Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A future in nuclear-powered offshore parks?

Countries could co-invest in commercial hubs situated some place safe, fuelled by nuclear energy

Apr 05, 2011

by Kua Harn Wei

The earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan is unlikely to alter the ambitions of many countries around the world to include nuclear power in their future power generation recipe.

Much has also been discussed about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, including ways to ensure safer operations and crisis management. The world certainly has not run out of energy options. Provided there is sufficient political will, there is considerable room for countries to implement non-nuclear energy policies, such as increasing energy efficiency and a carbon tax, that remain committed to the abatement of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, what if nuclear has to be considered as one of the solutions by some countries? There is always some degree of danger in going nuclear.

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest an idea that may make it a little safer. It would require us to change the way we think and, more importantly, overcome three common mental blocks associated with nuclear energy use.

They are the assumptions that to use nuclear energy, one must exclusively own a nuclear energy plant; that a country must physically have a power plant in its backyard; and that using nuclear energy means the electricity flowing into our homes and factories must come directly from a nuclear energy source.

There are several nuclear power stations situated in earthquake high-risk areas. If a country can locate its nuclear power plant on to an offshore mega structure - one several times the size of an offshore oil rig - in an area with minimal risk of earthquakes, the overall danger would be reduced.

A project of such a nature would necessarily be more expensive than conventional onshore installations. A few countries might then come to an agreement to co-invest, and hence "co-own", such a nuclear plant. It is likely such an offshore installation would be situated very far from the owner countries, perhaps even encroach on the sea territories of non-owner countries.

International guidelines would have to be drawn up to determine, among other things, the minimum distances of these offshore installations from populated areas. The use of the location could be treated as a rental from the non-owner countries.

In some cases, it might be possible to transmit generated electricity to the owner countries via submarine power cables. If the distances are vast, however, using these cables becomes unviable and overwhelmingly expensive.

Every one of us consumes different types of electrical energy. For example, there is the energy that we use directly to power our laptop computers; we also indirectly consume energy that has gone into the manufacturing and procurement of our laptops (also known as embodied energy).

Owner countries can choose to enjoy the nuclear-generated electricity from these offshore installations not as the first, but the second type of electricity. One possibility is to establish an offshore nuclear energy commercial park in the vicinity of the power station, either on mega structures or on reclaimed land.

Qualified companies and factories could be sited in this park, their operations powered exclusively by the nuclear plant. Owner countries could benefit either by procuring the manufactured goods directly or by exporting the goods. In these ways, owner countries can enjoy the pay-offs of nuclear energy and contribute indirectly to climate change mitigation.

Of course, if the distances allow, nuclear-generated electricity can also be cabled and sold to non-owner countries in the vicinity of the plant.

For the idea of an offshore nuclear-powered commercial park to work, it must be more than just an industrial estate - it has to also be a conducive and attractive setting for work, play and living. Companies could be given attractive financial incentive packages to set up shop in the park, including a certain volume of guaranteed orders from owner countries.

However, these companies must also meet very stringent standards in product quality. Currently, the world has a comprehensive set of international operation standards on ensuring safety in nuclear plant design and operation (such as those under the International Standards Organization).

We should also consider creating a set of certification requirements on an organisation's emergency readiness during a nuclear accident, including mastering knowledge on survival, evacuation and first aid. Before companies can operate in these commercial parks, they must attain such certification.

Having said that, there is always a danger of "out of sight, out of mind" attitudes among owner countries leading to lapses in attention paid to safety and security, including the careless disposal of radioactive wastes.

To ensure that safety is not compromised, all parties involved in the location, building and operation of the power plant must agree to abide by international laws under, say, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But ultimately, the move to pursue other forms of alternative energy - including embodying nuclear - should not preclude one from embracing energy efficiency.

And before we speak out against any form of energy, we should perhaps ask ourselves: "What have I done today to be more energy efficient?"

Dr Kua Harn Wei is an Associate Fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Assistant Professor in the Department of Building, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore.

Each year. on average, 35 U.S. coal miners are killed and 4,000 are injured. In China, 2,600 coal miners were killed in 2009, following 3,200 dead in 2008. (Recent U.S. uranium mining deaths: zero.) Coal-burning power plants release close to three times as much radioactivity as nuclear plants. I focus on coal because it's the one other energy source we can count on to deliver a big piece of predicted rising demand, but even solar cell manufacture involves toxic waste production.

Point is, there's no risk-free way to do this. Is radiation sickness or cancer a horrible way to die? Yeah. So is black lung.
— Cecil Adams

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