Nuclear Power: The U-turn in nuclear power policy
Vested interests are pushing South-east Asia to adopt nuclear power, when alternative energy sources are now available.
By Barry Desker For The Straits Times
AS 2014 approaches, South-east Asian states are moving ahead with plans to push ahead with nuclear power plants. In doing this, they are being supported by generous terms provided by the governments of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and France, which will provide the technology.
Singapore, however, has concluded that the safety risks are too high and current technology is not advanced enough to embark on the use of nuclear power. In a parliamentary statement in October last year, the Government announced that it will not pursue the nuclear option at the present time. This makes Singapore an exception.
Vietnam is the most advanced, with two Russian-built reactors to be completed by 2020 followed by two Japanese reactors in southern Ninh Thuan province. Another six reactors are proposed.
In Thailand, two reactors are planned and four are being considered.
Malaysia plans to build two reactors in coastal areas of southern Johor.
Indonesia is considering smaller reactors on Bangka island and in West Kalimantan.
The Philippines is debating re-commissioning a nuclear plant built in Bataan by Westinghouse Corp of the United States in the 1980s. As a result of both safety and political concerns, this power plant has never been operational. It was built close to a seismic fault line near the then-dormant Mount Pinatubo, and was also at the centre of intensive corruption investigations.
Major shift in approach
THE shift towards nuclear power marks a major about-turn in the region.
Like the rest of the world, there was a fundamental re-thinking in South-east Asia following the March 2011 tsunami and destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The safety risks of nuclear power gained global attention and led to a major shift in perceptions in developed countries. Germany took the lead in moving to close down existing nuclear power facilities.
However, barely 21/2 years later, the nuclear power lobby has been effective in getting governments in South-east Asia to reassess the situation and to proceed with their original plans.
The effectiveness of such lobbying occurs because of shared perspectives. The builders of nuclear power plants are attracted by the possibility of new customers to replace vanishing developed country consumers, governments are keen to reduce their reliance on imported energy, and domestic scientific lobbies are eager to deploy cutting-edge technology.
But it is the search for energy security that is at the heart of the turn to nuclear energy. Although there is consumer resistance because of the fear of nuclear accidents, it is largely unorganised. Critics of nuclear power are usually confined to civil society groups at the margins of policymaking.
No more energy scarcity
IRONICALLY, this move to nuclear energy is taking place at a time when the energy scarcity envisaged a decade ago is being overturned. New developments include clean coal technologies, shale oil and gas discoveries, the exploitation of geo-thermal and biofuel resources and advances in solar and wind power. These resources are abundantly available in South-east Asia.
Policymakers are driven by mental models of a world whose future seemed clearly charted a decade ago. Sharply increasing fossil fuel prices at that time made nuclear power an attractive policy option, especially as governments had to meet the challenge of growing budget deficits with rising fuel subsidies.
While the cost of nuclear power remains high, the rapidly increasing exploitation of shale gas will drive down energy costs in the region, especially as Australian sources come on-stream. Clean coal technologies pioneered by China and the United States will also reduce the carbon emissions of coal-fired power plants.
INDONESIA is a classic example of how these alternatives are in danger of being ignored. Policymakers backed by the National Nuclear Energy Agency (Batan) are pushing for nuclear power despite the country’s abundant resources of coal, geo-thermal energy as well as solar and wind power. As the world’s leading palm oil producer, Indonesia is also a major source of biofuels.
Nuclear power advocates emerged soon after the 2009 elections, even though it was absent from electoral debates.
A similar situation can be expected after the 2014 elections. Since the mid-1980s, Batan has pushed for the development of a nuclear power plant on the slopes of the Muria peninsula, a dormant volcano in a seismically active area in north central Java.
Its plans were first delayed by the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and later by the strong opposition of the local population in a newly democratic Indonesia. After examining a range of other options, Batan is now contemplating smaller nuclear plants in Bangka island and in West Kalimantan.
However, neither proposal is cost-effective. As the main users of electricity are in Java, undersea cables would be used to transmit the power generated, resulting in a significant transmission loss.
In any case, plentiful coal is available in Kalimantan and coal-fired plants using state-of-the-art clean coal technologies are significantly cheaper to operate than nuclear power plants with the latest technology.
IN INDONESIA, Batan has been fixated with the nuclear power option. However, in 2011, Indonesia’s Deputy Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Widjajono Partowidagdo noted that Indonesia was not ready to build a nuclear power plant because of the level of corruption and weak supervision in the country.
Similarly, Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report, cited in the Japanese Diet’s report on the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, noted that Japanese cultural conventions, cliquish behaviour and the tendency not to question authority could have an impact on safety management and governance. Such attitudes also characterise South-east Asian societies beyond Indonesia.
Although advocates of nuclear power technology argue that the technology used will be more advanced than in the Fukushima reactors, they have not focused on South-east Asia’s bureaucratic culture of obedience and deference as well as the willingness to take short cuts and compromise on quality and efficiency.
