of this, recent news surveys are showing that significant numbers of people still believe the vaccination can put their children at risk. This is just not the case given the science.

It was said best by a mother in Pickering Ontario who has already lost a young child to illness and who now has her baby at risk, “If you have chosen to not vaccinate yourself or your child, I blame you,” she writes. “You have stood on the shoulders of our collective protection for too long. From that high height, we have given you the PRIVILEGE of our protection, for free. And in return, you gave me this week. A week from hell. Wherein I don’t know if my BABY will develop something that has DEATH as a potential outcome.”

It is essential to understand these words. It is easy to oppose something when you are already benefiting from it. Yes, don’t vaccinate your child because you know the risk of disease is low since all others are vaccinated, oppose GMO foods when you have ample safe food to eat while others are starving, and oppose climate change while you have reliable electricity and relatively clean air while others can’t breathe and are the first to suffer the consequences.

There seems to be a large scale shift from public good to individual good in society these days. Trust in government, scientists and other institutions is very low. The public is not willing to accept that these institutions have their back so they quickly rush to beliefs that are not supported by science with the resulting ultimate negative impacts on society. To be fair these beliefs come because many of these institutions that were trusted in the past have let the public down. And in this day of instant news and social media, it is easy to attack, but then interest is lost by the time the truth comes out and only a small subset of those who read the original story of concern remain interested enough to see the truth when it comes out.

Trust – it is essential for the future of nuclear power. The public must trust the industry to deliver on its promise of developing and operating safe, reliable and economic nuclear plants. They must trust the government to provide a strong regulator to oversee the industry and ensure public safety. This industry is dependent upon this trust if it is to flourish.

Building trust in science is a task that goes well beyond the nuclear industry. Yes, scientists have much work to do to build that trust with the public and government, but governments must then ensure that they use science as a basis for policy. While it remains reasonable to question the results of science, it is not reasonable to base policy on the assumption that science is wrong. Government in all countries need science advisers in key positions to ensure that real science is heard when policy is being made.

The media is also part of the solution. Poor reporting looking for the sensationalist point of view is not helpful. Science journalists must be the ones to cover science issues and they must take the time to report on them correctly. Just this week there was a fascinating editorial in the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail when a reader complained about the lack of “balance” on the vaccination issue. The response by the Globe is important reading,” The reader is correct that news stories should be fair and balanced, but if The Globe were to include someone “credible” from the anti-vaxxer community, that would be false balance….False balance is when journalists twist themselves into a knot to try to balance scientific and expert views with someone whose views are not fact-based, expert or scientific….. False balance is not only poor journalism, it can harm the readers’ understanding because it suggests there is a balance between the views. In politics, for example, it is important and responsible to offer fair weight to different parties’ views. It is not responsible to offer equal weight to science versus flimsy beliefs.”

The issue is that most people today listen to those they are familiar with and trust and discount those they don’t know. Therefore nothing is more important than the scientific community listening to and speaking with the public in a way that earns their trust. Getting this done is essential to all of our futures. The work ahead of us all to build trust in science is huge and it will take a long time but we must be relentless in our efforts to make this happen.

Given the public push back in this measles outbreak, we can ask – is this the beginning of a new opportunity for dialogue on issues that are supported by science? Is the public starting to understand that their beliefs may be hurting them more than helping? If so, then we need to ensure that the nuclear industry is continuing to deliver open, honest and transparent information in support of its benefits while clearly explaining the magnitude of the risks. Science is on our side. Now it’s time to make a strong case to the public.

As 2014 comes to a close, nuclear power is at a crossroads – again!

The world needs nuclear power – so says the latest edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEO) issued in November. “Nuclear power is one of the few options available at scale to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions while providing or displacing other forms of baseload generation. It has avoided the release of an estimated 56 gigatonnes of C02 since 1971, or almost two years of total global emissions at current rates.”

Yet looking back at 2014, the industry has had its ups and downs. There were setbacks as France formalized its intention to reduce its reliance on nuclear going forward, Sweden pulled back after its most recent election, and in Finland the Olkiluoto 3 project was delayed once again. In the US, the most recent plant to be shutdown is the Vermont Yankee plant; shutdown after 42 years of operation as not being economic, yet its shutdown will definitely raise electricity costs for its consumers and impact the local economy as a result of its closure-related job losses.

