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Optimism is the way forward – Nuclear Power delivers

We had an important piece of good news this month as Sendai Unit 1 was restarted in Japan, ending a long period of no nuclear generation in that country after the Fukushima accident in 2011. Sendai Unit 2 is following close behind and Japan will continue to restart many of its nuclear plants as it moves to put the accident behind it and reap the benefits of nuclear generation once again. Recent experience without nuclear has led the country to import vast quantities of fossil fuels, increase its carbon emissions and damage its balance of trade. While difficult for many, the Japanese understand the benefits of continuing with nuclear power are essential to the well-being of their society.

Sendai Nuclear Japan

                                                   Sendai Nuclear Power Plant

Unfortunately as we have learned from this accident so far, it is fear of radiation that is having the largest impact on peoples’ health rather than the radiation itself. To date no one has died from radiation at Fukushima and no one is likely to die from radiation in the future, yet fear is what is consuming these people and their lives – and the policy decisions being taken by government.

Of course, we must always think about those that were directly impacted by the accident. Many remain out of their homes and those that are permitted to return are often afraid. We must continue to understand their plight and work together to help them get their lives back and of most importance, once again have hope for their future.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Fareed Zakaria on CNN interview President Obama about the Iran nuclear deal. I don’t want to talk about that here but I do want to share Fareed’s thoughts on President Obama’s optimism. He suggested that Obama is an optimist and noted that “history suggests that it’s the optimists who have tended to be right”. He went on to say that “today we are awash in pessimism, with people who see the world as a dark and dangerous place, where threats are growing and enemies are gaining strength.”

It made me think of our own world of nuclear power, where we are awash in pessimism; And it is easy to be pessimistic when articles such as the one by Michael Ignatieff, (who has previously run for Prime Minister of Canada) concludes after his visit to the Fukushima area with a message that seems to be the prevailing view of nuclear power to many. “For the rest of us, outside Japan, we have moved on, more dubious about nuclear power than before, but still locked into the energy and economic system that requires it. Fukushima is now classed with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in a trio of warning disasters, but so far none of these has persuaded the world, at least so far, to exit nuclear.” Clearly the message is – we need it for now, but when are we going to realize that the risk is just not worth the benefits?

It is easy to be pessimistic when there are documentaries that reach similar conclusions. In “Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” by Dr. Derek Muller, a physicist by training, the two part series focused on the bomb in Episode 1 and on the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima in Episode 2. Watching one can see that positive facts are presented such as radiation is not as dangerous as people think but the series is not about the benefits of nuclear power – rather it focuses on fueling the fear.

And there is no doubt the biggest issue is fear of radiation. As stated in Mr. Ignatieff’s article, “Today, Tokyo shoppers still won’t buy rice, soya, or miso produced in the region and nobody will touch the catch from the local fishermen, even though the fish have been pronounced safe.” On his visit to the region he says “In the enclosed valleys, as our bus climbed up the winding roads towards the coast—still many miles from the nuclear plant—radiation rose to double the levels in Tokyo. We’re told it’s safe to travel to Namie but it’s still not clear what safe means.” After this accident trust is in short supply and lack of trust definitely increases the fear.

What is also clear is that setting policy based on fear does not result in good policy. In Germany, they prematurely shut down safe, effective and economic plants much earlier than needed. Even while building a huge amount of renewable generation, the Germans had to also build new coal plants both increasing electricity costs and emissions. It doesn’t take much to realize that even with a strategic goal of eliminating nuclear power, taking the time to build clean replacements and shutting the existing plants down more slowly would have worked just fine – but setting policy driven by short-term fear of radiation doesn’t allow for sensible decisions. With over 200 nuclear plants throughout Europe, nuclear power has been a safe and essential element of electricity generation for decades without a single incident of harm.

Going back to what was said by Fareed Zakaria, “history suggests that it’s the optimists who have tended to be right”, we definitely choose to be optimistic and here is why.

The world needs clean and abundant energy for a better future for us all. For those with limited or no access to a reliable source of electricity, providing this resource makes a huge positive impact in their standard of living. And while we all agree that in richer countries there is opportunity to become more energy efficient, just look how dramatically our lives are impacted if there is an outage for any sustained period of time. Nuclear energy meets that need. It provides clean, abundant, economic and reliable electricity. Its energy density is matched by none so it can provide huge quantities of electricity from very small quantities of fuel, clearly what will be needed as the world population approaches 9 billion in the years to come.

The rapidly growing economies in the world like China and India are very aware of the benefits that come with robust nuclear programs as they embrace nuclear power to support their rapid growth in energy demand. Other energy-poor countries are also eager to move forward. The 67 units under construction around the world represents the largest new build program in decades and while many (25) are being built in China, the rest are distributed in 12 different countries.

But most of all what makes us optimistic about the future are the large numbers of energetic, bright and talented young people entering the industry. This month I had the opportunity to lecture at the World Nuclear University Summer Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. The current generation of young engineers and scientists have grown up in an era where they are strongly supportive of technology and believe that anything is possible if they put their mind to it. It did not take long to see that the future of the industry is in good hands.

The time has come to get off our hind foot and stand up proudly and proclaim what we know to be true – that nuclear power has an important place in the world and will continue to expand its role as we need reliable economic and abundant energy for society. It is an essential energy option of choice, not of last resort, that we shouldn’t wish we could do without.

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.

As a solution for climate change – nuclear power is falling behind

Recently, the 2014 edition of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) was issued. The ETP is issued on a two year cycle; the current edition takes the World Energy Outlook 2013 forecasts and looks to the longer term out to 2050. With climate change now becoming even more pressing I thought it would be interesting to see the progress over the last two years (I wrote about the 2012 edition back in June of that year). According to the report, as an important contributor to meeting climate requirements going forward, nuclear power is falling behind.

On the positive side, the IEA sees the opportunity by which “policy and technology together become driving forces – rather than reactionary tools – in transforming the energy sector over the next 40 years.” The report looks to balance energy security, costs and energy-related environmental impacts. But in the end it concludes that “Radical action is needed to actively transform energy supply and end use. ”

Why is radical action required? Of all the technologies required to meet the 2D target (this scenario sets a target of only 2 degrees C change as compared to 6 degrees in the status quo scenario), the IEA suggests that only renewables are on track while pretty much every other clean technology is not moving fast enough. Two important technologies not meeting targets are Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Nuclear Power. To no one’s surprise, CCS has yet to be proven and become a viable commercial option to de-carbonize fossil fuel emissions. As for nuclear power; after the Fukushima accident, growth has been slower than previously predicted and is expected to be 5 to 25% below the level required by the 2D scenario in 2025.

