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Nuclear Energy Industry Re-Energizing after Fukushima

The Fukushima incident has contributed to the lay belief that nuclear energy is a risk not worth taking. Although, according to the data of the non-profit World Nuclear Association only a very limited number of accidents occurred in over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 32 countries. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are the most notorious examples of “Houston, we have a problem” crisis situations. Is it possible to find balance between reasonable public concerns and nuclear generation crucial for economic growth? Russian experience in the reconstruction of global nuclear confidence can offer some interesting solutions in post-Fukishima world.

Nuclear energy use goes hand in hand with irrational fears especially in so-called developed countries. A popular genre of post-apocalyptic drama[1] has been thrilling Western consumers with pictures of polluted wastelands and toxic rains for several decades. No wonder Fukushima triggered the downfall of atomic industry in the EU: Germany adopted a total ban, Switzerland and Spain banned the construction of new reactors. Independent data analysis shows that the roots of these radical decisions lie in the sphere of crowd psychology – politicians influenced by the green lobby had to stop the atomic panic. However, all energy specialists know: the impact of potential human errors in the nuclear sector has considerably decreased. According to the OECD report on risk statistics, natural gas and the nuclear industry appear to be the safest energy sources. The contrast is especially striking in comparison with other realistic energy options (see a timeline by The Guardian Datablog). “Of those we have identified, six accidents in the US and five in Japan. The UK and Russia have had three apiece”, – Simon Rogers wrote counting accidents with nuclear reactors after the Japanese tragedy in 2011.

 

 Source: Paul Scherrer Institut, 1998, considering 1943 accidents with more than 5 fatalities. One TW.yr is the amount of electricity used by the world in about 5 months.

It explains why many sovereign governments like China, India and Iran want Russia’s Atomstroyexport as their contractor, despite the fact that they have their own peaceful atomic programs. Last April Finnish Fennovoima also invited Atomstroyexport (along with Toshiba) to take part in building the sixth nuclear reactor in the country. The first two Finnish reactors were built by Russian specialists, the third and fourth by the Swedish company. The fifth reactor is now under construction by German and French companies.

The Iranian facility in Bushehr is a unique example of engineering expertise. Russian specialists solved many technological problems and successfully integrated German structural elements into the new reactor. In the late 1990s Siemens AG (Germany) quit the project mostly for political reasons, leaving behind tons of old hardware. Nevertheless, with the help of Iranian scientists the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant’s Unit 1 was brought up to 100 per cent of its projected capacity on August 30, 2012, the representative of Atomstroyexport announced last year. Setting all ideological considerations aside, the completion of the project in such a highly seismic area was truly a landmark event for the whole industry. Bushehr facility successfully passed a harsh stress-test during the latest earthquake in Iran.

 

 

Source: Mehr News Agency 

After 2011 Rosatom went global and concentrated on its key export project- the NPP-2006. This reactor combines both active and passive safety systems. Innovative solutions include advanced molten core catchers, passive heat decay removal system and other updated protection elements. At the same time US-Japanese and European companies are primarily developing passive nuclear safety systems because power outage reports influenced their risk analyses.

Earlier in the 20th century the Three Mile Island incident in the US (1979) lead to massive anti-nuclear protests and inspired the sociological theory of “system or normal accidents” by Charles B. Perrow, which both significantly slowed down the research in the US civil nuclear industry. In short, the theory holds that high-risk systems are prone to failures however well they were managed. Western companies simply lacked field data on various types of accident situations.

In contrast, since Chernobyl Russian specialists have become really paranoid about disaster prevention and safety issues both on practical and theoretical levels. For instance, Russian reactors can withstand the direct impact of a falling plane. (Who could have ever expected such precaution would be necessary in the pre-9/11 world?) If Rosatom’s modern NPP had been installed in Japan, the Fukushima incident might not have occured. Or, at least, the consequences would have been not so devastating.

On April 26th Russia mourned the 25th anniversary of the tragic events at Chernobyl. It was a painful lesson to learn. Russia has done its homework and now its nuclear power plants are the most reliable and technologically advanced atomic facilities on the market. One cannot but hope that politicians all over the world will understand that sometimes it is necessary to put safety concerns before lucrative business deals with politically “comfortable” partners. Paraphrasing one famous advertising motto, in the nuclear industry you should really get the best or nothing. Such strategy may help decision-makers on nuclear projects to strike the happy medium between environmental concerns and actual energy demands.

 


[1] See, for example, famous book “The Road” by American novelist Cormac McCarthy and many other TV shows and computer games, not to mention Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons”.

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Igor Alexeev's picture
Igor Alexeev on May 24, 2013 6:39 am GMT

Thank you for your opinion, Richard.

Yes, nuclear energy can be dangerous. But I think we shouldn’t stop research in this field – as a technologically advanced civilization we need a stable energy source and should work on it to limit all the risks you’ve mentioned. That’s why the developing world continues to build NPP. One if the options is to build small- and medium-sized reactors. As far as I know, their modern construction technology is very flexible. They also have compact design which may guarantee a relatively higher level of operational safety. If done well, such nuclear energy sources can meet industrial siting requirements thus setting rational limits to Green alarmism.  

 

 

William Mullins's picture
William Mullins on May 24, 2013 10:50 pm GMT

Like it or not, the opportunity for Luddites to “save the world” passed them by when the smart phone escaped into the wild. Innovation will proceed and entrepreneaurs will continue to insist it be “used to the max” (e.g. building a power reactor on a country certain to have major seismic events). The issue with regulation is not will it be needed, but can it move at a sensible pace in relationship to newer science and engineering.

Still we face a paradox. There is good reason to believe that Nuclear Power is the first technology in history to “scare itself to death.” How else to explain the continued reliance upon faulty dose-consequence relationships and its spawn the ALARA principle – these are precepts that virtually guarantee that the cost estimate for the “next imagined accident” will be an order of magnitude or so greater than the last one.

People who live chronically in fear are never going to be reassured by the actual science of a human genome that has always lived in a radiation bath and even appears to have gotten clever use from the variability it introduce when ionizing radiation stirs a wake in a cell nuclear. It isn’t necessary tht everyone understand where this science points, but it is untenable that entire industry leaderships don’ta bother to keep up with such things (radiationandreason.com).

William Mullins's picture
William Mullins on May 24, 2013 10:48 pm GMT

Like it or not, the opportunity for Luddites to “save the world” passed them by when the smart phone escaped into the wild. Innovation will proceed and entrepreneaurs will continue to insist it be “used to the max” (e.g. building a power reactor on a country certain to have major seismic events). The issue with regulation is not will it be needed, but can it move at a sensible pace in relations to newer science and engineering.

Still we face a paradox. There is good reason to believe that Nuclear Power is the first technology in history to “scare itself to death.” How else to explain the continued reliance upon faulty dose-consequence relationships and its spawn the ALARA principle – these are precepts that virtually guarantee that the cost estimate for the “next imagined accident” will be an order of magnitude or so greater than the last one.

People who live chronically in fear are never going to be reassured by the actual science of a human genome that has always lived in a radiation bath and even appears to have gotten clever use from the variability it introduce when ionizing radiation stirs a wake in a cell nuclear. It is necessary taht everyone understand where this science points, but it is untenable that entire industry leaderships don’t bother to keep up with such things (radiationandreason.com).

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