What the damage to the Fukushima plant (see picture below) forecasts for Japan—and the world? But first, let us introduce general description of nuclear power stations in order to sense problems caused by the breakdown.
Nuclear fission. Nowadays nuclear power stations generate energy using nuclear fission (Fukushima belongs to this type of nuclear power plants). Atoms of uranium (235) rods in the reactor are split in the process of fission and cause a chain reaction with other nuclei. During this process a large amount of energy is released. The energy heats water to create steam, which rotates a turbine together with a generator, producing electricity.
Depending on the type of fission, presumptions for ensuring supply of the fuel at existing level varies from several decades for the Uranium-235 to thousands of years for uranium-238. At the present rate of use, uranium-235 reserves (as of 2007) will be exhausted in about 70 years. The nuclear industry persuades that the cost of fuel makes a minor cost component for fission power. In future, mining of uranium sources could be more expensive, more difficult. However, increasing the price of uranium would have little brought about the overall cost of nuclear power. For instance, a doubling in the cost of natural uranium would increase the total cost of nuclear power by 5 percent. On the other hand, double increasing of natural gas price results in 60 percent growth of the cost of gas-fired power.
The possibility of nuclear meltdowns and other reactor accidents, such as the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster, have caused much public concern. Nevertheless, coal and hydro- power stations have both accompanied by more deaths per energy unit produced than nuclear power generation.
At present, nuclear energy is in decline, according to a 2007 World Nuclear Industry Status Report presented in the European Parliament. The report outlines that the share of nuclear energy in power production decreased in 21 out of 31 countries, with five fewer functioning nuclear reactors than five years ago. Currently 32 nuclear power plants are under construction or in the pipeline, 20 fewer than at the end of the 1990s.
Fusion. Fusion power could solve many of fission power problems. Nevertheless, despite research started in the 1950s, no commercial fusion reactor is expected before 2050. Many technical problems remain unsolved. Proposed fusion reactors commonly use deuterium and lithium as fuel. Under assumption that a fusion energy output will be kept in the future, then the known lithium reserves would endure 3000 years, lithium from sea water would endure 60 million years. A more complicated fusion process using only deuterium from sea water would have fuel for 150 billion years.
Due to a joint effort of the European Union (EU), America, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea a prototype reactor is being constructed on a site in Cadarache (in France). It is supposed to be put into operation by 2018.
Initial projections in 2006 put its price at €10 billion ($13 billion): €5 billion to build and another €5 billion to run and decommission the thing. Since then construction costs alone have tripled.
As the host, the EU is committed to covering 45% of these, with the other partners contributing about 9% each. In May 2010 the European Commission asked member states to conduce an additional €1.4 billion to cope with the project over to 2013. Member states rejected the request.
Sustainability: The environmental movement emphasizes sustainability of energy use and development. “Sustainability” also refers to the ability of the environment to cope with waste products, especially air pollution.
The long-term radioactive waste storage problems of nuclear power have not been fully solved till now. Several countries use underground repositories. Needless to add nuclear waste takes up little space compared to wastes from the chemical industry which remains toxic indefinitely.
Future of nuclear industry. Let us return to how the damage to the Fukushima plant affects future usage of nuclear power in the future in Japan – and in the world.
Nowadays nuclear plants provide about a third of Japan’s electricity (see chart), Fukushima is not the first to be paralysed by an earthquake. But it is the first to be stricken by the technology dependence on a supply of water for cooling.
The 40-year-old reactors in Fukushima run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company faced a disaster beyond anything their designers were required to imagine.
What of the rest of the world? Nuclear industry supporters had hopes of a nuclear renaissance as countries try to reduce carbon emissions. A boom like that of the 1970s is talked, when 25 or so plants started construction each year in rich countries. Public opinion will surely take a dive. At the least, it will be difficult to find the political will or the money to modernise the West ageing reactors, though without modernisation they will not become safer. The heartless images from Fukushima, and the sense of lurching misfortune, will not be forgotten even if final figures unveil little damage to health. France, which has 58 nuclear reactors, seems to see the disaster in Japan as an opportunity rather than an obstacle for its nuclear industry. On March 14th President Nicolas Sarkozy said that French-built reactors have lost international tenders because they are expensive: “but they are more expensive because they are safer.”
However, the region where nuclear power should grow fastest, and seems to be deterred, is the rest of Asia. Two-thirds of the 62 plants under construction in the world are in Asia. Russia plans another ten. By far the most important arising nuclear power is China, which has 13 working reactors and 27 more on the way. China has announced a pause in nuclear commissioning, and a review. But its leaders know that they must go away from coal: the damage to health from a year of Chinese coal-burning plants is bigger then from nuclear industry. And if anyone can build cheap nuclear plants, it is probably the Chinese.
In case the West turns its back on nuclear power and China holds on, the results could be unfortunate. Nuclear plants need trustworthy and transparent regulation.
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