This leaves much of the burden on renewables to meet the need for lower carbon emissions. Surprisingly, in the hi-renewables scenario, solar becomes the dominant source of electricity reaching 40% penetration by 2050. Realistic or pipe dream? I don’t know. One thing is certain, (see chart below), with almost half of future electricity generation coming from variable renewables, compared to almost nothing today, the IEA is demonstrating the need for a huge technology transformation in how the world generates electricity.

IEAETP2014ElectricityGenerationbyTechnology

The following chart is the most telling of all. Over the past 40 years carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy supplied) has barely budged. Almost no change at all. Yet now we require the carbon intensity to be cut in half in the next 35 years (meaning less than half as much carbon produced per unit of energy supplied). This requires a complete change in how energy is delivered.

IEAETP2014CarbonIntensity

The reason is simple. Fossil fuels still represent 80% of global electricity generation and most of the energy used for transport. To disrupt the curve requires going off fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives. To achieve the 2D scenario, electrification is paramount given the option of generating electricity with clean alternatives. Fossil fuel use must then be cut in half to about 40% of electricity generation and much of the remainder makes use of CCS to reduce its carbon footprint. The report notes that gas must only be a bridging technology to support renewables in the short to medium term as gas still represents a major carbon source. So what’s left? Solar and wind to replace fossil fuels and CCS to make them cleaner.

Of course nuclear power is an obvious candidate to make a larger contribution. It is a mature technology and already is an important source of low carbon energy. Given its energy intensity it is certainly feasible to implement more nuclear power on a very large scale. And even with recent set-backs, there are now clear signs of renewal as the industry puts the Fukushima accident behind it.

For example, China continues to expand nuclear power at an ever increasing pace. Japan has reconfirmed its commitment to nuclear although restarts are slower than anticipated and the ultimate level of nuclear in post-Fukushima Japan remains unknown. Russia is increasing its commitment to nuclear and, of most interest, is becoming a major exporter offering innovative risk and financing structures that have not been seen in the market to date. Other markets are also starting to move; the latest being Hungary which has just approved a new plant for the PAKS site. However some other important nuclear markets are having challenges. Korea has cut back its long term plans and France is looking to limit the contribution of nuclear power in the future.

While nuclear power has challenges with public acceptance, this report notes the commercial issues – economics and implementation risk. As can be seen in the following chart, the IEA estimates nuclear to be the most expensive option after off-shore wind. I have not had time to delve into the details and review the numbers. However, taking this at face value, we know that some projects in the west are not doing as well as they should be. On the other hand, standardized series-build in countries like China and Russia are demonstrating a strong path to lower project costs and risks.

IEAETP2014economics

There is no hi-nuclear scenario in this edition of the report. That is quite unfortunate as a strong renewed commitment to nuclear power is a very good way to help move this plan to achieve a 2D future become a reality. By stating that nuclear power is not meeting expectations, the report lays out a clear challenge. Now it’s time to show the nuclear industry is up to it. If we really want to bend the carbon intensity curve, then more than ever, the world needs more nuclear power as an important part of a low carbon future.

Changing the discussion – It’s all about people

It’s always amazing when a United Nations report that has global ramifications comes out with little fanfare.”  So starts an article in Forbes talking about the most recent UNSCEAR report on the consequences of the Fukushima accident in Japan.  Three years after the accident, UNSCEAR, the United Nations body mandated to assess and report levels and effects of exposure to ionizing radiation has reported and its result could not be more clear.  “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low.  No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.”

This result is in stark contrast to a number of more recent accidents in other industries, all with a large number of fatalities.  Whether it is a plane lost in Malaysia, a ferry sinking in Korea, an oil explosion in Quebec; the list goes on.  Unfortunately there is no shortage of examples of terrible accidents resulting in loss of life.  And yet, in comparison to these many tragic events, it continues to be nuclear accidents that many people fear the most.

But the reality is quite different. When it comes to nuclear power, we have now seen that even in the worst of the worst nuclear accidents (Chernobyl and Fukushima), we can protect people and minimize fatalities from radiation.   In other words, the decades old belief that nuclear accidents are very low probability but exceptionally high consequence; effectively resulting in the end of the world as we know it (i.e the doomsday scenario), is just not the case.

For those that have been reading my blog for a while, it was about a year ago that I wrote about the need for a new paradigm to communicating the risks and benefits of nuclear power for the future with an emphasis on refining the message to reflect current reality.  The message on safety should be:

  • The risk of a nuclear accident is very low and is always getting even lower
  • In the event of an accident the risk of releasing radiation to the environment is also very low; and
  • Even in the unlikely event that radiation is released, the public’s health and safety can be protected.

Of course, this does not mean we should become complacent.    Certainly the industry is doing the right things to make sure a similar accident cannot happen again.  Many improvements have been made in plants around the world to both reduce the risk of an accident and in the event of a severe accident, reduce the risk of radioactive releases.

For example, here in Canada, we have broadened our safety objective to “Practically eliminate the potential for societal disruption due to a nuclear incident by maintaining multiple and flexible barriers to severe event progression”.  Setting societal disruption as the measure is definitely something new as move forward post Fukushima.

As an industry, we are excellent at learning from every event and making improvements to reduce the risk of a similar event in the future.  The global nuclear industry should be proud of its unwavering commitment to safety.

But that being said, while making technical improvements and reducing the risk of future accidents is essential; unfortunately this will be unlikely to result in the public feeling safer.  I would argue that in general, the public already believe the risk of an accident is low – the problem is they also believe the consequence of an accident is unacceptably high.  So no matter how low we make the probability, they will remain afraid of the consequences.  In other words, as we continue to talk about improving technology to reduce risk; we need to enhance the discussion to talk about people and how to both keep them safe (the easy part); and of even more importance, feel safe (now here is the challenge).

Therefore an important lesson from Fukishima, is that accidents, however unlikely are indeed possible.  And it is because of the perceived consequence of an accident that the public continues to be afraid.  In fact, fear is an understatement.  We know that nuclear accidents cause not only fear but outright panic.  And this panic is not limited to people in the immediate area of the plant but is experienced by people all over the world.  Not a week goes by when there is not some news item on how radiation from Fukushima is about to land on the North American west coast.  While there is little risk of any radiation issue, to the public, it continues to stoke fear.

