News in Depth: Returning to Yucca Mountain

Recently, Ken Ritter of the Houston Chronicle reported on the renewed debate over the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Yucca mountain story stretches back decades, and Ritter’s report highlights many of the points of friction which continue to delay the project. In this week’s News in Depth, we’ll take a look at this report and the story of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository.

Background: The Yucca Mountain Story

Yucca Mountain was officially selected to be the national repository for spent-fuel and high-level radioactive waste in 2002. President George W. Bush approved the site choice, but the governor of Nevada, Kenny Guinn, then vetoed the decision. That veto was subsequently overturned by Congress.

In 2008, the US Department of Energy submitted a license application for the Yucca Mountain site. The initial plan called for a facility that could hold upwards of 77,000 tons of waste for up to 1 million years.

2-YuccaMountain-Fig1

However, in 2011, the Obama administration cut funding for the project and, effectively, left the U.S. without a long-term storage plan for civilian nuclear waste. In response to the Obama administrations cancellation of the project, a handful of U.S. states and organizations “filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asking for a writ of mandamus requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart licensing proceeding for Yucca Mountain.” The court granted their request, and as a result the NRC restarted the review process for the DOE’s original application.

In 2014, the NRC approved the final part of the DOE proposal. As Eli Kintisch reported at the time on the Science Insider blog,

The 781-page report concludes that the proposed site… includes “multiple barriers to isolate radioactivity from the environment” for hundreds of thousands of years, commission staff said in a statement. That should allow it to comply with standards to protect ground water and people in the distant future.

Today, the debate continues over the Yucca Mountain site. While the initial environmental assessment has largely been completed, questions still remain as to land ownership over the site and other environmental, social, and political issues. To add to the difficulty of the situation, a federal appeals court ruled two years ago now that the NRC has to either approve or reject the license application.  The process for the approval will likely take years.

The Debate Today

Ken Ritter’s recent report expands on many of the key issues related to the project. For the people quoted in the piece, the biggest issue is perhaps that of ground-water contamination. As one opponent to the project put it:

The only question to be answered is, ‘Can waste emplaced in Yucca Mountain be isolated and not contaminate groundwater?'” said Judy Treichel, an opponent since the 1980s of the project who heads an entity called the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force. “The answer is, ‘No.'”

However, at the article points out, “a report released in August by the NRC acknowledged a small chance of contamination, but said someone drinking two liters of groundwater a day would still not accumulate as much radiation as they do from natural and background sources.”

Overall, it seems that the fear of radiation, no matter how small of a projected risk, is fueling much of the debate. In addition, opponents highlight the logistics of transportation, construction, and maintenance, arguing that the costs are far too high.

As a 2014 New York Times piece by Matthew Wald put it, Yucca Mountain “was never described as the best place for burying nuclear waste, only an acceptable one about which a consensus could be achieved.” Is this a case of politics trumping science, as some critics argue? If we are to believe that, does it not discount the research and regulatory study that has gone in to the project? 

One potential way to reset the conversation is to think about the alternatives. If Yucca Mountain is scrapped, what’s next? This isn’t to say that alternatives should not be considered, or that the current site’s momentum is a rationale for its continued front-runner status. Rather, it’s a question of thinking about asking what is truly realistic. On balance, do the negatives outweighs the positives? And in either case, what are the next steps? Those are the questions worth answering.

 

 

News Analysis: Exploring Viewpoints on the Future of Nuclear

On September 2, the BBC World Service Inquiry programme published transcripts of four expert’s viewpoints on the future of nuclear energy technology. In this week’s News in Depth, I will discuss this article and take a critical look at the perspectives shared by the interviewees.

Four Viewpoints, One Theme

First, we hear from Tatsujiro Suzuki – Director of Research Centre for nuclear weapons abolition at Nagasaki University and former Vice-Chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission. Mr. Suzuki was Chair of the Commission at the time of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent Fukushima disaster. His recent career change – from nuclear regulatory official to nuclear critic – reflects the difficult journey Japan has faced in the last four years.

I personally felt very responsible for the event and I felt very sorry for the Fukushima people… This kind of accident has a serious social, ethical, political impact on their lives.

He is pessimistic that the people of Japan will be able to support any serious return to nuclear energy, saying that

In the public mind there was no clear connection between the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons… [Fukushima] is a huge, huge loss of public trust.

