The Safety Vote

Deck: 

A prerequisite for sustained nuclear renaissance.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2009

After being out in the cold for many years, nuclear energy is again being embraced as an important source for large-scale energy production. Media, academics, and industry alike have popularized the phrase “nuclear renaissance.” Four converging trends have made this possible: tight energy supply and demand balance, security of energy supply, climate-change related issues, and the maturation of the nuclear power industry.

With safety as its central focus, the industry will be well positioned for the nuclear renaissance.

Supply and Demand

Globally, long-term primary energy supplies are tight, especially oil and gas. Limited resources and insufficient investment over the past 20 to 30 years were compounded by increasing demands from fast-growing developing economies. As a result, oil prices were subject to speculation and record highs. The present economic recession has led to a strong decrease in oil prices during the past months, based on the anticipated reduction in energy demands in both developed and developing countries. However, prices likely will rise again in the longer term and when the economic crisis ends.

The previous tensions will reappear and even could be exacerbated by the lack of investment during the recession. Such delayed investments will be especially problematic in long lead-time energy projects, including base-load power plants. A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that a global investment of $26 trillion is required to build new electricity plants to replace aging facilities and to match the demand for electricity growth.

At the same time, energy-source diversification has become a global priority. Nuclear plants require uranium supplies, which fortunately are abundant and geographically well distributed. Uranium’s high energy content allows countries that have invested in nuclear energy and their power plant operators to easily maintain strategic multi-year stockpiles. In addition, as the price of uranium is only a small component of the total cost of producing nuclear energy, uranium-price volatility has a minimal effect on the cost of nuclear electricity. As a result, countries that have implemented large nuclear programs have increased their energy independence.

At the same time, climate-change issues quickly have become a serious concern for politicians and populations across the globe. The need to build carbon-free electricity generation plants makes nuclear energy a very attractive option. At present, nuclear and hydropower are the only carbon-free energy sources that are able to produce large volumes of schedulable electricity at an affordable cost.

Thanks to such institutions as the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), plant operators can exchange experiences and best practices through various channels. For example, peer-to-peer reviews allow U.S. nuclear operators to improve plant safety, availability and reliability. Also, mergers and acquisitions among operators have created larger players with better industry skill pools. Financially, these amortized nuclear plants with high availability and high output became attractive to investors again.

In the United States, the strong and accelerated construction timetable presented by the McCain campaign (45 new plants by 2030) now is replaced with President Obama’s energy policy. The new administration is focused on the safety of radioactive waste disposal, the approvals processes, and secure and efficient operations of both existing and new plants. Thus, this is an excellent time to recap the prerequisites for a sustained nuclear renaissance, and to make sure the trend successfully is sustained.

Mitigating Risks

As with other large-scale industrial projects, nuclear plant construction carries many risks, which are mitigated with some unique and especially safety-stringent requirements. The ability to meet these requirements is one of the chief prerequisites for the nuclear power industry to succeed.

Safety questions apply at every stage of plant development and operation:

• Strong and independent safety authorities;

• Safe plant designs;

• Build right;

• Stringent plant safety management;

• Sustained and safe solutions for radioactive waste;

• Competent human resources; and

• Transparent communications to ensure public acceptance.

In the past, such incidents as the Three Mile Island leak in the United States and the Chernobyl accident in Russia significantly impeded industry growth. The evolution of communications in the time since these accidents means that even small issues on a regional level can produce massive effects on the nuclear renaissance.

Paramount to the success and public acceptance of nuclear energy is the application of stringent safety management over the entire lifetime of nuclear power plants. Independent safety authorities are critical to establishing rigorous operations processes and to monitor and enforce policy.

In nuclear regions such as Europe or North America, the first step is to reinforce existing safety authorities to enable them to deal not only with existing plants, but also to assess and then approve the design and the construction of new plants. However, seasoned nuclear safety experts are in scarce supply today. To counter this dearth of knowledge, a holistic approach should be taken, one that includes building a strong and optimized talent pool and developing international cooperation to share knowledge and avoid duplication.

The importance of safe design and safe building is obvious: The Chernobyl plant didn’t have an intrinsically safe functioning mode—and like many Soviet-designed plants at the time—lacked a containment building. The present Western second generation reactors (PWRs and BWRs) are intrinsically safer and all have containment buildings. Third generation nuclear plant designs are the basis for most of the newly planned constructions. Plants such as Westinghouse’s AP1000, Areva’s EPR, and General Electric’s ABWR fall into this category. These new designs and models have improved safety features when compared to second generation plants.

Many countries today are funding research on the fourth generation of nuclear plant design: reactors that would be safer, use less uranium and generate less waste. In order to improve radioactive waste management, the French Atomic Energy Commission is building a prototype research facility to assess long lifetimes and highly radioactive waste’s transmutation into low-level, short lifetime elements that are much easier to handle.

Research and development funding needs to be increased in existing nuclear countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, but also in the new nuclear countries such as China.

Build Right, Operate Right

In most parts of the world except for Asia, nuclear plant construction almost completely stopped for 20 years. The whole value chain in construction was dormant. Only active nuclear operators have been working on improving the security, reliability and availability of their plants. In developed countries, the former and potentially new vendors, suppliers, utilities, financial, research, development and academic institutions have lost interest in the industry.

Now with increasing interest in building new plants, nuclear reactor vendors worldwide have to grow their production capacities, including heavy equipment forging plants where strict quality-control procedures are enforced. It will take time for these vendors to ramp up their production capacity again. Though vendors usually have a few years of lead time from order to delivery, they need to start preparations now in anticipation of a busy growth period in the industry.