So now that we know that there is little to no health impact from radiation after Fukushima, does that mean the discussion is over?  No, the next step is to address the real health consequence of a nuclear accident – mental and social well-being.  Fear of radiation is a complex issue.  While people will happily accept significant doses of medical radiation as they believe (quite rightly so) this will improve their health, they remain terrified of radiation from sources such as nuclear power plants.

In their report UNSCEAR noted, “The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported. “

They continue, “The evacuations greatly reduced (by up to a factor of 10) the levels of exposure that would otherwise have been received by those living in those areas. However, the evacuations themselves also had repercussions for the people involved, including a number of evacuation-related deaths and the subsequent impact on mental and social well-being (for example, because evacuees were separated from their homes and familiar surroundings, and many lost their livelihoods).“

Whatwillhappen to me

And this is where we need to do more.  Once we accept that even after implementing our best efforts, there may well be another accident someday, there needs to be increased focus on accident management and recovery.  This means clear guidelines on when to evacuate, what is required to remediate a contaminated area and when it is safe to go home again.  A huge source of fear is the unknown and after a nuclear accident, people impacted are very worried about their futures.  They want to know – will I get sick, how about my children and grandchildren – can I go home again – and if so when?  And basically how and when will I be able to resume my normal life?

UNSCEAR noted that “estimation of the occurrence and severity of such health effects are outside the Committee’s remit”.  Given these are important and significant health impacts; it is time for the industry to take action.  As an industry we have long been leaders in industrial safety.  Now we have the opportunity to be leaders in post-accident recovery psychological research.  We need new research to better understand the impact to people in affected areas following nuclear accidents so we can better plan how to reduce their fear and indeed, have a happy and healthy future. This will lead to better decisions following events based on science rather than short term fear issues. It is important to understand that protecting people means much more than emergency planning to get them out of harm’s way when an accident happens.  It also means meeting their needs right up until they can resume their normal lives.

The most important lesson from Fukushima is not technical.  Of course we will learn how to avoid similar accidents in the future and make plants safer.  But if we really want to change the dialogue and increase public support for the industry, we must also recognize the future is all about people – building confidence and reducing fear.

While the press is reporting doom and gloom in Japan, progress is being made.

Over the summer we talked about Pandora’s Promise, where 5 prominent environmentalists had changed their mind from being against to being supportive of nuclear power.  They visited Chernobyl and Fukushima, explored the realities of the technology, sought the scientific truth and came away supportive.

That being said, looking at the news over the past few weeks, it would appear that the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is getting worse, not better.  But is this really the case?

In late August, TEPCO reported a contaminated water leak from storage tanks for water used to cool the reactors.  Articles with headlines like “Fukushima operator reveals leak of 300 tonnes of highly contaminated water” start off with “Frantic efforts to contain radioactive leaks at the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been dealt another blow after its operator said about 300 tonnes of highly contaminated water had seeped out of a storage tank at the site.”  “With regard to TEPCO’s handling of contaminated water, it has been just like whack-a-mole,” said industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi, in reference to the anarchic fairground game in which players bash creatures that pop up from random holes.  And finally Japan raised the severity level of the event from INES 1 to INES 3.  The inference is that the situation at the plant remains grave and that we should continue to be afraid of potential consequences to the environment and most of all to the Japanese people.

Then in mid September we saw headlines such as “Japan to be nuclear free again as last reactor goes offline” reporting that Ohi 3& 4 the only two reactors to be restarted after the Fukushima accident are now down for routine maintenance.  Again, implying that Japan is going down a path to no nuclear for the foreseeable future.

And finally, only a week or so ago, Prime Minister Abe visited the Fukushima site to provide assurance to the world that the situation is under control.  To achieve this objective, he said “I’ve urged Tokyo Electric Power Company to deal with the contaminated water leakage as its priority. I gave them three demands. These demands include earmarking discretionary funds that managers on site can use to implement necessary safety measures.  It also includes a deadline to complete the purification of waste water stored in tanks at the plant and decommissioning the idle No 5 and 6 reactors and concentrate efforts to solve problems”.

Looking at the above press stories, it is hard to see a silver lining in what is going on in Japan.  But progress is being made.

The new regulator, the NRA, is closely monitoring progress at the site.  In a presentation to the IAEA this month, they reported that on August 14, TEPCO’s implementation plan for clean up at Fukushima was approved and that Fukushima Daiichi is now under the systematic regulatory system with NRA oversight going forward.  With respect to the recent water leaks, yes, there have been issues containing the large amount of contaminated water.  As for the 300 tonne leak reported in August, it was stopped and cleaned up.  And there is a plan to reduce the risk of new leaks.  The volume of water to be managed is large and the issues are not trivial.  But while there was a significant reporting of the leak and its apparent radioactivity, there was little reporting that most of all the sampled sea water remains under the detection limits for radiation and where there has been some detection, the levels have not changed following the leak – and that they remain well below allowable limits.

Fukushima is not the only lingering issue following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.  Remember the tsunami killed more than 19,000 and displaced over 300,000 (about half those displaced were due to Fukushima the rest due to their homes being destroyed by the tsunami).  Recovery from such a natural disaster of this magnitude has been slow and painful.

But while the press continues to feed the fear, in reality, nobody died from radiation from the Fukushima accident and no one is likely to die in the future from radiation.  It is the fear that is most damaging to people and their health and the continuing dramatic reporting of potential danger without context is not helping.  As a result of such reports a South Korean airline cancelled flights to the area, Tepco’s stock price plunged and Tokyo’s bid for the Olympic Games in 2020 was put in jeopardy (although they did succeed but only after Prime Minister Abe gave assurances as to the safety of Fukushima).  Unfortunately it also leads to governments making decisions not based on the scientific realities but to appease the fear – which usually does the opposite as it confirms the need to be afraid.

Unnecessary fear was addressed recently by a number international radiation protection experts who have written messages to the Japanese people to explain the health impacts of the Fukushima accident.  These are posted on the web site of Prime Minister Abe.  Of importance, the United Nations body, UNSCEAR, expects that no resident of Fukushima prefecture would be exposed to more than 10 milliSieverts over their entire lifetime.  This is far below any possible threshold for potential future cancers.  As stated by Gerry Thomas of Imperial College in London, “Worrying about what might happen can have a very bad effect on quality of life, and can lead to stress-related illnesses. All scientific evidence suggests that no-one is likely to suffer damage from the radiation from Fukushima itself, but concern over what it might do could cause significant psychological problems.”