Next, Miranda Shreuers – a research director at the Free University in Berlin and a member of the commission to determine Germany’s nuclear policy – unequivocally states that she doesn’t believe Germany “could every again live with nuclear power.”

Gabrielle Hecht – a Professor of History at the University of Michigan – then speaks to the growth of nuclear energy in developing nations across Africa and argues that’s the path of those countries is similar to western nations in the 1950s,

The prospect of having abundant electricity in place where there are very often electricity brownouts and blackouts, and where large parts of the country are not electrified, is huge.

However, Hecht believes that new nuclear plants should not be built and that these countries should look for other solutions.

Finally, the BBC spoke with Steve Kidd – a nuclear energy consultant with East Cliff Consulting in the UK who has over over 18 years experience working for the The World Nuclear Association (WNA). While a proponent of nuclear, Mr. Kidd is pessimistic that nuclear energy can “take on that role that’s been left open for it.” His belief is that the industry’s core issue is that it has failed to communicate effectively,

The industry has tried to counter [public fear] with a factional approach, almost saying to the public, ‘you’re stupid, you’re irrational’, but in fact the development of their beliefs has been wholly rational, based on what they’ve seen and heard over the years, and something like the Fukushima accident obviously gives credence to such fears.

In summary, these four experts share a common idea: that nuclear energy as we know it faces a difficult future. For everyone but Mr. Kidd, it seems that that future is one of full decommissioning – a future in which nuclear is part of medicine and scientific study but not energy production. However, is this narrative of decline and the supremacy of fear over fact unchangeable? What, if anything can be done?

A Living Narrative

It turns out that Mr. Suzuki, quoted earlier from the BBC transcript, provides us with a useful starting point for thinking about the power of narrative and the ways in which we talk about nuclear. In March, he penned a lead essay for the East Asia Forum, in which he made the argument that the best strategy for Japan’s nuclear energy regulator and industry to regain trust is a simple one, honesty.

Transparency in policymaking is essential. The public needs to be involved in decision making… The current Japanese policy debate is completely polarized between advocates for and opponents against nuclear energy. An independent organization is required to help adjudicate between the two sides, and it needs to be one that the public can trust.

In other words, what is needed to overcome the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that surrounds nuclear energy in Japan – and arguably elsewhere – is intense, unwavering honesty and dialogue.

This leads me to forward a thesis – the nuclear energy story, or narrative, as we know it is in crisis, and the only way forward is for proponents and opponents to work together in good faith. What does this mean? It means that the narrative is not something that simply is but rather something we do. We, as individuals and as groups, shape and reshape the story of nuclear. For some, they believe that it is a story that should end. For others, myself and many of our readers included, we believe that the story is simply evolving. For some places, maybe nuclear is not the best solution. But for others, the technology may unlock vast amounts of human potential.

We must work together to find out what the story may bring next. The BBC piece that started this discussion is part of that, but of course it is but one small part of the story. The people quoted here have a viewpoint, and we can take it and build upon, but we can’t stop there. Many people, and many voices have to be involved in this messy process, but we will can continue to write this story together, one line at a time.

 

Save the date: Future of Nuclear 2015 Conference November 10

Mark your calendars for the third annual Future of Nuclear conference, to be held on November 10th at Torys LLP in downtown Toronto!

The Future of Nuclear conference is an annual, full-day event bringing together experts from the Canadian and global nuclear industry, nuclear regulatory bodies, and academia, for a discussion on the most current and important topics in Nuclear energy, policy, and science.

Save the date, and check in to futureofnuclear.com for updates on speakers, topics, and tickets.

News in Depth: Nuclear, the Next Generation

In our continuing effort to explore what’s next for nuclear, we turn this week to the recent announcement that China will begin construction on a 600 MWe fourth generation fast neutron reactor. While details of the project are few, there is speculation that this project may be the first successful partnership between China and TerraPower, the Washington state based energy firm founded and chaired by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

In this week’s News in Depth, we will take a look at the technology behind fourth generation fast neutron reactors, the story of TerraPower, and China’s efforts to be at the forefront of nuclear energy development and deployment.

