Reflections on the 2015 Future of Nuclear Conference

On Tuesday, November 10th, experts, leaders, and academics from a range of disciplines joined together for the Future of Nuclear 2015 conference. The conference, organized by Mindfirst Inc., focused on the topic of decommissioning and dealing with the various scientific and social dimensions of the nuclear power life-cycle.

While we can’t address every topic or idea discussed during the conference in this short review, we want to focus on a just a few key takeaways and impressions of the event.

When Dialogue is More Than Mere Discussion

Perhaps the most important theme explored by our speakers and guests was that of community engagement and public relations. It is an obvious point, perhaps, that the communities directly impacted by nuclear energy operations should have a say in the plans of industry. But, it is worth bearing in mind the various forms that consultation can take. At one level, we can think about the required environmental and local consultations that take place. These are, without a doubt, necessary for the development of new plants, the decommissioning of old ones, and the building of waste handling facilities.

However, at another level, we have a closer, more intertwined relationship between all of the parties impacted by the nuclear power life-cycle. This represents, in short, a more respectful and sympathetic level of engagement. We learned that many parties involved in discussions should not simply be deemed “stakeholders” – a phrase so often used in business that it often begins to lose meaning. Rather, many hold deep and complex emotions and ideas relating to the complex plans of industry. We are talking about First Nation people, employees, local residents, and others.

It is therefore incumbent that whenever a project is proposed, a schematic drawn, or a debate waged – that all parties communicate not from a position of distrust and cynicism, but from one of mutual and earned respect. These are not new lessons, in fact many signs point to this new approach already being taken in industry planning today, but they are lessons we must return to and remind ourselves of frequently.

They Blinded Me with Science

The second major theme of the conference related to the use and understanding of scientific knowledge relating to radiation. Indeed, ideas about radiation – whether fact or folk – are inexorably tied to the debates surrounding nuclear energy development and decommissioning. Over the last century, we have learned a great deal about radiation. We learned about the constant level of radiation that surrounds us, the possible curative and diagnostic uses of radiation in medicine, and, yes, about its tremendous potential to produce energy for good and for ill.

Those within the industry and scientists who are experts in nuclear technologies know well the myths that surround their work. Many people think first of Bruce Banner and the Hulk when they hear the word radiation. Or, they may immediately turn to thoughts of Fukushima, Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island. As experts and insiders have noted, it is often difficult to contextualize or dispel these impressions and intuitions.

A quote often attributed to Arnold H Glasow observes that: the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion. The question is, can more facts weaken opinions, or change them? This question is too thorny, and too tangential, to review here. But, what we can say for now is that many years of study and fact finding has lead to a great deal of information on nuclear energy and it’s effects on humans, the environment, and the economy. However, that wealth has not always been enjoyed by the public as world events, war, and periodic disaster has intervened to obfuscate the scientific, big-t “Truth” (which is itself a moving, fluid reflection of current knowledge and research) with many varied and thorny small-t truths.

How does industry and science overcome this? That remains an open question. But discussion, education, and engagement is a start and we hope that the conference played a role in just that.

Conclusions and Next Steps

It is a joke in academia that every paper ends with a call for more research. While indeed funny, this trope signals a larger principle at play in all scientific, academic, and industry work. We are constantly making and remaking history. As many speakers noted, we have a duty to not only deal with the mistakes and decisions of the past but to plan for the future. No one knows for sure what the next chapter may bring for nuclear energy, but we cannot wait to let it be written in haste decades from now.

Technologies and ideas exist to deal with nuclear waste, to recycle and safely store it, to harness it for good and prevent it from being used for bad. Nothing is 100% certain or foolproof, no reasonable person believes that. We are constantly in a process of perfecting processes, ideas, and technologies. But often, we must make a decision to go forward with projects after we’ve collected all the evidence and studied every facet that we can. We do so while remaining flexible and open to change. That is the most sensible way. 

The story of the future of nuclear remains to be told, but we can be sure that the people who joined us Tuesday are going to be part of that story and we hope that wherever you, our readers, may be, that you too may be able to help guide the way.

News in Depth: Visualizing Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy

Development of nuclear power can be said to be just as much a public relations problem as it is an engineering one. This, of course, is not news to any government, company, or organization involved in nuclear energy projects. However, what is often missing in discussions is a long-term view supported by hard public opinion data.

Kathleen Weldon, Research Coordinator for the Roper Center for Public Opinion, recently wrote an article in the Huffington Post covering just such data. Her analysis provides us with a unique example of how public opinon on nuclear energy has evolved in the US over the last half-century. In this week’s News in Depth, we explore these trends and reflect on what they mean for the industry both in US and abroad.

