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CWA # 462, 27 April 2021

Fukushima: A Decade After
An energy mix of renewables and nuclear is the most viable option

  V S Ramamurthy and Dinesh K Srivastava

The Fukushima reactor accident has undoubtedly left a strong negative impact on the public perceptions of the safety of nuclear electricity. On the other hand, public perceptions of the imminent threat of global warming and long-term climate change due to the continued use of fossil fuels for electricity generation and the inability of renewable sources of electricity like solar and wind to provide quality power round the clock have been relatively poor. Nuclear electricity has been identified as a part of the energy mix to provide quality power. It is argued that while it is important to improve the safety of nuclear electricity continuously, it is equally important to sensitize the public to the imminent threat of climate change due to the continued burning of hydrocarbons for energy.

PREAMBLE 
On 11 March 2011, the north-eastern coast of Japan was hit by a massive tsunami caused by a high magnitude undersea earthquake, wiping out several small coastal towns and villages. Around 18,500 people died or disappeared, and more than 160,000 people were forced to move away from their homes. The tsunami also triggered a major accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 250 kilometres north of Tokyo, often referred to as the world's worst nuclear reactor accident since Chernobyl in 1986. It is not surprising that the 11 March event is often referred to as a triple disaster. Though the number of deaths directly ascribable to the reactor accident is very low (as low as 1), the environmental impact of the accident is considerable. Across the world, the accident had a major impact on the public perceptions of the safety issues related to nuclear electricity considerably. 

For putting the Fukushima event in the right perspective, we start with a brief history of nuclear electricity since its inception. The discovery of neutron-induced fission of uranium in 1938 was a landmark event in the history of our energy resources. It is an irony of fate that the first practical demonstration of the same was through its destructive power. Commercial electricity from nuclear reactors became a reality soon after when electricity from the first nuclear reactor was synchronized to a commercial electricity grid in 1954. It is not surprising that there was great enthusiasm across the world for nuclear electricity. For example, Lewis L. Strauss, the then Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, is reported to have declared in 1954, while speaking to the National Association of Science Writers in New York, that "our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter" [1]. In a similar spirit, Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Laureate and the then Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, predicted in 1971 that nuclear reactors would generate nearly all the world's electricity by the year 2000 [2]. We now know that neither of the expectations turned out to be realistic, though, as of today, nearly 450 nuclear reactors are in operation across the world, delivering nearly 10 per cent of the global electricity demands [3]. It is worth noting that the majority of the nuclear power plants are located in the developed part of the world. This is definitely not in the spirit of the two International Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy held in Geneva in 1955 and 1958, with the very enthusiastic participation of delegates from across the world or of the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 1957 with a clear mandate to promote peaceful uses of nuclear technologies across the globe including the poorest of the poor countries.

THE TURBULENT DECADES
The first speed breaker in the growth of nuclear electricity was the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Meant to address the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Treaty ended up in the emergence of a Nuclear Club, with restrictions on technology transfer to others, clearly against the spirit of the two Geneva Conferences. The International Atomic Energy Agency which came into existence with a mandate to promote widespread use of nuclear technologies was being increasingly used by the "funding" nations to "police" non-nuclear powers from accessing nuclear technology for weapons. This, unfortunately, severely diluted their mandate to promote nuclear technologies for the public good. The three-decades-long technology denial to India for carrying out the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Experiment and not falling in line with the NPT requirements is a classic example of the changed priorities of the Nuclear Weapon States.

The 1973 oil crisis did create a positive vibe for nuclear electricity. Unfortunately, it was more than nullified by the negative vibes created by the two nuclear reactor accidents: The Three Mile Island accident (1979) in Pennsylvania and the Chernobyl disaster (1986) in Ukraine. The two accidents brought safety concerns associated with the nuclear industry to the forefront despite several years of accident-free operations worldwide. The impact of the Chernobyl accident on the growth of the nuclear industry has been quite visible. In the 32 years before the Chernobyl accident, 409 nuclear reactors were commissioned for electricity generation, but only 194 have been added in the three decades following the accident. 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was a wake-up call linking greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of hydrocarbons for satisfying our energy needs and long-term climate change. There was a collective recognition that the increasing aspirations of the world population, including those from the developing and the under-developed countries and the strong correlation between the Human Development Index and per capita energy consumption, are bound to result in an increasing global demand for energy in the coming decades. It was well recognized that if we continue to burn hydrocarbons for satisfying our increasing energy needs, life on earth is doomed for more than one reason. On the one hand, we consume about 8 billion tonnes of coal, 4 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, and 35 billion barrels of oil per year. It released 36 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2019. Even at the present consumption rate, we have coal for only about 110 years, natural gas for 48.2 years, and oil for 46.7 years in 2021 [4]. The fully justified aspirations of the developing and the under-developed parts of the world will undoubtedly demand more energy resources. 