Next Generation Technology

As the World Nuclear Association (WNA) notes, fourth generation fast neutron reactors (FNRs) have been in development for decades. As of 2010, over 400 reactor-years of operation have been logged with approximately 20 reactors in different periods. The WNA also provides a useful summary of the initial motivation behind FNR tech:

The FNR was originally conceived to burn uranium more efficiently and thus extend the world’s uranium resources – it could do this by a factor of about 60. From the outset, nuclear scientists understood that today’s reactors fuelled essentially with U-235 exploited less than one percent of the energy potentially available from uranium. Early perceptions that those uranium resources were scarce caused several countries to embark upon extensive FBR [Fast Breeder Reactor] development programs.

The technology is incredibly complex, but for reference note that

Natural uranium contains about 0.7% U-235 and 99.3% U-238. In any reactor some of the U-238 component is turned into several isotopes of plutonium during its operation. Two of these, Pu-239 and Pu-241, then undergo fission in the same way as U-235 to produce heat. In a FNR this process is optimized so that it ‘breeds’ fuel. Some U-238 is burned directly with neutron energies above 1 MeV.

TerraPower‘s Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) leverages the knowledge gained from decades of FNR research to produce what they describe as “Generation IV, liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor.”

TWR

Image Source: TerraPower

China’s New Project

According to the WNA, China first began research FNR reactors in 1964 and, in 2003, built “a 65 MWt fast neutron reactor – the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) – … near Beijing [in partnership with] Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov [and] OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute.”

This new project is part of China’s efforts to have, according to CIAE projections, fast reactor capacity progressively increasing from 2020 to at least 200 GWe by 2050, and 1400 GWe by 2100. As noted in the opening, TerraPower’s involvement in the project is still unconfirmed, but industry and media sources seem to be coalescing around such a partnership as Gates himself recently travelled in February of this year to China to meet with “with Nur Bekri, a vice chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, and with China National Nuclear Corp chairman Sun Qin.”

In any event, what we are seeing here are the early stages of what looks like a new phase in nuclear technology. 4th Generation reactors – in this case, sodium FNRs – have been in development for over a decade and now we are seeing an example of one of the these new designs taking shape. Development is slow, yes, but it is happening and happening at in increasing pace in China. We can only now wait to see what comes next and, hopefully, to see confirmation that this project marks the first partnership between China and Gate’s TerraPower.

 

News Brief: China’s Nuclear Energy Developments

Last week, Mike Orcutt at MIT Technology Review wrote an update on China’s nuclear energy development plans.

China is rapidly moving up the global nuclear power leaderboard. Since 2012, as the traditional leaders in nuclear energy production have remained stagnant or backed off of their reliance on nuclear in the wake of Fukushima, China has added 11 new reactors and over 11 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity.

As Orcutt notes, by the end of this year China is expected to pass South Korea and Russia to become the fourth largest producer of nuclear energy in the world. He links to an interesting infographic that highlights the differential in nuclear energy growth around the world.

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Image Source: MIT Technology Review

China is clearly in the lead when it comes to capacity growth, with Russia and India not far behind. However, as the infographic notes, it will be important to keep an eye on those nations that have yet to produce nuclear energy but plan to do so. As we’ve highlighted here at Future of Nuclear, those countries – and the new technologies they apply – will be interesting to watch.

News in Depth: Should Singapore reconsider their “no” to Nuclear?

On Friday, July 4, Peter Schwartz, business strategist and member of Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council, said in a panel at the Institute of Policy Studies that Singapore needs to consider turning to nuclear power as a key part of its strategy against climate change.

Mr. Schwartz, who is also a SVP at Salesforce.com and a co-founder of the Global Business Network, framed it in the context of Singapore’s current reliance on natural gas;

You’re going to continue to need electricity, and renewables will be insufficient. You’re either going to have to continue using natural gas or move to nuclear power.

In this week’s News in Depth, we look at the current state of energy sector in Singapore and consider Mr. Schwartz’s call for the country reconsider its current stance against nuclear power.

Singapore’s Current Energy Landscape and Policy on Nuclear

As the Channel News Asia report on Mr. Schwartz’s talk explains, in 2012 the Singapore government concluded that nuclear power was not suitable for the small industrialized country, owing mainly to the safety risks. The “nuclear pre-feasibility study” – a summary is available here – provides some useful context to our analysis.

Singapore, the study notes, lacks indigenous energy resources and generates around 80% of its electricity from imported natural gas from Malaysia and Indonesia. The study also notes that renewable sources such as solar and wind can only augment the energy supply, as the country simply lacks the space for large-scale renewable installations. As a result, the country is challenged with finding a reliable energy source that can provide a stable baseload of capacity while also moving the country towards a low-carbon energy system.