Yankee Atomic 2014

Vermont Yankee shuts down

There was good news in Japan as the first units were approved for restart since the 2011 Fukushima accident, although the actual restarts are taking longer than expected. The re-election of the Abe government also bodes well for Japan’s nuclear future. In the UK, there was a big win as Europe approved the project at Hinkley Point as not contravening state-aid rules; but once again progress is slower than most would like.

And then there are places where nuclear power is booming. China brought new units into operations and approved numerous new units with a larger-than-life target for its nuclear share in 2020 and beyond. The Chinese also approved its first Hualong One reactor, the evolution and combining of designs from both CGNPC and CNNC, as they plan for future exports. Korea approved new units and its first new site in decades. Russia continues to grow both domestically and continues to be very aggressive in the export market.

Given the importance of nuclear power, it is the first time since 2006 the WEO includes a special chapter on nuclear – in fact this time 3 full chapters performing a detailed in-depth analysis of the nuclear option. It clearly demonstrates the benefits of nuclear power in addition to being one of the only generation options at scale available to reduce carbon emissions; it also plays an important role as a reliable source of baseload electricity that enhances energy security. Clearly the benefits and the need for more nuclear is becoming clearer than ever. So why is there this continuing imbalance as we look around the world at various counties’ policies for nuclear power?

The WEO notes two significant issues holding back a large-scale nuclear renaissance. These are public concern and economics. Both are valid and need to be better addressed by the industry. We have written much over the past year or so on the importance of improving public attitudes and, in fact, in many countries we now see improvement. But we also acknowledge there is a long way to go to reduce public fear about nuclear power. For example, even though the main objective of Germany’s Energiewende is to reduce carbon emissions; their even stronger emotional response against nuclear is causing a short term increase in carbon emissions .i.e. their fear of nuclear is stronger than their desire for a cleaner environment.

On the cost side, concerns about high capital costs and completing projects to cost and schedule are valid. The industry has more work to do on this issue as evidenced by some recent projects. At the same time we see that countries such as Korea and China, who are building series of plants in sequence and are achieving the benefits of replication and standardization resulting in lower costs and improved certainty, are completing projects to cost and schedule. Yes, it can be done. But even these countries are not immune to public concerns.

The real problem is that these concerns tend to overwhelm the discussion even amongst energy professionals. For example the summary in Chapter 12 of the WEO, “The Implications of Nuclear Power”, starts “Provided waste disposal and safety issues can be satisfactorily addressed, nuclear power’s limited exposure to disruptions in international fuel markets and its role as a reliable source of baseload electricity can enhance energy security….. “. Renewables are always addressed with hope and little concern for their very real issues while discussions about nuclear are most often focused on its challenges.

Yet even at Google, engineers have come to a conclusion that the challenges to achieving climate goals with renewables are very large. Two Google engineers assigned by the company to show how renewable energy can tackle climate change each came to a blunt conclusion: It can’t be done. As stated, “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

The following figure sums it up very clearly. In the case that doom and gloom overwhelms good policy and decision making, we may end up with the Low Nuclear Scenario. But this scenario has real implications – “taken at the global level, a substantial shift away from nuclear power, as depicted in the Low Nuclear Case, has adverse implications for energy security, and economic and climate trends, with more severe consequences for import-dependent countries that had been planning to rely relatively heavily on nuclear power.” Of more importance, at the other end of the spectrum is the 450 Scenario which the IEA believes we need to achieve to truly have an impact on climate change. And in this case, even more nuclear power than the so called “High Nuclear Case” Is needed.

WEOFigure11 12

So there it is, the best way to economically and efficiently address climate change is with a substantial contribution by nuclear power. This year’s WEO lays out the challenge very clearly – once gain nuclear power is at a crossroads. The options range from a slow decline to a more than doubling of nuclear power in the next 25 years. Nuclear power must be an important part of any future low carbon energy system but there are beliefs that are very well entrenched in the minds of both the public and even many global energy professionals that must be addressed once and for all. It is our responsibility to take on these challenges for a brighter future. It’s time to go big and work together to build a strong base of global support for nuclear power. Beliefs are hard to change, but change them we must if we are to have a sustainable, abundant and economic energy future for us all.

And as 2014 comes to a close, I want to thank all of you for continuing to read our blog and contribute to the discussion. Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2015!