But in spite of the fear, in spite of the ongoing challenges at the site, Japan continues to move forward.  Whereas one year ago, it was reported that the previous Japanese government was looking to eliminate all nuclear power from Japan by 2040, there is now recognition of the importance of nuclear power to Japan and its economy.  Plans are now in place to restart most if not all of the remaining nuclear plants over the next two to three years.  Japan is doing its best to learn from this event and now plans to have the safest nuclear program in the world.  To that end, the new regulator, the NRA, has issued its new safety standards in July of this year.  Already 14 units have applied for restart under these new standards.  This includes two of the most advanced BWR units owned by Tepco.  It will take months to review these applications but we can expect to see restarts as early as later this year and certainly early in the new year.  Back to the gloom and doom news about Ohi 3&4 going down.  It should be understood that when their operation was approved following the accident it was under the old rules.  Now they will have to show compliance with the new rules before they go back up and this will take some time – but they will return to service.

The Japanese people are still suffering after the great earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 and the subsequent effect of the resultant accident at Fukushima.  Most of all the suffering is a result of fear – fear of the unknown – and fear fueled by the fact that people have lost trust in their government.  The Japanese people trusted the authorities to safely manage their nuclear program and now feel this is not the case.  Not knowing who to trust increases the fear – and the psychological impacts that comes along with it.

Our last blog was mostly about Germany.  The contrast with Japan is stark.  The Fukushima accident happened in Japan – not Germany.  The people are suffering in Japan, not Germany.  Prior to the accident both countries had about 30% of their electricity generated by nuclear power.  Japan went to zero as it struggles with the aftermath.  Germany shut down about half its fleet immediately and still has nuclear providing much needed power as they work to transition.  Japan is an island where all other forms of energy have to be imported at high cost to the people and their economy.  Germany is part of the European grid and can easily import power and fossil fuels – and in fact are building new coal stations to cope.

But most of all, the German people have decided they don’t want nuclear in the future believing it is an unsafe technology although they have had no negative experience in Germany with their plants.  Yet, in spite of ongoing issues at Fukushima the Japanese government is pragmatic and supportive of restarting reactors.

It is certainly not easy for Japan or the nuclear industry to recover from the events of March 2011.  A lingering distrust of authorities remains and that is the industry’s biggest problem everywhere. I admire Japan and I hope that they can progress to reduce the public fear while rebuilding their nuclear program to have a strong electricity system for the future on a foundation of safety and transparency.

If we don’t make decisions based on science…….what else is there?

I have written much about the strength of our beliefs and how they influence important decisions.  A case in point is the decision to close nuclear stations early in Germany.  As we in the rest of the western world try and understand the German approach to eliminating nuclear power on the road to their Energiewende (energy transition), we must remember that this plan started in 2010, a year before the Fukushima accident.  This energy transformation is a monumental task and a source of pride to most Germans.  It has a very aggressive target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent and providing for 80 per cent of the country’s electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2050 all while “aiming for a market-oriented energy policy that is free of ideology and open to all technologies, embracing all paths of use for power, heat and transport.

Much has already been said about the challenges along the way.  We now know that raising renewables quickly to as high a level as Germany has done has an impact on the stability of the system; is severely affecting the electricity markets at times when high levels of subsidized wind and solar drive down prices for all other forms of generation risking putting conventional generators out of business; all while increasing fossil generation in the short term at least to make up for lost nuclear with a resultant increase in carbon emissions.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  As stated in the 2010 policy paper, the purpose of the policy is to secure a reliable, economically viable and environmentally sound energy supply for the 21st century.  While targeting renewable energy to account for the biggest share in this future energy mix; in 2010 it was also accepted that nuclear energy would be a bridging technology on this road.  In fact, the plan made maximum use of the existing nuclear fleet during the transition.  Look at the following excerpt of the policy on the continued use of nuclear energy.

A limited extension of the operating lives of existing nuclear power plants makes a key contribution to achieving the three energy policy goals of climate protection, economic efficiency and supply security in Germany within a transitional period. It paves the way for the age of renewable energy, particularly through price-curbing impacts and a reduction in energy related greenhouse gas emissions.

The operating lives of the 17 nuclear power plants in Germany will be extended by an average of 12 years. In the case of nuclear power plants commissioned up to and including 1980 there will be an extension of 8 years. For plants commissioned after 1980 there will be an extension of 14 years.

Additionally, the regulations on safety requirements for German nuclear power plants will be expanded, with requirements remaining at the highest technical level, in the framework of a 12th amendment to the Atomic Energy Act.

The extension of operating lives also creates the opportunity to increase financing in the fields of renewable energies and energy efficiency. To this end – in addition to the tax on nuclear fuel limited to the end of 2016 – a contractual agreement will be concluded with the operators of Germany’s nuclear power plants on absorbing additional profits resulting from the extended operating lives.”

In summary they want to get rid of their nuclear plants while also acknowledging they are currently both very economic and safe. Therefore nuclear plant operating lives would be extended to make more money generating more taxes to pay for the energy transformation to enable nuclear to ultimately be eliminated.

And then it happened, the accident at Fukushima.  The result; this plan was abandoned and 8 nuclear units were shut down immediately while the remaining 9 will no longer get life extensions.  This makes for a much harder transformation with coal use having increased from 2011 to 2012 with most electricity continuing to be generated from fossil fuels followed by nuclear (at about 16% now about half of its pre-Fukushima peak of around 30%).  Acknowledging that Fukushima increased the fear of nuclear, is it rational to accelerate the removal of nuclear from the system when a plan was already in place to eliminate it; to the short term detriment of emissions and costs?  But what is rational?  If it means exhibiting behaviour consistent with your beliefs, then this decision may indeed be rational.  But is it reasonable to not challenge one’s beliefs to determine if they are valid at times like this?

And hence, the film Pandora’s Promise.  I was able to attend a showing where Robert Stone was also there to take questions from the audience.  It made for a lively discussion and an overall fun evening.