The government initiated the study in response to these challenges, but the study found that “nuclear energy technologies presently available are not suitable for deployment in Singapore.” Despite the findings, the report did state the Singapore should play an active role in the future of nuclear technologies and safety. In other words, the door may be closed for now, but they did not throw away the key.

Reconsidering Nuclear Energy in Singapore

This renewed call to consider nuclear comes at a crucial time in the global energy industry. With the world’s attention this year on climate change in the lead up to the UN Convention in Paris, perhaps it is time to reconsider what may be possible in Singapore.

Mr. Schwartz argues that nuclear energy technology has advanced a great deal, and believes that nuclear power plants could be built on offshore barges, underground, or potentially on partnering island who have more space and may be willing to share in the benefits of a new nuclear power plant. These ideas echo similar stories we have previously explored. In May, we looked at Dunedin Energy Systems’ idea of deploying SMR (Small Modular Reactors) technology onboard ships in Canada’s arctic. The concept there, and here potentially, is to think of nuclear options that are smaller, safer and perhaps even mobile. In addition, in the last five years more advanced reactor technologies have increased safety and relability, take Westinghouse’s AP1000 PWR as an example.

In short, in the three years since Singapore said “no” to nuclear, the landscape has indeed shifted. Of course, policies don’t change overnight, but perhaps it is time for Singapore to once again consider nuclear and the new applications of safety and operational technology that are emerging today.

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

INTRODUCTION

In early May, we started this special series on the developments in nuclear law in India. In Part 1, we examined the key historical and legal developments in India’s nuclear law regime. In Part 2, we then turned to the recent India-US trade deal and asked whether the deal would finally resolve unanswered questions as to the extent of liability for foreign suppliers of nuclear technology and supplies.

This week, in the final post of this series, we explore the establishment of the India Nuclear Insurance Pool (INIP) by drawing on multiple sources, including the recent talk by Els Reynaers-Kini – a Partner at M.V. Kini law firm in Mumbai – at a Mindfirst seminar in Toronto. To conclude, we ask what may come next for nuclear law and nuclear development in India and suggest a number of issue areas in need of further exploration and discussion.

THE INSURANCE POOL

On May 27, Els Reynaers-Kini gave a talk at a Mindfirst seminar on developments in nuclear liability in India. One of the key aims of her talk was to discuss the practical implications for Canadian parties interested in establishing commercial exports of civil nuclear energy technology and uranium.

One of key roadblocks to increased foreign investment and trade in India’s nuclear sector has been the 2010 Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (the Act). The Act uniquely expanded the scope of liability beyond the operator to the suppliers of the technology used in the civilian nuclear energy sector. Under s 17(b) of the Act, a specific right of recourse was granted to the operator, enabling them to pursue damages against suppliers where…

…the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services.

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama travelled to India and, together with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced that both countries had agreed on a new foreign investment framework for nuclear technologies. While the announcement was met with great fanfare, left unresolved was the specific insurance and liability regime that foreign suppliers would be subject to under the Act.

Under s 8 of the Act, it is mandatory for the operator to take out an insurance policy or other financial security. However, as Ms. Reynaers points out in her talk, up until recently, insurance policies only provided coverage for “cold zones,” areas where no nuclear reactions take place. Bank guarantees, as another form of financial security, were not enough to cover the liability risks and thus a new insurance structure was needed to accommodate the operators and the suppliers.

After months of newly invigorated negotiation, in June the Indian government formally announced a new insurance pool of Rs. 1,500 crore (US $234 Million) that will provide coverage to operators and suppliers. The pool will be managed by the state-owned reinsurer, GIC Re. The fund will cover the risks of the liability for the operator, pursuant to s 6(2) of the Act and suppliers under s 17 of the Act. As Ms. Reynaers also noted in her talk, premiums will be roughly 2% of the insurance amount and will vary depending on a number of facts considered under the the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)’s Probabilistic Safety Assessment study.

The announcement of the INIP’s formation will, in the long-term, likely be seen as a major turning point in the story of India’s nuclear energy development. It is, in a sense, a compromise of public policy and business – allowing for the right of recourse under the Act while building in security and certainty for foreign suppliers and the operators of India’s current and future nuclear power plants.