Aside from these big vendors, there’s a need to reinvigorate or to create an industrial network of nuclear components and services providers by establishing a map of critical competencies; deciding what should be provided at the national or local levels and what could be imported; identifying the gaps; and creating the right incentives to bridge those gaps.

This should be a very rewarding exercise for companies and governments that choose to invest. The U.K. government has declared, “A new fleet of reactors would potentially create up to 100,000 jobs and represent about £20 billion worth of business for UK companies.” In a long-term financial and energy crisis, these numbers are worthy of consideration.

Likewise, nuclear plants create thousands of operations and maintenance jobs. During the long years of operations (40 to 60 or more years), nuclear power plants must have strict procedural adherence and a culture of safety to guide their personnel. Sound safety policies and practices, along with processes implementation, are vital for the success of the plant operations and the industry as a whole. Savvy nuclear operators will promote a culture where personnel are encouraged to report—as soon as possible—the smallest incident or non-compliance with the operations processes, with the understanding that this is done in the interest of knowledge improvement and ultimately security and safety enhancement.

Finally, implementation of the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) provides considerably improved nuclear operators’ transparency towards safety authorities and the public. Other programs, like the aforementioned by INPO and WANO, demonstrated positive impacts on the industry internally and externally. These programs contributed to the worldwide knowledge of the nuclear power industry operations—translating to date to over 12,000 reactor years of experience. Progress has been made not only on plant electricity output, but also on workers’ protection and decreased incident rates.

Competent human resources are indispensible for safe operations, and in today’s working environment, the aging workforce is a major issue. Safety authorities, vendors and operators all need to push for massive recruitment of personnel to replace retiring baby boomers and meet growing demand for talented and trained staff. This squeeze is exacerbated by a few factors: staff layoffs over the last decade for cost control; lack of interest in nuclear engineering among young students; and the decline of nuclear engineering courses in higher education.

In a report published in May 2008, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated that about 35 percent of those working at U.S. nuclear utilities will be eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years, and that 90,000 new workers will be needed by 2011. In the U.K., the government also is taking measures to meet the expected high levels of demand for trained staff in the industry by working together with the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, an association grouping all the British Nuclear stakeholders.

By pursuing large-scale, integrated programs, nuclear energy operators will overcome the human resources gap. Such programs will include specific training and recruitment efforts, as well as efforts aimed at retaining senior “grey hair” specialists. Additionally, operators will use new knowledge management tools, streamline internal processes, outsource non-core activities and modify the working environment to retain the newer generation of employees.

Fuel Cycle Solutions

Spent fuel and radioactive waste disposal are the most controversial topics surrounding nuclear energy. Some high-level radioactive wastes have very long lifetimes, measured in millions of years. These materials need to be disposed in the safest way possible. As mentioned, in the longer term, scientific and industrial progress will allow them to be converted into low-level, short lifetime wastes, for example, by transmutation. In the meantime, sound treatment of these wastes is the nuclear energy industry’s primary social responsibility, and a critical success factor for the industry’s long-term survival.

Today, there are two main used fuel treatment options: open fuel cycle and closed fuel cycle. The open fuel cycle consists of storing the used nuclear fuel in geologically stable repositories. This is the Swedish and Finnish option. The closed fuel cycle consists of reprocessing the used fuel, recycling the extracted uranium and plutonium in Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, vitrifying the high-level radioactive wastes and storing them in geologically-stable repositories. This industrial process is the French, British and Japanese option. Recycling uranium and plutonium in MOX fuel allows 30 percent more energy to be extracted from the original uranium and leads to a great reduction in the amount of waste to be disposed. This process also preserves uranium resources. Overall, the cost of closed fuel cycle treatment is comparable with that of open fuel cycle.

The United States stopped nuclear fuel reprocessing under a mandate from President Jimmy Carter, and in 1982, the congress elected to directly store used fuel at the Yucca Mountain Repository site. According to the original plan, the site should have been opened in 1998. However, this project is neither accepted by the U.S. Congress, nor by the local population, nor by President Obama, who has stated a goal to shut the site down. Meanwhile, the project costs have skyrocketed. In August 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated its costs at $96 billion, a 67-percent increase from the 2001 estimation. Rising costs and uncertainty for nuclear-waste treatment and disposal represents a serious obstacle for a U.S. nuclear renaissance. Reprocessing and recycling options should be revisited in the United States.

Transparent Communications

The safe operations record of nuclear facilities over the last two decades, combined with better communications efforts, have favorably influenced general public opinion on nuclear energy. But even with this remarkable win for the industry, there is still a long way to go before the public is truly convinced about nuclear energy.

Of course, industry vigilance at all levels is the key to preventing nuclear accidents or major incidents from happening. But only with public acceptance and positive public opinion will the nuclear energy industry have occasion to demonstrate its enormous potential. If the public is not convinced, national and local opposition could deteriorate the economics of nuclear energy by creating big project overruns. At the extreme, it could kill the nuclear energy programs altogether, and deprive some countries of a schedulable, financially competitive and CO2-free energy source.

Active and open communication is critical for the industry’s future. Governments will play a role in this communication effort, by disseminating information on today’s energy and climate change issues and on possible solutions—including nuclear energy. And nuclear operators also will play an important role, by providing the public with all possible relevant information, in an easy to understand way, and in a timely manner.

In every aspect of the industry—from planning through decommissioning and spent fuel management—safety is the keystone that will sustain the current industry and support a nuclear renaissance.