The Key Numbers and Trends

Weldon sets up the article with this question: “Do Americans seea nuclear plant as a devastating accident waiting to happen – or the solution to climate change?” The Roper Center’s data stretches back to 1945, when 48% of people polled said they expected atomic power to be put to general use within ten years. In 1957, another survey found that 56 percent thought it could help if used wisely.

These generally positive early numbers shifted slightly lower after the construction of the US’s first nuclear power plant in 1958, with a poll saying that 45 percent believed that the development of nuclear power is beneficial to mankind.

However, over the next few decades the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi incidents would have serious repurcussions on the public’s attitude towards nuclear power.

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(Image Source: Roper Center via the Huffington Post)

While the responses to the poll were still split in the 1979, right in the heart of th energy crisis, the public was increasingly weary of futher plant construction throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

However, the broad trend throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s was for increasing support of using nuclear energy as a way to provide electricity in the US. The most recent data, from 2015, shows the lowest level of support in decades owing in part to the Fukushima Daiichi incident in 2011.

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(Image Source: Roper Center via the Huffington Post)

Analysis and Conclusions

As Weldon notes, the history and opposition to nuclear power has been defined not just by a series of accidents, but also by the industry’s role in reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emmissions. Interestly, the story is one of the public’s misunderstanding of the role and effect of nuclear energy on the environment. She writes that

polls over the last decade have shown that most Americans do not make strong associations between nuclear energy and climate change solutions. Furthermore, 44 percent believe that nuclear plants contribute a lot or some to global warming.

That last figure is worth repeating: as of 2010, 44% of respondents believed that nuclear plants contribute to “a lot or some” to global warming.

What we see then is a disconnect between public knowledge and the reality of nuclear power. While there are definite challenges in the industry – including safety, decommisioning, and waste handling – one the clear benefits is that it is effectively a zero-carbon emmission energy source.

Thus, one of the biggest projects facing the industry and policy makers alike is one of education and public engagement. As Weldon concludes, if the “public came to associate nuclear energy closely with preventing climate change, support for nuclear would likely increase.” Such association in the public consciousness will take time, but it is a important goal and one that will make the process of development more inclusive and effective in the US and abroad.

News in Depth: Dave Toke’s Cost Comparison of Nuclear and Wind

On May 15, Dave Toke, a Reader in Energy Politics at the University of Aberdeen, shared his analysis of the cost between nuclear power and both onshore and offshore wind power. Toke concluded that nuclear is, on the whole, more expsensive than both wind sources.

In this week’s News in Depth, we take a look at Toke’s analysis and discuss whether his conclusions and assumptions can apply in different context.

Comparing Nuclear with Wind Cost: Understanding the Numbers

Toke compares energy costs by using two main sources. First, he cites the UK Government’s 2013 contract with the operators of the Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset, England. The Government agreed to pay the price of £92.50 per/MWh over 35 years with a £10 billion loan guaranteed by the Treasury. Adjusted for inflation, the price is now closer to £94 per/MWh.

Toke then contrasts that example with the Government’s February announcement of new onshore and offshore windfarm contracts at £80 per/MWh and £120 per/MHh respectively over a shorter 15 year term (with no loan guarantee by Treasury). He notes that that these installations are yet to be built and thus he has to assume that these prices will remain stable for years.

So how does Toke arrive at his headline cost comparison figures of £83 per/MWh for nuclear, £78 per/MWh for offshore wind, and £73 per/MWh for onshore wind? For the full breakdown, please take a moment to read Toke’s full post. However, for context, know that Toke is taking a longer term view, building in the cost of refurbishment of both nuclear facilities and wind turbines.

He assumes a lifespan of 45 years for nuclear – lower than what he calls the wrongfully “accepted average” – and a lifespan of 45 years for wind (with a refurbishment after 25 years). He argues that the refurbishment of the wind turbines is much less expensive than the initial construction costs, as the foundations and electrical infrastructure can remain in place. As a result, both offshore and onshore wind are, in his analysis, much cheaper than nuclear. Toke concludes:

Hence we can see that both onshore wind and offshore wind are cheaper over 45 years even before we take the considerable advantage given to nuclear power by the loan guarantee on offer and also that the prospect of cost reductions is much stronger in the case of wind power than nuclear power.

Cost Comparison

Image Source: Dave Toke’s Green Energy Blog

The Take-Away’s and Potential Criticisms of Toke’s Analysis

So what are the potential takeaways and criticisms of Toke’s comparison? It must be said that his comparison is of course site specific, but there is little use in criticizing or dismissing his numbers simply because of their limited scope. Rather, we have to think about both the wider repercussions of his conclusions and about what his analysis elides: what assumptions are at play and what figures are not addressed?

