?The Moment Has Passed to Compare the Merits of Wind or Nuclear Technology?
28 Jun, 2007 04:27 pm
With an increase of 80 million inhabitants per year, the planet needs all the energy possible: nuclear, wind, solar, hydraulic?The fight ?down with nuclear? has been lost before it even starts, and the time is no longer to be comparing which type versus which type has better merits explains the director of Environment Center of the French Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers to Newsteam Agency.
Yes. This nuclear renaissance, that we are enjoying and lamenting at the same time, is unavoidable. First, there is an increasing demand, in particular in developing countries. China and India – 2.3 billion inhabitants combined- have a growth of over 10% and thus an energy demand that matches. In addition, there is an increase in the world population at a rate of 220,000 people per day, so around 80 million per year. Again, the energy needs go hand in hand. However, if we project into the year 2050, we could see 75% of our actual resources vanish. Either because of a progressive disappearance (of oil or gas) or a decrease in usage (of coal) due to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.
I made a forecast: even if we use all of our last reserves of oil and gas, even if we ignore the Kyoto protocol, which is not desirable (remember that china is installing each year in coal the equivalent of our entire nuclear sector), even if biomass and solar energy is developed, even if wind power turbines are installed everywhere, even if you sink the continents in order to build dams, a huge amount of energy will be lacking in 2050, the equivalent of 6,000 nuclear reactors. We won’t build them, so we won’t meet our needs.
I’m in favor of the development of all types of energy, whatever they may be. Nuclear energy doesn’t replace anything, it’s a source that is complementary to others. In the future will need all different types of energy, because in any case there will be a lack. Everything needs to be developed. The moment has passed to compare the merits of wind or nuclear technology.
The fight termed “down with nuclear” has been lost before it starts. We can carry out the fight in France, we are a small country, that accounts for 1% of the world population. We will find ourselves at 300 in the world ranking, but we can do it. But the world in its totality needs a good level of energy, which means a good comfort level, but even more so level of health.
Nuclear energy doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, which is a positive point. But of course, one has to look at what else is behind it: security, waste. How do you deal with these two problems?
As for security, I have no worries about the reactors in the west. On the other hand, we can't make whatever, which we saw with Chernobyl. Public opinion can flip around in a second, because catastrophe could be worldwide. There is a very serious monitoring problem. How do we implement a credible system of monitoring? There needs to be international monitoring, like we implemented for proliferation. And states have to give in on this.
Regarding waste, first, in a very general way questions about, notably highly toxic waste, not only nuclear, but also in other industrial sectors, and in particular the chemical sector, need to be addressed. As for radioactive waste, which represents since the beginning of the nuclear age in France a 12 meter cube edge, I advocate that we initiate research to shorten their shelf life to 300 years. At the moment, time is measured in millions of years for those whose self life is the longest. The separation/transmutation technique needs to be developed. It’s possible, I work on it in my laboratory at CNAM.
Nuclear development also poses a problem for lasting quality of uranium resources, the availability of material for the construction of reactors. What do you say to this?
As concerns uranium resources, I’m not worried. Today, there is “economical/cheap” uranium for the next 4 centuries. If we look for less economical uranium, we can find more. Furthermore, fourth generation reactors will permit the reuse of the fuel. Then, we will move towards centuries of availability. We can also do research on uranium from water at a relatively economical rate, there are thousands of tons available. Therefore, it is virtually inexhaustible. As for material, there is indeed some management that needs to be established, for example steel specifically for tanks.
There are other problems, like the cooling of reactors. It’s better to put them on coastlines rather than along rivers that may have insufficient water levels during the summer.
All of this generates substantial costs, whereas the price of electricity is volatile and even more so in decline. Who can take on the investment required given such a slow rate of return?
The first part: the cost of electricity is not going to go down or at least not for long. There will be an energy shortage, therefore its overall cost is going to increase. The price of kwh is not a valid argument. Even wind power, or solar, which are very expensive will not be handicapped. What is very expensive today will become less so tomorrow.
The kwh generated by gas for example maybe isn’t expensive, but once there is an imposition of a carbon tax, the price will increase in relation to nuclear energy, and even in relation to wind.
There is also the cost of kwh in relation to raw materials. The start up cost in nuclear energy is much higher: the creation of fuel, the reactor, the recycling of waste, and even the dismantling of the factory. Fuel are the peanuts regarding costs in this case. Yet, in fuel per gram, there is a factor of ”two million” between nuclear energy and fossil fuel. If tomorrow the price of gas doubles, the price of kwh doubles. If the price of uranium doubles, there will hardly be any effect on the cost of kwh.
Regarding the problem of the slow rate of return on investment, it seems that when EDF announces the construction of a reactor, the banks are knocking at the door.
Could you summarize in a few word the different generations of reactors?
The first generation was in the 60's and 70's with the immense “cathedrals”. The second generation is today, and for the next couple of decades, with the water pressurized reactors (PHWR). There are 58 of them in our country, which represents 55% of the nuclear power installed in the world.
The third generation is called EPR (European Pressurized Reactor). The EPR is an improved PHWR (better safety, better fuel management).
The fourth generation is a different concept. Half are established on the retrieval of fuel. It produces electricity, and it reproduces fuel at the same time. Hence, it will make nuclear energy sustainable. It has to be reprocessed, and we have an excellent level of expertise as far as this is concerned.
Another concept is a very high temperature reactor. Through water electrolysis it will be possible, among other things, to recuperate hydrogen, which may be one of the fuels of tomorrow along with the fuel cell that is essential in automobiles for example. There is still research that needs to be done, above all in regards to material, because hydrogen has a tendency to damage other materials. It spreads easily and renders materials absorbent.
This of course involves new fields of research....
There are two major fields of research in which we are not focused enough on. The first is the storing of energy. The development of wind cannot happen with an improved storage. Today, we don't know how to manage a wind power network. The European blackout that occurred on November 4th 2006 is in large part related to this: there is a huge deficit due to the fact that in Germany the wind turbines were turning but weren't in Spain. The second study is focused on materials. To store hydrogen, but also to better isolate homes and save on energy.
Jacques Foos is a professor at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metier, the director of the Nuclear Science Laboratory and also the vice president of the commission of factory surveillance at the Hague (CSPI). The government has nominated him as an expert in the field of “Ionizing radiation” for the creation of a national outline called “health-environment”.