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Nuclear answer to looming energy crisis

ICE News

Global warming, soaring energy demand and unpredictable supply of fossil fuels make the argument for building new nuclear power capacity irresistible, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) claimed last week.

'Under no realistic scenario can this challenge be met without nuclear energy, ' WNA director general John Ritch said, delivering the British Nuclear Energy Society's 40th anniversary lecture.

'In the next 50 years, the world's population will grow from 6bn to 9bn, and by 2050 global energy consumption will double if not treble. In the next 50 years, humankind will consume more energy than the total consumed in all previous history, ' explained Ritch.

'Global fossil fuel supplies are inadequate to meet world energy demand. Over the next 50 years coal and gas production can no more than double, while oil production is predicted at first to rise but then fall back below current levels. This means total fossil fuel production will rise by only 50% overall, leaving an enormous energy gap to be filled by nuclear and renewables.'

With little evidence that renewables can rise to the challenge, a major increase in nuclear capacity is the only solution, Ritch argued. 'Nuclear power must be increased by between seven and 20 times in the half-century ahead. This would mean a world with somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 1GW reactors, requiring a rate of power plant construction over the next 50 years of one per week at the low end, and one every two days at the high end, ' Ritch said.

On the grounds of sustainability as much as energy supply, arguments for nuclear power are hard to contest, he continued.

'The global rate of CO 2emissions is 25bn tonnes a year, or 800 tonnes a second, and growing. Any hope of averting catastrophic climate change depends on industrialised countries cutting emissions by 75%.'

Nuclear power is competitive on cost, he argued. 'The nuclear industry's internal costs are falling while the cost of energy from other sources is likely to rise. Within the industry, the multiplicity of reactor designs that characterised the first halfcentury of nuclear power are giving way to standardisation that will inevitably reduce construction costs.

Operating costs are also being lowered, he argued, thanks to 50 years of accumulated experience, deregulation encouraging higher output from existing reactors, and efficiencies of new reactor designs.

'Meanwhile, uranium fuel is plentiful and relatively cheap, with a stable market price, ' he argued. Even if nuclear power generation increases sharply, the price of fissile material is unlikely to grow, particularly with weapons dismantling providing a huge supplement to known reserves.

'Today, one of every 10 US light bulbs is illuminated by fuel from Soviet warheads. By the time any issue of fuel supply might arise, the world should be ready politically for the use of breeders which extract 30-40 times more electricity from uranium fuel, ' he said.

As to nuclear power's competitors, renewables are likely to remain dependent on heavy subsidy as they deliver limited output, while fossil fuels will become ever more subject to price rises as concerns about energy security and the environment grow, he claimed.

'Under current energy policy, which envisages coal and nuclear power being phased out by 2025, Britain can look to a future in which its electricity will come mainly from natural gas imported across thousands of miles of pipeline from Russia, the Middle East and North Africa.

'In just of a third of a century, Britain will have moved from total energy sovereignty to full dependence on unreliable foreign sources, supplemented by domestic sources intermittently available.

'At the same time, any government move to cut carbon emissions - whether by a direct carbon tax or emissions trading - will raise the cost of fossil fuel and enhance the competitiveness of nuclear, ' he said. 'Only an irrational carbon control regime, such as a Climate Change Levy which includes nuclear power, will hold nuclear power back.'

Ritch argued that at the very least the UK should be replacing existing nuclear capacity with new nuclear reactors. But to achieve even this goal will be no mean feat: 'To replace Britain's ageing nuclear stations, work must begin soon to build ten 1GW reactors over a period of 20 years' - a task that generator British Energy's executive chairman Robin Jeffrey has described as 'one of the biggest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the UK'.

But even this dramatic programme of nuclear new-build would be just a first step in meeting this nation's energy security and environmental needs: 'Nuclear energy has an enormous role to play in emerging battery and hydrogen-driven transport technologies. The first hydrogen-fuel-cell electric cars are expected to be on the fleet market in 2004.

'But hydrogen is already produced industrially through chemical process which give rise to emissions of CO 2. To make hydrogen cleanly and on a large scale, two nuclear-powered processes are conceivable, ' he argued. 'In the short term, hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water using offpeak nuclear power. In the future, direct thermo-chemical conversion of water using hightemperature reactors may be possible.

'One of the beauties of the nuclear-hydrogen link is the harmony between electricity generation and the making of hydrogen. Nuclear power has in the past been seen solely as a base-load supplier of electricity.

The use of hydrogen as a means of storing energy for transport opens the possibility of operating nuclear plants constantly at peak rather than base-load levels, using all non-peak power to make hydrogen, ' he said.

And the use of nuclear does not end there. 'Nuclear power also offers huge potential for desalination to create clean water, ' said Ritch. 'In many areas of the world the rate of consumption of drinking water is far exceeding replenishment, creating the spectre that within the next 25 years more than half of global population could be facing a desperate shortage of fresh water. Nuclear power offers the one available option for a massive production of clean water that does not compound humanity's assault on the environment.'

And nuclear is safe, Ritch claimed. 'Impeccable safety practice must always be the nuclear industry's highest imperative. Through technical exchange and peer review, the World Association of Nuclear Operators has institutionalised a global nuclear safety culture.

The waste issue is also overplayed, Ritch argued: 'There is growing public realisation that the issue of waste, far from being unique to nuclear power, is in fact a fundamental and almost incurable weakness of fossil fuel. Practical steps are now being taken to demonstrate that disposal of nuclear waste is feasible.

Ritch cited the decision last year of the Finnish parliament to build a permanent repository for nuclear waste, the decision this year on the construction of a deep rock disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in America, and moves in Sweden toward community acceptance of a permanent site, as progress in moving waste disposal from theory to reality.

'This sends a message to the world - that nations should and can dispose permanently of nuclear waste, ' said Ritch.

'These developments will embolden governments like Britain, where failure to resolve the issue of waste disposal has been holding back rational decision making on the future of nuclear power.

'The transition to a cleanenergy economy - fully incorporating the principle of hydrogen produced by nuclear power - is precisely the kind of vision that can excite and motivate a whole new generation of environmentalists, scientists, and entrepreneurs.'

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