It has also been recognized that the burning of hydrocarbons for energy adds to the CO2 load in the atmosphere resulting in a warming of the atmosphere. Global data suggests that global warming has already set in, and if we do not act now, we may soon reach a tipping point [5]. 

There is no doubt that migration to non-hydrocarbon resources for satisfying our increasing energy needs is a MUST and the time to act is NOW.

Two candidates were identified as potential energy resources that are also environment friendly- renewable energy resources like solar, wind etc. and nuclear energy [6]. Considering that the renewable energy resources have unacceptable time variations, a judicious mix of renewables and nuclear was seen as inevitable. 

Having highlighted the need to migrate to clean and green energy resources, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement laid the road maps for de-carbonization in the energy sector and nuclear electricity was seen as an important player in the transition to clean energy.

THE FUKUSHIMA ACCIDENT AND AFTER
The 11 March 2011 Fukushima accident was a turning point in the history of nuclear electricity. The accident changed the public perceptions of the safety issues related to nuclear electricity considerably across the world. The response of different countries towards nuclear electricity has, however, been highly varied.

Before the Fukushima accident, the share of nuclear energy to the total energy basket in Japan was about 25 per cent. Immediately after the accident, Japan shut down all their nuclear reactors and carried out a detailed safety review. Failure of the emergency electricity generators causing a failure of the cooling systems to take away the decay heat of the reactors after they were shut down has always been recognized as one of the most likely risks of nuclear power plants located in seismically active regions.  In 2008, a visiting IAEA team warned Japan that the Fukushima Plant was built using outdated safety guidelines and could be a "serious problem" during a powerful earthquake, particularly the possible failure of the emergency electricity generators.  The reactor operators had been warned that the height of their seawall was inadequate against a powerful tsunami and was advised to shift the emergency diesel generators to a greater height. Unfortunately, the advisory was not acted upon by the operators.  It is worthwhile noting that the reactor itself did not suffer any damage due to the mighty earthquake. The non-availability of power caused the damage to run the pumps for removal of the decay heat after the reactors were shut down following the earthquake. Several other reactors in the neighbourhood whose diesel generators were above the tsunami level suffered no damage. A proactive role by IAEA to put in place a global safety regime may have averted not only this accident but also the one in Chernobyl and avoided the slowing down of the nuclear industry's growth.  We add that the Chernobyl reactor was known to have several design issues. It had a positive void coefficient- which led to increased fission activity with rising temperature, inadequately trained operators- who did not fully understand the complex role played by xenon, badly designed and malfunctioning control rods, and absence of a confinement building [5].

One of the first steps taken by Japan was to revamp the Safety system in the nuclear industry. Based on Safety Reviews, several reactors were permanently shut down. Recognizing that Japan's geographical constraints do not allow the country to fully make a transition to renewable energies, many reactors were also restarted following safety reviews. Already in 2019, nuclear energy was providing 7.5 per cent of the country's electricity. By 2030, Japan aspires to achieve 22-24 per cent of its energy from renewables, 20-22 per cent from nuclear and the remaining from fossil fuels. Substantial emphasis is also being laid on energy efficiency.

Responses of some countries like Germany were almost panic reactions.  Within a few days after the Fukushima disaster, the German Government embarked on an "exit" plan from nuclear energy. The last of the seventeen nuclear reactors, which provided 23 per cent of the electricity to Germany, will be powered down next year. Germany is already committed to an exit from hydrocarbons in the next few years. It will be the first and the only country to attempt a nearly simultaneous entry from fossil fuels and nuclear power. This is not going to come without a cost. Despite massive investments in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, Germany had to take recourse to coal-fired power plants, import natural gas from Russia and buy electricity from France- a country that gets more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear reactors. The impact of these on the German industries has not been insignificant. 

India, China, and South Korea have recognized that nuclear power will remain necessary to plug the gaps left by renewables in the energy mix of the future and are moving forward with their nuclear energy programmes while strengthening their safety and security infrastructures. 

India has 23 nuclear reactors operating and producing 7,480 MWe of electrical power, accounting for about 2.4 per cent of its energy requirements. Eight reactors under construction will add additional 6,000 MWe [6]. It also plans to build other 35 reactors to add 33,000 MWe of nuclear power. It is expected that about 9-10 per cent of the country's electricity needs would be met by nuclear power in due course. 