Even in Singapore, similar problems can occur. The failings of our MRT system demonstrated that in 2011-2012.
The writer is the dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to restart Japan’s idled nuclear reactors to cut the cost of fossil fuel imports used by power stations, which have swelled the trade deficit to a record and driven up electricity prices.
The recommendation, if adopted, could put atomic power back into Japan’s energy mix after the previous government decided to abandon it following triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant north of Tokyo, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
“Nuclear energy is an important and fundamental base energy source that will support the stability of energy demand and supply,” the panel wrote in its report, adding that securing safety was paramount in utilising atomic power.
There was no recommendation on the proportion of energy that should come from nuclear power.
The panel is headed by Mr Akio Mimura, honorary chairman of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, Japan’s largest steel maker and one of its heaviest electricity users.
The Fukushima disaster highlighted regulatory shortcomings and lack of preparation in an industry long cosseted by Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which swept back to power a year ago.
The panel also said Japan should publicise information on safety measures taken after the disaster, its new regulatory standards and the economics of nuclear power.
The crisis led to the gradual shutdown of all Japan’s nuclear reactors. They remain idled, while a new, more independent regulator assesses their ability to withstand natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The previous Democratic Party of Japan government had accepted a recommendation from a similar panel to abandon nuclear power sometime in the 2030s.
Opposition to atomic energy remains high and all of Japan’s political parties, including the LDP’s coalition partner, oppose nuclear power, which provided about 30 per cent of electricity before the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
Prior to the disaster the government had envisaged increasing the contribution of nuclear energy to 50 per cent.
So shouldn't we fear accidents at Nuclear Power Stations?
Chernobyl & Fukushima are at best Generation II reactors. They came online in the 70s and at the time Generation II reactors were the best available technology. However, as evident from the difficulties in containing the accident at Fukushima, the problem with Gen II reactors is that in case of malfunction, safety systems or containment protocols have to be actively engaged with electrical or mechanical operation of these safety system. With Gen III+ systems and in Gen IV systems (theoretical, not available now, maybe by 2030), safety features are passive. That means, in case of a malfunction or accident, the reactor will shut-down without the need for active intervention by the staff. It's like the "Dead man's brake" on the old locomotive. If the train engineer dies or is otherwise unconscious, the train will stop by itself. This prevents runaway trains.
Okay, so just because it is safer, doesn't mean that we should go nuclear, does it? What about all the new energy sources being discovered - clean coal, shale oil, and gas. And not to mention wind and solar energy.
Yes. Let's not mention Wind and Solar energy. They are unlikely to be major sources of power.
As for "clean coal", it is really not that clean. Unless there is a proven method to sequester most if not all of the CO2.
Shale oil? Gas? They are cheaper (than nuclear) and the new discoveries will buy us some time as we move towards a more permanent solution. It will mean a few more decades of cheap energy, but these are not renewable and inexhaustible energy sources. They will run out. And until then they will also add to the CO2 pollution and continue to aggravate the environmental/climate change situation. For the mid to long-term, Nuclear Power will have to step in but it takes time to build nuclear power plants - 10 years or more. And the nuclear power plants that Singapore wants (Gen IV reactors), are 20 years away.
Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are already online or coming online over the next few years and may be the way to go in the interim and for isolated communities or cities. The design of these reactors are also "safer" as it is mostly "plug and play" with little need for transfer of technology or a learning curve. These modular reactors are designed to be installed, plugged into the grid, and run with minimal human inputs. After about 30 years, the nuclear fuel is spent, and the reactor is removed and replaced with a new module. The spent module is then returned to the manufacturer for disposal or recycling.
SMR are easy to use, easy to install, needs no maintenance, and has passive safety features that will make it safe to operate. However, Singapore may not want an SMR, as there will be little possibility for technology transfer, if that is a consideration. Also the technology, safety advantages are not without controversy, or its detractors. Critics point out that proponents of SMR may be overly optimistic and over-selling the advantages of SMR. Which explains Singapore's reticence.
However, the real long-term solution is new energy tech. The outlook at this point is rather dismal.
Wind and Solar suffers from low energy density. There is a lot of solar power but it is diffused. You will need lots and lots of space to collect all that solar energy, concentrate it and then distribute it. And of course space is a constraint in Singapore. The simple fact is that no matter how efficient solar energy becomes, it cannot create energy. Only convert it, and there is only so much to convert.
Wind is also diffused, variable, and only in certain places is it viable to construct wind farms to collect wind energy.
Geo-thermal is also site specific.
Bio-fuels has two problems. One is that it takes away arable land for food crops. The second problem is that it may also not be very efficient after you cost the energy it takes to grow bio-fuels.
But perhaps the eventual long-term solution is not even on the radar as yet. Until then, shale oil can buy us some time to build nuclear power plants to take over when the shale oil production drops too much, or the price increases too much. And all this is just to buy us time to get to the next reliable, non-polluting energy source.]