Nordic Nuclear Revival
In news that signals a sea-change in European nuclear energy policy, Finland's parliament has voted to build two additional nuclear reactors to augment the four they already operate. When this expansion is complete, nuclear power will provide half of Finland's electricity. Following in Finland's footsteps, their Nordic neighbor Sweden has announced that it will also build new reactors. The intention being to replace the reactors at their 10 existing nuclear power plants when the old ones are shut down. This reverses a 1980 referendum that called for them to be phased out entirely. Sweden and Finland have concluded that greenhouse gases can only be cut and energy security guaranteed with continued or greater reliance on atomic power.
Finland's decision shows that there's still a long-term case to be made for nuclear energy, even in the deeply green nations of Scandinavia. Currently, according to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear plants provide about 28% of Finland’s electricity. For its remaining electricity needs, Finland imports electricity, coal and gas from Russia. Given Russia's unreliability and occasional bullying tactics when it comes to delivering gas and other forms of energy, this is obviously not a very satisfactory situation. There is no doubt that the decision to expand their nuclear power capacity was not taken lightly by the environmentally sensitive and eminently practical Finns.
Not that the anti-nuclear crowd has taken the decision well. Protesters gathered outside the Finnish Parliament in Helsinki to protest the vote. None the less, the vote to back expanding nuclear power was 120 to 72. The companies tasked with building the new reactors were given five years to submit applications for the plants. The new reactors are likely to be in the upper end of the 1000-1600 MW range, meaning that they will each be equivalent to 2-3 currently operating reactors.
One new reactor will be built by energy company Teollisuuden Voima in Olkiluoto. Finnish energy company Fortum owns 26.6% of Teollisuuden Voima, which will now have two reactors in operation, one being built and one more in the planning stage. In addition, Fortum fully owns the Loviisa power plant containing two older nuclear reactors from 1970s.
The Loviisa nuclear power plant from the air.
The other reactor will be built by Fennovoima in either Simo or Pyhäjoki in northern Finland. Behind Fennovoima are various Finnish entities with a combined 66% stake and the world’s largest privately owned energy company, E.ON from Germany, with a 34% stake. Both new plants are expected to be on line by 2020.
Previously, after realizing that the best source of energy for the 21st century would be nuclear, Finland decided to keep their nuclear power plants running at least until 2080. Knowing that this meant something had to be done to handle the radioactive waste created by the plants, back in 1983 the Finnish parliament mandated that the country’s two nuclear power plant companies set aside funds and begin planning immediately for disposal to begin in 40 years. Their solution is a repository, named Onkalo, which, despite often hyperbolic criticism from some quarters, is set to open in 2010. For the US, where building a nuclear plant takes from 15 years to forever, and the nation's planned nuclear waste repository fell victim to politics, this should be a lesson in responsible government.
Atomic Boom in China
If financial critics of nuclear power are right, building new nuclear power plants does not make economic sense and additional nuclear generation capacity will be as expensive as solar cells. The first hint as to why the critics are wrong can be found in the worldwide scramble to build new plants—estimates run as high as 400 new nuclear plants to be built worldwide by 2030. Actual examples of the cost of nuclear energy, when freed of malicious meddling by opponents, can be found in China.
Most of mainland China's electricity is produced from fossil fuels: 80% from coal, 2% from oil, 1% from gas in 2006. Even with the recent addition of two large hydro projects, Three Gorges and Yellow River, hydro power accounts for only 15%. Moves to build nuclear power commenced in 1970 and the industry has moved into a steady development phase. Technology for the new plants is being drawn from France, Canada and Russia, with local development based largely on the French element. The latest technology acquisition has been from the USA and France.
As reported by the World Nuclear Association, the Pengze plant in Jiangxi province, with four Westinghouse-designed AP1000 reactors costing CNY 60 billion ($8.72 billion) is expected to start construction early in 2010. The Xiaomoshan nuclear power plant on the Yangtze River in Yueyang city, Hunan province, will have four AP1000 reactors and be built by Hunan Nuclear Power Company Ltd in two phases. Approval was given in 2006 and start of construction is expected late in 2010. The cost is put at CNY 60 billion ($8.77 billion). There are many more projects underway with similar pricing.
The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor.
Here are two projects with a total of eight third generation, mass-produced reactors, with a total cost of $17.5 billion—that is approximately $2.2 billion per reactor, each of which is capable of generating 1100 MW of electricity. Compare that with the estimated $1.3 billion cost of American Electric Power Co.'s proposed 600 MW, John W. Turk Jr. coal-fired power plant in Fulton, Arkansas. The construction cost per megawatt for the nuclear plants is $0.5 million while the US coal plant comes in at $0.46 million per MW. Even without factoring in lower continuing fuel costs, a Chinese nuke plant rivals an American coal plant in cost.
Perhaps the most pernicious lie about nuclear power is that you cannot be a true conservationist or environmentalist and support nuclear power. This blatant untruth has been so ingrained in the news media and celebrity culture of Hollywood that even being neutral on nuclear will earn one the label of despoiler of nature. Once again the truth is quite different from the green lobby story. Here are three card-carrying eco-activists who have seen the light:
“Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand.” — Patrick Moore, Founder Of Greenpeace, Chair and Chief Scientist of Greenspirit.
“If we NIMBY anywhere and anytime, we should not expect the utility industry to provide electricity to everyone, everywhere, all of the time. If we believe that global warming is a real threat to our planet, then the very best way to provide baseload electricity is through emission-free nuclear power.” — Norris McDonald, President, African American Environmental Assoc.
“Nuclear energy is the only green solution.” — James Lovelock, geophysicist and father of the Gaia Theory.
From the mouths of environmental activists with unimpeachable green credentials, it can not be put any plainer than that. Whether you believe in the threat of global warming or not, the only sane path forward is nuclear. Only die hard green Luddites seem to be missing the message—nuclear energy is once again the power source of the future.
“Coal is the major villain when it comes to greenhouse gases,” says Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a former nuclear-power opponent who is now an avid supporter. “Countries are discovering that wind and solar are good to do, and they make a dent. But when it comes to base-load, always-on power, we have nothing that really replaces coal except nuclear.”
As can be seen from the nuclear about-face by the green leaning Finns, after considering all the alternatives, nuclear power makes the most sense. China, South Korea, Russia, India, France and a dozen other countries agree. The European Commission and individual European countries are backing a nuclear power resurgence in Europe and beyond its borders.
According to the Wall Street Journal, public support for nuclear power is growing in the US. A March Gallup survey found 62% of those asked favor nuclear power, the highest level since Gallup began polling on the subject in 1994. According to less scientific surveys on environmental Web sites, a small majority say they are willing to give nuclear power another look as a way to fight climate change. Others, including those who do not buy the anthropogenic global warming hype, favor nuclear power as a path to greater energy security.
Sadly for the US, most experts don’t expect a new reactor to be operating there before late 2016 or early 2017. Many experts see the future of nuclear power in smaller, modular reactors being developed around the world. Unfortunately, the US Department of Energy continues to drag its feet on certifying new reactor designs, sending American nuclear entrepreneurs offshore to China and elsewhere. If the Obama administration is really serious about green energy and getting the US off of fossil fuels, they need to clear the bureaucratic logjam that is keeping the nuclear renaissance from spreading to America.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
The promised nuclear future may yet reach America.