First and foremost, I found it absolutely riveting to see the transformation of these five environmentalists as they came to understand the facts about nuclear energy.    They talk about being a member of the environmental movement and how it went without saying that one would also be strongly opposed to nuclear power.  After all, it was an evil technology and radiation kills.  Frankly nuclear power can destroy the planet.

For some reason, these folks took the time to listen and see that much of what they believed in the past about nuclear power was simply wrong.  I am sure that most of you in the nuclear industry have been providing these facts consistently to all that would listen over the last 30 plus years.  So why are they listening now?  Why listen when you haven’t in the past?  The facts are the same.  But in this case the driver is different.  This group is overwhelming alarmed by the threat of climate change.  And as such (and different to many others), they decided to explore ALL the options; even the ones that would have seemed ludicrous to them in the not too distant past.  Or in other words, they chose to challenge their strongly held beliefs.

The film was not so much about advocating nuclear power (although it does) but rather of documenting the journey of these five individuals.  They visit plants. They visit Chernobyl and Fukushima and they explore the realities about the technology.  What I found the most compelling was the hand held dosimeter they carried as they traveled that showed radiation levels no higher at Chernobyl or Fukushima than most of the rest of the world.  This kind of evidence is hard to argue with.

But as interesting as this all is, this post is not about a group of environmentalists who have decided to put their faith in science as search for the truth.  Rather it is about why so many others don’t do the same.  It seems as science is always appreciated when it supports your side of an issue.  i.e. science is proving climate change which is pro-environment so science is right.  Science shows that nuclear power is good but that disagrees with environmental dogma so sweep it aside.  It’s good news when those who use science to make their climate case are realizing they should do the same when they evaluate nuclear power.  We should applaud anyone who takes the time to challenge a long held belief.

So, while Germany is aiming for a market-oriented energy policy that is free of ideology, why are they so dogmatic that nuclear needs to go and the quicker the better?   I recently was provided with a copy of a very interesting presentation made by Dr. Thomas Petersen at the  Jahrestagung Kerntechnik 2013 in Berlin this past spring that explores “Nuclear energy and the perception of risk in Germany”.  While presented at a conference the presentation has not been available on line to date.  I want to thank Dr. Petersen for giving me permission to post it so you can see what I think is a remarkable set of data.

Most of us outside of Germany probably believe that Germany is  a world leading innovator when it comes to technology.  Yet in this presentation it would appear that most Germans do not have faith (or trust) in experts when it comes to science.  They overestimate risk and consequences and are extremely averse to taking any risk they perceive can cause harm.  The slides note that a majority believe life is becoming more dangerous with time; are concerned that technological progress is risky and that research into certain technologies should be stopped; and that in politics, decisions are too often made on the basis of facts rather than how people feel.

When it comes to nuclear power, it is  high on the list of technologies that carry too much risk.  Consider the following slide:

PetersenPresentationSlide

Pulling all of these thoughts together is saying something along the lines of “I believe what I believe – I know that nuclear power is dangerous so please don’t try and deter me with facts or truth”.  The really scary part is that in today’s western democracies this is indeed how we make decisions.  And while we may want to laugh, or cry; it is always important to remember these decisions have very real consequences.  Less nuclear, more carbon.  Fact.  Less nuclear, more fossil fuels. Fact.  Less nuclear, more coal – and more illness and fatalities from pollution. Fact.

So what is happening in Germany?  The great transformation.  Yes, they are doing great things with renewables.  There is no doubt.  But at what cost in the short term?  The subsidies are destroying European energy markets, new coal plants are being built and carbon emissions are going up.  All to replace perfectly safe well run nuclear plants before they reach their end of life.  Nuclear plants have never hurt a single individual in Germany and likely never will.  So what exactly are these people being protected from?

The answer is clear as I close with this final quote from a pro-transition blog that disputes the negative impact on coal use of the policy by arguing it is a short term blip.  When talking about the reduction in nuclear generation over the last two years, the author concludes, “This reduction is a long-hoped for goal and the inspiration for the nation’s energy transition. Germans don’t want nuclear reactors. They haven’t since the 1970’s and they really don’t want them after Fukushima.

We can see that five environmentalists have taken on their beliefs due to a larger concern – climate change.  I wonder what issue it will take, if anything, for Germans to do the same?

Note:

In addition to the film, Pandora’s Promise, Mark Lynas has released a short book called Nuclear 2.0 available on Amazon in electronic format only.  I have read it and frankly it is extremely well done. It meticulously addresses the concerns with nuclear one by one by one with clear and effective information to make the reader see the facts.  I recommend it if you haven’t had a chance to read it.

 

The only thing more powerful than the truth is fear

As I was thinking about what to write this month, I was invited by my dry cleaner to attend a protest in a nearby park against genetically modified food.  This somewhat infuriated me as I know without doubt that GMO has helped millions around the world and had never killed anyone (although denial of these foods has), yet, as with nuclear power, opposition remains strong, especially in Europe.

My dry cleaner argued trying to tell me that 500,000 were killed in India due to GMO and, as you can imagine, there was no winning the argument.  Mark Lynas, who I have quoted in previous posts has recently taken a hard stand against those who oppose GMO. Mark makes his position clear in his talk at Cornell University this past April where he opens with the following: “I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

It is no mistake that environmentalists like Mark have also changed their views on nuclear power and are now vigorously supporting it.  The simple reason is that Mark and others like Stewart Brand and George Monbiot, are taking positions that are founded in science rather than a set of beliefs that may feel right, but cannot be supported by scientific evidence.

Most of the opposition to nuclear power is founded in fear – primarily the fear of radiation.  However, scientific evidence continues to grow demonstrating the benefits of nuclear power while disproving widely held beliefs of many who oppose it.

For example, this past week (on May 23), a new study was reported on by the Canadian regulator (CNSC) looking at cancer rates near Canadian nuclear plants.  Not surprisingly, once again the results were clear.  No indication of any increases in cancer near nuclear stations relative to the rest of the province.  “The most important finding of this study is no evidence of childhood leukemia clusters in the communities within 25 km of the Pickering, Darlington and Bruce NPPs.”

Next I return to the study I wrote about last month published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute.  They found that nuclear power has saved an estimated 80,000 lives annually – 1.84 million in all – since widely introduced in the 1970s and could save another 5 million if construction continues at a decent pace due to a reduction in air pollution.  Nuclear power has also reduced carbon emissions by 64 Gt over the same period.