NUCLEAR POWER AND INDIA: WHAT’S NEXT?

As of July 2015, there is a great deal of activity in India’s nuclear sector. Deals are being signed for new reactors, and GIC Re is already talking about ways in which they want to enable the INIP to be a “one-stop” facility for covering all nuclear risks. For perspective on growth in the Indian nuclear sector overall, see the graph below.

indias_nuclear_power_capacity_2016

 

Source: World Nuclear Association

In the long run, India hopes to supply 25% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050. While the road up until this point has been rough, India is uniquely positioned to leverage it’s massive population and increasing industrialization to spearhead development. In addition, the country’s cutting edge research into fast reactors and the thorium fuel cycle will help it develop a stronger presence in the nuclear sector beyond it’s own borders (for a current snapshot of the industry, see the the “Heavy Engineering in India” report by the WNA here). In short, there are tremendous opportunities now not only for foreign suppliers working in India, but India’s own industry players abroad.

Returning back the INIP now, in the coming months and years, careful attention must be paid to the exact structure of the contractual arrangements between suppliers and operators in India. As Ms. Reynears pointed out in her concluding slides, it will be crucial that precise definitions are laid out and that parties remain cognizant that the INIP is only advisable for suppliers (while it is mandatory for operators). However, if a supplier chooses to not take part in the INIP coverage, the INIP/GIC Re can still try to establish fault in Indian courts against the supplier.

In summary, in the short term the establishment of the INIP has ameliorated many of the concerns of foreign suppliers and local communities alike. As we discussed earlier, it both allows for recourse against those who may be at fault, while also building in some security and certainty for those suppliers who may find themselves liable. It is, thus, a compromise. However, as we noted above, there are many details and angles to the INIP that will require careful navigation by all parties involved. Let’s hope that, in time, the experience will be a smooth one and that India can continue towards its nuclear goals.

 

News in Depth: Defering the Decision on Ontario’s Nuclear Waste Plans

Back in March, we examined Australia’s efforts to find a site for a new National Radioactive Waste Management Facility. In that report, we also highlighted efforts being made in Canada to find a suitable nuclear waste management site, known formally as the Deep Geologic Repository for Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste (DGR). One of the favoured sites, as of May, was the Bruce nuclear plant in Kincardine, Ontario.

This week, we will explore the recent developments in the DGR project, the story of the Bruce site, and discuss what may come next in this country’s quest to solve our waste management problem.

The Study and Approval Process So Far

In May, a report by the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) approved the Bruce site and recommended it to the federal environmental minister, Leona Aglukkaq, saying that the “project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

For background, the plan at the Bruce facility to build a repository deep beneath the site where “200,000 cubic metres of low and intermediate level waste from the Pickering, Darlington, and Bruce nuclear plants” could be stored indefinitely. The facility would be more than one kilometre from Lake Huron and over 680 metres underground. The Bruce site was selected after years of consultation and assessment undertaken by Ontario Power Generation (OPG). This project is part of a larger movement in Canada to find safe sites in which we can store used fuel.

In 2002, the Federal government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to help guide this processIn 2011, Ken Nash, the current President and CEO of the NWMO, spoke with the National Post about the ethical motivations to finding suitable long term storage facilities that doesn’t simply leave materials above ground,

We can’t just leave it where it is, it’s up to this generation to look for something better and not pass on the burden…

The Bruce facility planned by the OPG is just such a solution, one that is designed to safely store materials for years to come. However, as the Toronto Star noted, over 152 communities in the US and Canada oppose the site. Local residents that live near the Bruce plant have also voiced concerns. Beverly Fernandez, of the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump group, has been particularly vocal on the issue of potential contamination of drinking water. In a March report in the London Free Press, she is quoted saying that

There should be no deep geologic repository (DGR) for nuclear waste anywhere in the Great Lakes Basin… locating it beside the drinking water of 40 million people defies logic.

The CEAA report, however, found that the risk of drinking water contamination “would be extremely low relative to current radiation levels in Lake Huron and negligible relative to dose limits for the protection of the public.”

Site proponents and the CEAA report also argue that there are a number of key components to the Bruce site that make it a good choice, including the stability of the rock, the current safety and security infrastructure, and the presence of engineering and construction expertise at the facility.

When the report was released in May, the federal environmental minister was given till early September to make a final approval. However, with federal elections looming in the fall, the decision was recently made to extend that deadline into December.