It’s clear that one missing element is any discussion of the nature of the power sources themselves. Namely, nuclear, on the whole, provides a steady source of energy production during operation. Wind and solar are susceptible to the elements. I am not claiming that Toke is ignoring such a basic idea, he is looking at the averages here and at the government contract values, but it is nevertheless useful to bear in mind the fundamental difference in how the energy is produced if we are too think about cost in a broader sense.

Toke also makes assumptions about the refurbishment costs and construction methods employed in the offshore wind installations. Notably, he hedges when discussing the scope of refurbishment,

if they are refurbished (say after 20 years) the costs may NOT include the foundations, towers and electrical connections since they will already exist.

While assumptions like these may be informed and necessary for the short analysis of a blog post, they potentially undermine the profundity of the final conclusion regarding the cost benefits of solar vs. nuclear. The costs may indeed be lower, but such conclusions will take time to be tested in the years to come.

Presentation from May 27 Seminar re. Developments in Nuclear Liability in India

Thank you to everyone who attended our seminar on May 27 regarding developments in nuclear trade and liability in India with Els Reynaers, Partner at M.V. Kini and Co., and President of the International Nuclear Law Association.  As requested by some of our guests, the presentation slides are now available to be viewed and downloaded from our site.

CLICK HERE to view Els’ presentation slides from the seminar.

 

 

News Brief: Nuclear Power Developments in Argentina

Dan Yurman’s recent article for the Energy Collective sheds new light on Argentina’s recent nuclear power developments. Yurman higlights deals for three new nuclear reactors and the the country’s new R&D program focused on the development of a 25 MWe SMR based on a PWR design.

Key facts of the three new reactors include:

  • China’s CNNC is financing two of the new reactors for a total of deal worth $13 billion USD.
  • Russia’s Rosatom is partnering for the third reactor, financing $6 billion USD.
  • Despite these financing deals, Argentina will need to seek further financing, likely from international markets
  • The Chinese reactors are a 800 MW PHWR Candu type reactor scheduled for 2016, and later a new CNNC 1100 MW Hualong One reactor. Rosatom’s reactor is a 1200 MW VVER design.

Yurman also highlights the developmend of a 25 MWe SMR by CNEA (the National Atomic Energy Commission) that is positioned “to be used to supply energy for areas with small populations or, potentially, for supplying power to desalination plants in costal areas.

Nuclear Energy in Argentina

According to World Nuclear Association’s country profile, Argentina currently has three nuclear reactors generating about one-tenth of its electricity. In 2007, per capita energy consumption was over 2600 kWh/yr. In 2012, gross electicity production included 73 TWh from gas, 30 TWh from hydroelectric, 20 TWh from oil, 3 TWh from coal, and 6.4 TWh from nuclear.

Argentina’s electicity production is largely privatised, and is regulated from ENRE (Ente Nacional Regulador de la Electricidad). Yurman, in his article on Argentina’s future nuclear energy plans, describes the three existing reactors:

the profile of installed units includes three PWHR Candu type reactors the oldest of which was built in 1974 (Atucha 1). Atucha 2, a 700 MW PHWR entered revenue service in 2014, and a third unit Embalse, a 600 MW Candu 6, was completed in 1983.

The deals with China and Russia enable a rapid shift in Argentina’s energy mix, with an increasing focus on cutting carbon emmissions. However, questions remain as to whether Argentina can afford major new nuclear infrastructure. As an April 2015 op-ed by Jason Marczak in the World Politics Review noted, Argentina is often an afterthought for investors looking to invest internationally, due to political instabilitity and the fallout from the sovereign debt default in the early 2000s.

However, with presidential elections later this year, there is renewed optimism in Argentina and, perhaps, a chance that international investors will begin to reconsider their skepticism. Renewed investment will make help to catapult the recent Chinese and Russian deals, and the local SMR development, from the early stages of today towards a brighter future.

Special Report: Nuclear Law and Liability Developments in India (Part 2 of 3)

Introduction

Last week, in Part 1 of this Special Report, we explored the history of India’s nuclear law liability regime and the passing of the 2010 Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act. We ended by highlighting how the 2010 Liability Act effectively drove a wedge between international suppliers and India’s nuclear industry by exposing suppliers to increased liability in the event of accidents.

Today, in Part 2, we will discuss and analyze the recent India-US agreement on nuclear trade and liability. In addition, we will canvas news reports and opinion pieces to get a sense of the reaction’s of industry experts and observers.

Part 2: The India-US Agreement

In January of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama visited India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of the key goals of the president’s trip was to formalize an agreement on nuclear development and liability issues.