And finally UNSCEAR has now released the results of its latest study on the Fukushima accident.  It clearly concluded “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers“.  But of even more importance this study also concluded that there are health effects from the Fukushima accident stemming from the stresses of evacuation and unwarranted fear of radiation.

So what does all this tell us?  Looking at these three studies we can confirm that

i) operating nuclear power plants do not cause cancer to the residents of nearby communities from normal operations;

ii) over the past 40 years nuclear power has in fact saved almost 2 million lives through a real reduction in pollution by not burning fossil fuels and its resultant health impacts; and finally

iii) that after the biggest nuclear accident in the last 25 years, radiation has not harmed any of the people of Japan and is unlikely to do so in the future.

Considering these kinds of results, why aren’t we seeing this reported in the main stream media?  With this kind of story there should be universal praise of nuclear power and strong support for its expansion.   Frankly, if it were any technology other than nuclear that was reported to have saved millions of lives we likely would have seen it in the headlines at CNN, BBC  and other mainstream media.  So why are we primarily seeing these nuclear studies reported in trade magazines and blogs?  Why is the world not blown away by this fantastic evidence of the benefits to our lives of nuclear power?  As I was pondering these developments I came upon a chapter title in the book I am currently reading by Ben Goldacre called “Bad Science” (Good book by the way).  The chapter title is “Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things”.  The chapter then goes on to discuss many of the things we have discussed in this blog before such as confirmation bias, seeing patterns where there are none and a host of other standard reasons why people tend stick to their beliefs in light of strong evidence that they should consider alternatives.

The reality is that some people will never change their view of nuclear power and will oppose it no matter what evidence is brought before them.  But for those of us who are frustrated, there is hope.  We are starting to see positive change.  We have well known environmentalists seeing the benefits of nuclear power.  This is now captured in the new documentary “Pandora’s Promise” coming in June.  Film maker Robert Stone is quoted as saying “It’s no easy thing for me to have come to the conclusion that the rapid deployment of nuclear power is now the greatest hope we have for saving us from an environmental catastrophe,”   Entertainment Weekly says “the film is built around looking at an issue not with orthodoxy, but with open eyes”.  (I know some of you have already seen it.  I haven’t seen it yet but I am looking forward to it).

Our story is strong.  The message is positive and one of hope for the future.  But overcoming fear is no easy task.  Fear is a powerful emotion.  It will take hard work, commitment – and most of all –  time.  But if we all persevere, the future is bright. The time has come to get the message out and show how much nuclear power contributes to society, and how necessary it is in a high energy and resource intensive world.

Learning the right lessons – a new paradigm to build a brighter future

Last month we talked about Fukushima two years on and focused our discussion on making sure we remember the real people whose lives continue to be severely impacted by this accident.  This month, as we also remember Chernobyl on its 27th anniversary, I wanted to talk about the legacy of these events and focus on learning the lessons that are necessary to make the industry stronger and, most of all, improving its support amongst the public.

There have been a number of important positive reports recently that can lead to a better understanding of the consequences to the public of nuclear power.

The first being a study by Japanese researchers who found that internal radiation levels in the population around Fukushima are very low.  “Some 99% of residents of Fukushima prefecture and neighbouring Ibaraki have barely detectable levels of internal exposure to cesium 137, a group of Japanese researchers has found. Of the remaining 1%, all showed levels well below the government-set limit.”  Of interest, the levels are much lower than following the Chernobyl accident and indicate low levels of contamination in the food.  This builds on the recent WHO study I reported on last month that says the risk of adverse health impacts from radiation to the Japanese population is very low.

Second, a study was published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute.  They found that nuclear power has saved an estimated 80,000 lives annually – 1.84 million in all – since widely introduced in the 1970s and could save another 5 million if construction continues at a decent pace due to a reduction in air pollution.  Nuclear power has also reduced carbon emissions by 64 Gt over the same period.  This study is important because it quantifies the benefits of nuclear power being clean compared to burning fossil fuels.  Its author, James Hansen is considered an environmental activist who has taken hard positions on a number of environmental issues.

And finally a new draft document by the US Environmental Protection Agency that “would change its long-standing advice to state and local governments about how to limit long-term exposure to radiation after a reactor accident or a “dirty bomb” attack. By reducing the projections for how much radiation exposure is likely in the years after such an episode, the proposal could also reduce the amount of contaminated land that would have to be abandoned.”  This is critically important because finally there is starting to be a discussion on how to best respond in the event of an accident in addition to how to prevent accidents in the first place.

So why talk about reports such as these?  Because I think they are a critical step to ensuring we learn the right lessons following Fukushima.  This will lead to improving the response following accidents, and then ultimately starting a meaningful dialogue to reduce the public fear of nuclear power.

In the industry we often see the focus continuing to be on how to both reduce the risk of accidents in the first place and then ensure that even when there is an event there are no releases of radiation to the environment.  These post-Fukushima lessons learned fall into three broad categories:

  • Reducing the risk of an accident by building better protection against such hazards as earthquakes and tsunamis
  • Ensuring continued cooling of the reactors following an event through the use of portable accessible temporary power to replace safety systems that may have been damaged or destroyed on site; and
  • Better Severe Accident Management Guidance (SAMG) so that even after a severe accident there would be no releases. This includes such protections as hardened vents and recombiners to lower the risk of hydrogen explosions and various sorts of strategies for in-containment retention of any melted core.

But while this is all good, it is not going to get us to the solutions we need as it only goes part of the way there.  We also need to demonstrate that we have clear and effective strategies so that even if there are releases we can protect people and keep them safe.  This means a better understanding of the real health risks of radiation exposure so there can be clear guidelines on when to evacuate and of even more importance when to allow people to return.  And there also needs to be clear guidelines for remediation of land following any amount of contamination and how to go about it.

The latter is absolutely necessary because when it comes to public safety and hence public support, the real issue with nuclear power continues to be fear.  While most people would probably accept that nuclear power provides safe and clean electricity under normal operating conditions; the real fear comes from the belief that even if the risk is small, the consequences of a nuclear accident are too severe to be tolerated by society.  And as long as this belief holds, no matter what the industry does to reduce the risk of an accident, the fear will never change.  The more emphasis we put on trying to make it almost impossible for there to be an accident with releases, the stronger the belief that we must do this because the consequences of releases are just too severe to even contemplate.