The Future Challenges Facing the DGR Decision

Some critics argue that the delayed decision is a sign that the Bruce DGR’s future is in peril. Ms. Fernandez, cited earlier as a strong opponent to the plan, thinks that the deferral reflects the fact that “more and more Canadian are expressing deep concern and strong opposition.”

Meanwhile, another local citizen’s group, Save our Saugeen Shores, has filed an application to the Federal Courts for judicial review, asking that the CEAA’s decision to approve the site be set aside. They argue that the panel “failed to consider Canada’s international obligations, was biased and violated the Country’s environmental rules.” 

This recent court challenge, and the continuing public debate, suggests that in the run up to the federal environmental minister’s December decision, every effort must be made to exhaustively discuss both the practical and political, the global and local. This project, no matter where it is located, will have implications on people and the environment for centuries to come, it’s only right that we take our time over the coming months to discuss and dissect the plan piece by piece, so we can make the best decision we can. 

The deferment, as a result, should not be viewed as avoidance. If anything, it is a reflection of the noted complexity of the project. If anything, it gives parties more time to resolve open questions and to hopefully address concerns regarding transparency. These things take time, and more time we now have.


Update (June 29, 2015) – two corrections were made in the article relating to the management of the Bruce DGR project and the to the approval process by the Federal minister. I apologize for the errors and appreciate reader feedback.

News in Depth: Putting a Face on the Future of Nuclear in the UAE

Over the last few months, our News in Depth series has explored the development of nuclear energy around the world. However, what is admittedly missing in our stories and in many of the stories we link to is that human element: who are the people that are driving the future of nuclear?

In this week’s feature, we focus on the future of UAE’s renewable energy programmes and the story of Marwa Al Shehhi and Omar Al Hashmi, Emirati students who are studying abroad in the hope of bringing their new nuclear expertise back home to the UAE.

The Students’ Stories and the UAE’s Nuclear Future

In a recent article in UAE’s The National, Caline Malek tells the story of two Emirati students, Marwa Al Shehhi and Omar Al Hashmi, who have travelled to Korea to bolster their nuclear engineering and management skills. Ms. Al Shehhi describes her motivation in the piece by saying that

“nuclear energy is interesting all over the world, and hearing that my country was adopting safe nuclear energy really made me proud. So I wanted to take part in that initiative…”

Ms. Al Shehhi is studying in a two-year masters program at Kings Kepco International Nuclear Graduate School. Mr. Al Hashmi is studying nuclear engineering as part of a bachelors program at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Just like Ms. Al Shehhi, he is also keen on being part of the UAE’s energy transformation,

“I want to make my country proud and try to advance nuclear studies in the UAE. We’re trying to reduce our carbon emissions and this is one of the best ways to do it.”

These two students, along with their peers, appear eager to leverage their foreign education to gain professional experience at home and abroad. For example, another student mentioned in the piece plans to intern with Korea Electric Power Corporation before joining the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC).

ENEC was establisehd by the UAE government on recommendation by the IAEA, as the country embarked on the development of nuclear energy production in the last decade. According the World Nuclear Association’s country profile, 98% of of the UAE’s 101 billion kWh energy production was from oil in 2012. In response to this continued reliance on fossil fuels, the country has accepted a $20 billion bid from a South Korean consortium to build four commercial reactors that are expected to produce 5.6 GWe by 2020 at Barakah, a coastal site 300 km west of Abu Dhabi city.

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Image credit: The National

The Educational Story in a Broader Context

With construction at the Barakah site progressing on time and on budget it appears that these students have a bright future ahead of them. However, this story also illustrates the complex interaction between foreign suppliers and the countries involved in nuclear development. It is clear that Korea and Korean companies have a vested interest in building not only reactors abroad, but universities at home that train Korean and foreign students alike. At the same time, countries that have little existing commercial, engineering, or educational infrastructure must look abroad to train students in new technologies such as nuclear.

As a result, the flow of knowledge follows the flow of capital around the world. In the nuclear energy sector in particular, it is important that local people, who will help maintain and operate the facilities long after the initial construction managed by foreign suppliers, have the know-how and skills to safely operate the site.

It starts, then, with education and training, with people like Ms. Al Shehhi and Mr. Al Hashmi. They are the future of nuclear for the UAE.

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.