At the moment, China has 49 reactors producing 47,000 MWs of power, and it has 17 reactors under construction which will provide additional 17,000 MWs of power. It also plans to add many more reactors by 2050.

South Korea has 24 nuclear reactors, producing 23,150 MWe to meet up to 25 per cent of its energy requirement. Four reactors under construction will add 5,380 MWe of power [6]. It has an ambitious plan to export 80 nuclear reactors by 2030, four of which are for the UAE. One of these has started operation, and the remaining three are nearing completion. Once completed, these will meet 25 per cent of the energy requirement of UAE, which is about 5,600 MWe. 

Countries like the USA and Canada are keeping an "open mind".  The USA has 94 commercial nuclear reactors, which provide about 20 per cent of its electricity needs [6]. Most were constructed in the 1970s, and the life of several of them has been extended recently. Only two reactors, totalling a production of 2500 MWs, are under construction at the moment. Several earlier projects were cancelled, and many of the nuclear industries almost went bankrupt. Canada gets about 15 per cent of its electricity from 19 reactors, providing 13.5 GWe of power [6]. However, no new reactors are under construction as the plans for installations of four reactors either lapsed or were deferred.  With only a few nuclear reactors coming up in the last several decades or being planned, their nuclear education and research are in the doldrums, and their nuclear industries are in the doldrums. It is strongly felt that in the process, they are indeed losing their leadership positions to countries like China and India.
 
Some countries simply slowed down their nuclear programmes, keeping a watch on the global developments. On the whole, while the response of individual countries to the Fukushima accident has been highly varied, the accident certainly changed the public perceptions of the safety issues related to nuclear electricity considerably across the world. 

One cannot resist the temptation of recalling a recent development involving the US and China, the Rare Earth story [7]. Today, China produces over 90% of the low-value and up to 99 per cent of the high-value Rare Earth Oxides for world consumption and controls 97 per cent of the global rare earth market while its rare earth resources account for only about 37 per cent. India has the world's fifth-largest reserves of rare earth elements, but it imports most of its rare earth needs in finished form from China. Till very recently, the US was the leading producer of rare earth magnets.  By a set of carefully executed strategic moves, China transplanted America's most advanced rare earth capabilities into China and converted it into their national monopoly [7]. Ironically, efforts are now being made in the USA and elsewhere to "Catch up" with China in this field. Is history repeating itself in nuclear technology where countries like the USA give China a leadership position on a platter?      

There is no doubt that nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima should never take place. One cannot also ignore the fact that these accidents may not have taken place if internationally accepted safety standards had been followed strictly.  

THE ROAD AHEAD
Energy options available to us from global climate change have recently been discussed by Srivastava and Ramamurthy [5]. Of all the clean and green energy resources from the point of view of global warming and long-term climate change, hydropower is perhaps one of the cleanest. Unfortunately, the environmental consequences of large dams related to interventions in nature due to damming of water changed water flow and construction activities cannot be ignored. Seasonal variation in rain patterns, including droughts cannot be ignored, either. Dams are also known to release methane due to rotting submerged vegetation.  Dam failures in environmentally sensitive areas causing severe hardships to people and environmental damage are also not unknown. Above all, we only have a limited number of locations that can be used for building large dams.

Renewable energy resources like solar and wind are highly intermittent- depending upon the time of the day, month of the year, and the weather. These draw-backs are sought to be overcome with the use of electricity storage batteries and pumped-up storage systems. Battery systems are highly material-intensive [8], and they are neither cheap nor environment friendly in the long run. 

It is known that solar panels keep degrading by up to 1 per cent every year. Batteries have a life of just about 6 to 7 years, and along with the discarded solar panels, are likely to add to our enormous burden of electronic waste in years to come. There also seems to be a lack of sufficient awareness of the requirement of vast stretches of land- about 5 acres per MW for necessary for installation of solar plants. The requirement of large quantities of water and power to wash the solar panels to keep them dust-free is often overlooked. Pumped-up storage systems suffer from a lack of suitable sites.

A recent promising development involves generating hydrogen from the hydrolysis of water using electricity from solar and wind stations. It holds out the hope of providing very clean energy storage and carrier options in years to come as more efficient and cheaper fuel cells and electrolyzers are developed. However, we can't overlook the requirement of the vast network of hydrogen distribution to be installed, which is both expensive and time-consuming. The associated problem of hydrogen leakage into the atmosphere and its deleterious effect on the ozone cover as well as on-ground microbes is insufficiently understood and only now receiving some attention [9].

We would also like to emphasize the fact that the capacity factor of most of renewable sources of energy is also rather low [10]. It is about 24 per cent for solar power plants, 35% for wind power, and close to 94 per cent for nuclear power plants.