This makes nuclear a hard sell to the public because the consequence is seen as real while the risk is less relevant.  People evaluate risk by focusing on the severity of consequences and considering their perceived control over them.  Some people are afraid of flying and not driving even though we all know the risk of dying in an auto accident is significantly higher than in a plane crash.  Why?  In part because we all believe that we are good drivers (control) and even if we have an accident we can survive because not all individual car accidents kill people (severity).  Therefore we can convince ourselves that we likely won’t have an accident and even if we do, it won’t be a bad one.  On the other hand, we may fear flying even though we know the risk is small because we also know that if we are the unlucky ones to be on the one plane that does go down, then we will surely die.  And so it goes for nuclear.  While safe most of the time, the public believes that IF there is an accident our communities will be destroyed by contamination and we will either die or even worse our children and grandchildren may also die from cancer in the future.

This is why need a change of paradigm.  What studies such as the ones above actually show is that:

  • Safely operated nuclear plants save lives every day by not polluting our environment as does burning fossil fuels.  These are real lives saved and the numbers are big.
  • Radiation is not as dangerous as most people think especially at low levels of exposure.  While it is a carcinogen, it is a far less potent carcinogen that many others we see in our everyday lives from many forms of pollution.  In fact we use radiation in medicine to save lives by both diagnosing illness and treating diseases such as cancer.
  • Following really bad accidents such as Fukushima; where the entire area was devastated by a huge natural disaster that made it increasingly difficult to manage the nuclear accident at three reactors at the same site; we have still been able to protect people from radiation.  The result being that to date not even one person has died from it; and studies show the risk of dying in the future to be too low to measure.

But we also know that through extreme fear people have died being evacuated in haste; that people have had their lives disrupted with extreme fear of not knowing if they will have health impacts or not; and that governments do not have clear and effective guidelines for how to remediate following such an event leading to fear causing irrational decisions that actually further fuel the fear. And that is why we need more effort on managing consequences and improving accident response.

So let’s learn the right lessons and start the hard work of changing the paradigm.  Let’s demonstrate to the public that they don’t need to be afraid; that nuclear accidents are very rare; that even when the next accident happens (and it will) that we can effectively keep the public safe from health impacts and protect their homes and their families.

Let’s explain to the public that while the risk of a nuclear accident is much lower than being in a plane crash (and air travel is very safe), so are the consequences.  Because we also know that if we are in a plane accident we will most likely die.  What we need to know is that even after the worst possible nuclear accident we will likely not die – and that our families and children will not suffer serious health impacts.

This is the big change.  Understanding that the risk of a nuclear accident is low and the consequences are indeed manageable is essential to reducing the fear that is so strong amongst the public.  And only without fear can nuclear power fully achieve its potential as the way forward to producing clean abundant energy for a better society.  Now this would be a great lesson learned from Fukushima.

Fukushima – Nobody died from radiation and nobody will, but the fear remains

With the second anniversary of the Fukushima accident having just passed, it was with little fanfare outside of Japan.  There were the requisite articles in the press about Japan and its quest to reform its energy infrastructure.  There was talk about the devastating consequences of the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident.  Those who are pro nuclear continue to state how Fukushima shows that nuclear power is indeed safe while those opposed argue that Fukushima clearly demonstrates why all nuclear power should be eliminated.

Let’s look at it from a different perspective.  I titled this post “Nobody died from radiation and nobody will…” for a reason.   The WHO has just released its report on Fukushima and concluded that there will be an immeasurable increase in cancers in the long term from this event.  While still a somewhat-flawed report (uses the too-conservative linear low dose theory) showing some increased risk for a small group; there is a clear conclusion that radiation from this accident has not been harmful to the people of Japan.  This is great news.  We can draw a conclusion that even after a very bad nuclear accident where there are releases, people can indeed be protected from radiation with no measurable health impact – a very important conclusion for the future of nuclear power and for how we manage possible future events.

There are important lessons the global industry must learn from this event but on this second anniversary I really want to focus on Japan.  We tend to talk about how this accident impacts us as an industry arguing the merits of nuclear power – for now let’s keep our thoughts with the Japanese people who are living it day in and day out.  For these people their suffering is far from over “….but the fear remains”.

First of all, I want to continue to express my sorrow to the Japanese people whose lives have been impacted by this horrific natural disaster.  With over 19,000 dead and hundreds of thousands without their homes (either because it was destroyed or if they were evacuated due to the threat of radiation from the Fukushima accident) these peoples’ lives have been radically altered and to this day many have very uncertain futures.  In addition to families, the economy of the region has been destroyed.

While we in the industry tend to focus on the accident from a technical point of view in most of our analyses, the focus is somewhat different in Japan (I was privileged to visit Japan this past year, but unfortunately not Fukushima).  The following paragraphs come from the official report of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC)– from the Chairman’s message.

“THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.

Many of the lessons relate to policies and procedures, but the most important is one upon which each and every Japanese citizen should reflect very deeply. The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset that supported it can be found across Japan. In recognizing that fact, each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.”

Read the above carefully – and I invite you to read the entire report if you have not had a chance.  So while we focus on the technical, the Japanese people are looking at this accident as a proxy for examining what is wrong with Japan and its culture.  This is a defining event in the country’s history that is making the average Japanese citizen question key aspects of their culture.

Beliefs are powerful – so to note that some of what happened and its severity are due to a set of beliefs must be very difficult.  And as we all know, there is nothing like a crisis to start people thinking about things differently.  Of course it’s not my role to comment on someone else’s culture but only to note how culture can impact us all so profoundly.  If ultimately there is change in Japan, we should applaud the Japanese people as I cannot see anything more difficult than changing the way a society thinks.

I recently read “Strong in the Rain”, one of the first books to chronicle the disaster (the tsunami, not just the nuclear accident).  It tends to look at real families and the impact to them.  It is an interesting read and does help you feel what the people were feeling.

Now let’s go back to the accident itself.  From a technical point of view, the Fukushima plant is now in a safe state.  There is lots of news about how long it will take to complete the cleanup and decommissioning of the site and its cost, but the reality is that the plant is safe.  The concerns going forward are with the contamination of the areas nearby and the ability for people to return to their homes and resume their lives.

We have also seen that the radiation levels in the nearby communities are dropping.  A recent report has shown that levels are down by 40% and a number of people have been allowed to return to their homes.  And, as stated in the WHO report, it is now very clear that none of the Japanese public will suffer direct health effects from exposure to radiation.