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(Image Source: Reuters via the BBC)

As a report by Dan Roberts in The Guardian notes, the threat of tough Indian compensation laws – specifically the 2010 Liability Act – had “frustrated US hopes of an export boom in the energy sector.” As of May 2015, the details of the deal are still being finalized. However, certain baseline elements are set. As this Reuters report lays out, the deal sets a framework for the US nuclear industry to enter commercial talks with India’s nuclear operators by resolving two concerns, inspections and liability.

On the issue of liability specifically, the agreement upholds the strict liability regime and the supplier liability provisions of the 2010 Liability Act. However, to address supplier concerns, India will establish an insurance pool to cover liability up to a hard cap. The insurance pool, which would be backed by the state of India, would cover operator liability of up to 15 billion rupees (around $250 million US). Any recourse sought by the operator against a supplier could not be exceed this figure. In addition, insurance premiums for suppliers would be a fraction of the amount paid by the operator of the plants.

The Reuters report also highlights that in the event of a large scale incident, the Indian government would cover additional costs up to $420 Million (US) and, for additional funds, the report says that India would need to join the IAEA Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC).

Following the India-US agreement, India has made it clear that the 2010 Liability Act will not be amended. A report from the India Express highlights the government’s position that

the foreign suppliers of the reactors cannot be sued for the damages by victims of a nuclear accident but can be held liable by the operator who has the right of recourse that could be operationalised through the contract between the operator and the supplier.

As a result, the agreement should not be viewed as a reform of India’s liability laws, but as an agreement to work within those laws by establishing an insurance pool for the operators and suppliers. In retrospect, it is clear that it was very important that India maintain its liability regime, as public and political opinion favoured increased liability for foreign suppliers following the Bhopal disaster in 1984. The agreement thus establishes a mechanism that keeps this regime in place while allowing for increased international nuclear trade.

Reactions to the Agreement and Concluding Thoughts

Reactions to the agreement have been mixed in the ensuing days and months. Partly, this is due to the fact that many of the details of the insurance pool have yet to be finalized. In an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), Mycle Schneider, an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy, shared concerns about the deal;

apparently, no specific document was signed. The Indian government reportedly announced its plan to set up a 122 million USD insurance fund to cover operators and suppliers from liabilities in case of an accident. Senior US nuclear industry officials stated they need to understand the “fine print” of the insurance. Equipment suppliers are keeping the champagne on ice, as one Indian business journal commented.

Mr. Scheinder, when asked if he expects the Indian market to become more appealing for US companies, says that “there is no real market for foreign companies in India, unless they bring their own funding. Under free market condition, it is not possible anymore to build a nuclear power plant anywhere in the world.”

A recent article on Monday by Ran Chakrabarti, an Indian lawyer, echoes similar skepticism.

It remains to be seen whether the Act and the Rules set out a balanced framework, encouraging suppliers to dip their toes into the Indian nuclear energy market, yet protecting the legitimate interests and concerns of the public in the event of a nuclear accident.

Given the complexity of nuclear development and the liability regime in India, it’s clear that this agreement will not be a panacea for all of the industry’s problems. As we’ve seen in these criticisms, and throughout India’s history, the role of foreign companies and governments in trade and development has been at times troublesome and, at other times, even disastrous.

However, India is growing at incredible rates and, as we explored in Part 1, lacks access to domestic energy resources such as coal and oil (which have driven China’s much faster economic growth). As a result, nuclear energy can help provide for a better base capacity for the country as it continues to also develop renewables such as wind and solar. In Part 3, to be published in the coming weeks, we will explore the future of nuclear in India and also focus on the ongoing finalization of the US-India agreement.

News in Depth: Nuclear Energy Development in Vietnam

We turn this week to Vietnam, and two recent news articles that speak to the growing relationship between Russia and the Southeast Asian country. They focus specifically on Gazprom’s recent purchase of a 49% stake in Vietnams’ Dung Quat refinery, the countries sole oil processing facility, and the Vietnam-Russia Joint Venture Bank’s (VRB) request for approval to financing government projects in energy and defense.

While on their face these stories are not nuclear stories, in context they mark another step forward for Vietnam’s nuclear energy development.

Vietnam’s Nuclear Energy Story

The World Nuclear Association and Nuclear Energy Institute provide useful summaries of Vietnam’s nuclear energy history. Discussions of establishing nuclear generating capacity began in the early 1980’s, with firm proposals not surfacing until 2006. In 2008, the government passed the Law on Atomic Energy which laid the regulatory framework for future development. The goals of the Act, under Article 6, are that “atomic energy activities are conducted for peaceful purposes” that “serve socio-economic development.”