Keeping all this mind, it is generally believed that an energy mix of renewables and nuclear is the most viable option to provide reliable electricity to the citizens. The exact apportionment will, of course depend on the country's resources. The renewable energy resources are highly location-specific. On the other hand, the known uranium [11] and thorium [12] resources of the world are finite but are known to be enough to meet the energy requirements of the world for several hundred, if not for several thousand years.
It is also generally accepted [13] that one may require up to 20-30% of the power from stable sources of power to handle the time variations of the renewable energy sources to satisfy the requirement of reliable and stable power to the consumer at all times. To eliminate the use of fossil fuels, rapid deployment of nuclear energy to meet up to 30% of the energy needs for meeting the dual needs of providing stable power. The rest can be drawn from renewable energy sources.

The majority of the reactors in operation today belong to Gen-3 reactors. Very exciting and promising developments of inherently safe reactors such as the molten salt reactors and helium gas-cooled pebble bed reactors have reached a stage where they are almost ready to be deployed. Small modular reactors, with advanced manufacturing technologies, are expected to reduce their cost considerably [5] and reduce the time for their construction. 

The ongoing research on accelerator-driven sub-critical systems and developments on nuclear fusion for electricity are other possibilities that require support and effort to come to fruition. 

MANAGING PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
Past accidents in the nuclear industry like Chernobyl and Fukushima have focussed public attention on the risks associated with the nuclear industry. However, public perceptions of the threats related to global climate change related to the continued burning of hydrocarbons for satisfying our increasing energy needs have remained grossly inadequate. Managing Public Perceptions of the threat of Climate Change and the role of renewable energy resources and nuclear energy in combating this threat remains an issue of paramount importance. Democratically elected governments have no alternative to being sensitive to public perceptions. This requires a massive communication drive, actually a dialogue involving all the stakeholders. 

EPILOGUE
Climate change is a global crisis that will leave no nation, rich or poor, unaffected.  There is no alternative to all the countries of the world working together to combat this challenge in the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam ("the world is a family"). The concept of "One World, One Sun, One Grid" put forward by India at the International Solar Alliance in 2018 is a step in that direction. It has also been suggested [5] that an array of suitably located nuclear reactors operated under International supervision can feed into this grid to meet the requirement of about 20 to 30% of the baseload for handling the intermittency of renewable energy resources. However, this would require international cooperation, collaboration, and political consensus at unprecedented levels. The Fukushima accident was a cry of despair for such a cooperation.

References

[1] Lewis L Strauss, https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1613/ML16131A120.pdf
[2] Gen Seaborg- see report by V. Smil, IEEE Spectrum, 2016, https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/nuclear/too-cheap-to-meter-nuclear-power-revisited
[3] S. Kriokorian, IAEA Preliminary Nuclear Power Facts and Figures for 2019; https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/preliminary-nuclear-power-facts-and-figures-for-2019#:~:text=Based%20on%20data%20reported%20to,since%20the%20end%20of%20
[4] http://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/energy-economics/statistical-review-2016/bp-statistical-review-of-world-energy-2016-full-report.pdf
[5] D. K. Srivastava and V. S. Ramamurthy, "Climate Change and Energy Options for a Sustainable Future", (World Scientific Publishing Company, 2021).
[6] https://www.world-nuclear.org/; https://www.foronuclear.org/en/nuclear-power/nuclear-power-in-the-world/
[7] N. Mancheri, L. Sundaresan, S. Chandrashekar, "Dominating the world: China and the Rare Earth Industry", National Institute of Advanced Studies, Report No. R19-2013 (April 2013).  
[8] https://www.powerelectronics.com/content/article/21852152/energy-figures-doe-looks-at-critical-materials; https://www.mpie.de/4185352/permanent-magnets-research-for-sustainability
[9] R. Derwent et al., Global environmental impacts of the hydrogen economy, Int. J. Nuclear Hydrogen Production and Applications, 1 (2006) 57.
[10] US Energy Information Administration, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/nuclear-power-most-reliable-energy-source-and-its-not-even-close
[11] IAEA 2018, https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2018/7413-uranium-2018.pdf 
[12] https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/thorium.aspx#:~:text=World%20monazite%20resources%20are%20estimated,countries%20(see%20Table%20below
[13] A. Kakodkar, Talk on "Nuclear Energy in India in a Carbon Constrained World: The role of Indian Nuclear Society", Indian Nuclear Society, February 2021.

 

The above essay was based on a presentation made at NIAS-IPRI inter-generational dialogue on nuclear energy and nuclear safety on 27 March 2021

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