But that doesn’t mean there are no health effects.  Similar to those who experienced the accident at Chernobyl, the main impact to health is psychological.  And this comes from the very basic issue of fear.  People are afraid of the impact of radiation to them and their families.  People are afraid of not having a future as their homes have been destroyed.    And in the case of Japan, people are stigmatized – they are ashamed to be from Fukushima.  The result:  depression, chronic anxiety, panic attacks,  lack of understanding of what to do, PTSD, insomnia, headaches ,excessive smoking and alcohol, anger, irritation, anguish and loss of hope.  And of most importance in a society like Japan, there has been a complete loss of trust in authority – people no longer trust the government.  With trust gone, people don’t know where to turn for credible information and, most of all, support as they do their best to recover from this disaster.

It is interesting that recently I have heard the term “social license” being used more and more in conferences and discussions.  Plant owners around the world clearly understand they operate with the permission of the local community, and that sets how the relationship with the community must work.  A loss of trust is a very difficult thing to overcome and rebuilding trust is a long term undertaking.

The fear associated with an accident of this magnitude has broader effects as well.  With no clear standards for decontamination after an accident, the Japanese government set goals of bringing the levels down to pre-accident conditions.  This target is very ambitious and also not likely necessary.  Our extraordinary fears of radiation have resulted in poor decisions being made both during the event and after.  It is now too late to try and convince evacuated people that they can go back to homes with higher levels of radiation than before even if the risk of health consequences is minute.  The damage is done – trust is gone.

Then there is the impact at the national level.  Before Fukushima, nuclear power produced about 30% of the Japanese electricity from 54 reactors.  Now all are down except for 2 units.  With the new regulator in place and their new rules also having been established, more are expected to be brought back this year.  But most will take longer as improvements are made to meet the new requirements.  At least things are going in the right direction.  But in the meanwhile, Japan is being forced to both reduce electricity use (greatly impacting Japanese industry) and pay huge costs for replacement power using fossil fuels, primarily LNG.  Imports were up 25% at a cost of ¥2.5 trillion and about a 4% increase in carbon emissions even though total electricity usage was down.

Lack of a broader focus is not a uniquely Japanese problem – this is a global problem.  We spend all of our energy on preventing accidents and convincing people they won’t happen.  We don’t spend enough time on building a consensus on how to manage after it happens – and if we have learned anything from this at all – accidents will happen.  So this is where we need to do better.  We need to develop clear methodologies for accident mitigation and we certainly are; but once again we are very focused on how to ensure there are no releases in future events.  We also need a consensus on developing safety guides for decontamination or how to manage once radiation has been released.   And most of all we need to think about people; not only how we can best protect them, but then how to give them confidence that they are safe and secure.

There are many positives to be learned from this accident but at this time I leave these to another day.  So to all the Japanese people we wish you well and hope you are all able to return to your lives as quickly as possible.  Our hearts are with you and you are not forgotten.

There is a strength in the people and as Prime Minister Abe told a memorial service in Tokyo on the anniversary also attended by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, “Our ancestors have overcome many difficulties and each time emerged stronger……  We pledge anew to learn from them and move forward, holding each other’s hands.”

With 2012 behind us, what’s next for 2013?

2012 was a challenging year.

The industry continued to see the impact of the Fukushima accident. While the Japanese were working towards a policy of complete nuclear phase out by the 2040s; and other markets were looking at reducing reliance on nuclear power; and significantly France, the most nuclear country in the world, announced it will not extend the life of its oldest plant at Fessenheim as a start towards an “energy transition” for the future.  And finally, the low price of gas in North America fueled by a huge increase in unconventional gas and oil resources continued to stress the economic competitiveness of all cleaner generation alternatives, including nuclear, in North America.

But it was not a year of all negatives. Of tremendous importance was the issuance of the UNSCEAR report that has once and for all addressed the linear low dose theory stating that there is no evidence of measurable health impacts to people below 100 mSv/a.  However; while the data from Fukushima continues to support that there will be no radiation health effects, Japanese people continue to suffer as many remain removed from their homes with their lives on hold.

There were a number of other high points – the first COLs allowing the first new construction to begin in three decades in the United States; the restart of Chinese approvals for new plants, albeit at a reduced level; significant movement towards new build in the UK; and importantly after a tremendously difficult year, the election of a new government in Japan that is starting to put their program back on track.

With all of that behind us, what is next for 2013?  I believe most of us expect a strong year ahead for the industry although I am hesitant to forecast given my previous blog post.

So I will come to it in a different way. Here are some of the events we would like to see happen in the industry in 2013 to keep things moving forward. This is not an exhaustive list as there is just so much going on in the industry around the world; but the highlights of my own personal wish list focused on milestones for the nuclear industry.

  1. A number of plants restart in Japan and, most of all, we would like to see as many people as possible able to return to their homes in the evacuation area and resume their lives.
  2. A strong commitment to the in-service date for the delayed Oikiluoto project in Finland.
  3. China to continue to approve new plants
  4. EDF Energy to reach agreement with the UK government and commit to Hinkley Point C
  5. The Czech Republic to conclude their tendering process and sign a contract for their new project
  6. South Africa to formally start their process for new build
  7. At least one new country move forward with new nuclear plans. (It could be Saudi Arabia, a South East Asian country like Malaysia or Vietnam, or an eastern European country like Poland).
  8. Cameco to start first production from its Cigar Lake Mine
  9. A higher uranium price enabling new mine financing to be arranged (such as the for the Wiluna mine in Western Australia)

But most of all, what we would really like to see is a real shift in the industry to work together on a globally integrated plan to improve public support for nuclear power. There are so many good things happening that now is the time to really work together to address the big issues on people’s minds – these being: re-enforcing the benefits, explaining the risks and mostly reducing the fear. We all know that radiation should not be feared nearly as much as it is and we need to be using the UNSEAR report as a first step to moving the needle. Climate change is here now and we need to move off fossil fuels to save our planet. Nuclear power is a key element of any strategy to reduce carbon and we need to push now and push as hard for a new vision as the oil, coal and gas industries do to maintain the status quo.

So here is my list. What I will ask you to do is first, use the poll below to vote on which of this list you agree is likely to happen this year. And then please add your own comments to add your own expectations to the list. I will then compile the top items in a future post.

 

It’s a new year and the world needs us more than ever.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and get started!