Vietnam has a population over over 88 million people with a total energy consumption of 110 billion kWh. In 2009, 33% of the country’s capacity was hydro, 17% gas, 12% coal, and 6% oil. The other 33% was contracted under “independent power producers.” Given these numbers, let’s now turn to the plans that unfolded following the establishment of the regulatory framework in 2008.

As the WNA country profile states:

Since October 2008, two reactors (total 2000 MWe) have been planned at Phuoc Dinh in the southern Ninh Thuan province. A further 2000 MWe was planned at Vinh Hai nearby, followed by a further 6000 MWe by 2030… A high demand scenario would give 8000 MWe in 2025 and 15,000 MWe (10% of total) in 2030 at up to eight sites in five provinces. Four more units would be added to the first two sites, then six more at three or four central sites…

The first and second reactors in Ninh Thuan are being developed in partnership with Russia and Japan respectively. However, the US is also involved in Vietnam’s nuclear future. Another Reuters report from October 2010 highlights the agreement signed between the two countries that would allow the transfer of nuclear technology to Vietnam, paving the way for US suppliers to begin business in the country.

In the last four years, negotiations over technical and financial details have continued to stymie significant progress.

In January of this year, the government of Vietnam announced that the start of construction will be pushed back once again, now till 2019.

The Story Today

Vietnam’s nuclear journey has not been an easy one, and arguably it shouldn’t be, as complexities of nuclear energy development require careful consideration. However, it is clear that these delays have begun to negatively impact the country’s development. As the World Nuclear Association points out, rationing is common place in the country, and it only follows that future growth will suffer so long as the base energy supply of the country remains chronically strained.

This brings us back to the lead articles. It’s clear that Russia’s recent moves in energy investment and banking development are an effort to secure business for Russia and to wield influence internationally with the growing ASEAN member state. Politics aside, it’s important to highlight these moves as they speak to the main point of this story: that Vietnam is struggling and it will be up to international players to help Vietnam begin its nuclear age.

News in Depth: India-Sri Lanka Nuclear Deal

In our last two News in Depth features, we explored, respectively, South Australia’s nuclear waste management efforts and Japan’s recent turn towards fossil fuels in the wake of the March 2011 tsunami that struck the Fukushima plant. This week, we turn our focus to Sri Lanka, where a recent deal with India set the groundwork for nuclear development in the growing island country.

Negotiations between Sri Lanka and India first began in 2012. In those early talks, Sri Lanka expressed concerns about the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Namil Nadu, India. This plant, located 226 km (140mi) across the Laccadive Sea from Sri Lanka’s west coast, was seen by many political leaders and residents as a potential safety and economic threat to Sri Lanka. However, following India’s assurances of its safety and the establishment of monitoring stations in 2013, a deal was reached that would see India and Sri Lanka partner for the development of Sri Lanka’s nuclear power system.

India:Pakistan

Source: Apple Maps

Details of the Partnership

In the first deal of its kind for both countries, the partnership establishes a framework within which India will train Sri Lankan personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy and in safety measures related to nuclear waste. In a recent analysis of the deal by Monish Gulati of the Eurasia Review, the partnership is further detailed as including:

the sharing of information on safety features incorporated in the Kadankulam Nuclear Power Plant… as well as cooperation on nuclear and radiological emergency notification and assistance in case of a nuclear equipment related emergency.

While the deal does not explicitly include any construction contracts for new plants, Gulati believes that such a move is inevitable, stating that, “it cannot be denied that India is one of the few countries with expertise in reactors suited for smaller power grids.”  However, what is also clear in the wake of the deal is that Sri Lanka will continue to look beyond it’s new partner for help in developing its energy grid. Sri Lanka has sought help from the IAEA more broadly and, as Galati notes, has sent technicians to Russia for training as recently as 2010.

The Wider Impact of the Deal

When the deal was first reached in February of this year, analysts asked whether it was aimed at countering China’s growing presence in South Asia. Aman Malik, writing for the International Business Times, argues that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent overtures to neighbouring countries are viewed by many as an attempt to alter its regional power equation with China. Recently, China had caused a stir when it’s submarines docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. In addition, China has been investing heavily in Sri Lankan infrastructure projects and has supported controversial political leaders.

While the geopolitical ramifications remain up for debate, what is clear is that India is entering a new and important phase in its nuclear development history. With the recent breakthrough in talks with the US over the 2010 Civil Liability For Nuclear Damage Act, nuclear suppliers from around the world will soon be able to invest and build in India.  Such developments will, in time, likely spread to India’s partner nations as they seek to develop a mature and stable energy grid.