Nuclear or gas?

December 6, 2010 | 00:00

If there has to be a choice, we should have a proper debate first about the pros and cons

Nuclear or gas?

Both nuclear power and natural gas are regularly presented as interim or ‘bridging’ solutions on the way to the energy supply of the future. However, the arguments for or against one or the other are all too often shaped by partisan interests. It is high time to take an impartial look at the advantages and disadvantages of both technologies.

In the German ‘debate’ (if it deserves to be described as such) about extending the operating life of nuclear power plants, we observe a problem that is all too common in energy policy, as indeed in other controversial areas: decisions are reached before anyone has taken the trouble to form an impartial view of the pros and cons of the issue. Subsequently arguments are cobbled together in support of the decision, while negative aspects are glossed over.

As part of the coalition agreement, the German government took the political decision to extend the operating life of nuclear power plants and only then commissioned scientific studies to find out how this should be effected and for how long nuclear power was to be integrated into the energy mix of the future. They did not commission studies to find out whether an extension of the lifetime of the nuclear power plants would be advisable. The opposition conduct themselves in an equally biased manner. Their rejection of nuclear power is an article of faith rather than the outcome of an impartial assessment. This can be seen in the fact that they cling to discredited arguments – for example, that nuclear power plants are technically incompatible with the expansion of renewable energy – while they ignore sound arguments – for example, that nuclear power plants constrain the expansion of renewables for economic reasons.

Energy companies, political parties and non-governmental organisations either repeat or ignore specific arguments in order to promote their own agenda. From their point of view, this is perfectly legitimate. But when particular groups are able to push their interests forward without the government adequately weighing the facts and interests at stake, this leads neither to the optimum decision, nor to a decision that will find sustained support. For this very reason, all the arguments for and against any particular option deserve to be properly debated. At the same time, there also has to be a discussion of the relative weight that is to be attached to the various arguments. It is perfectly natural for groups of people or even whole societies to prioritise things completely differently. But there has to be an open exchange about the setting of priorities; only after this has taken place should any decisions be taken.

Energy supply in Germany and the European Union as a whole must be switched over from fossil fuels to renewables on as broad a basis and as rapidly as possible. In view of the growing demand for energy throughout the world, the decline in domestic fossil fuel reserves and the changes affecting our

Nuclear power stations can in fact be regulated sufficiently flexibly from a technical point of view, at least if they are part of a broad-based electricity mix
climate, this is beyond dispute. What is less clear, however, is the role that nuclear energy and natural gas should have in this transformation. Although they may not be able to play any part in the energy supply of the long-term future – because their use is not renewable and therefore not sustainable – they are both presented as ‘bridging solutions’ on the roadmap to future energy provision, since they produce lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil.

On the assumption that the room for ‘bridging solutions’ is limited, their respective supporters are already jockeying for position. While opponents of nuclear power laud natural gas as the perfect supplement to the expansion of renewables, supporters of nuclear power stress the problems arising from the “dependence on imports of, above all, Russian gas”, thereby exploiting “the historical fear of Russia”. (1) High time, therefore, to make an impartial comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power and natural gas. I have listed the arguments pro and con nuclear power and gas in relation to six criteria: climate impact, safety, costs, impact on renewables, security of supply and social acceptance. I have not compared their overall environmental impact.

Climate impact

The supporters of natural gas are keen to point out that it is the most eco-friendly of all fossil fuels because, when burnt, it gives off less CO2 than coal or oil. The nuclear power lobby for their part portray themselves as guardians of the environment, since a nuclear power plant emits zero CO2 in its operations. Both are correct, but their arguments need careful scrutiny. If we look at them in more detail, we first discover that nuclear power is by no means emission-free when you take into account not only the generation of electricity in the reactors but also the upstream processes such as mining the uranium and constructing the power plant. The emission levels then correspond quite closely to those incurred in the construction of equipment for water and wind power. Unfortunately, we do not have any reliable data for the additional emissions produced in the downstream processes of nuclear waste treatment and storage.

Secondly, we have to remember that nuclear power plants, unlike modern natural gas-fired power plants, are not used to produce heating at the same time as they are generating electricity – with the exception of electrically powered heating in France, which is in any case uneconomical and in cold

In Germany, as expected, nuclear power is rejected by the majority, but somewhat surprisingly, this is also the case in France
winters puts the national grid under immense strain. Heating requirements must therefore be supplemented by the use of fossil fuels, which in turn release CO2. Nevertheless, the carbon footprint of nuclear energy is better than that of natural gas, even though the difference between nuclear power plants plus individual heating on the one hand and natural gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plants on the other is minimal.

Safety

Despite the spectacular fireballs and the clouds of smoke they produce, explosions in natural gas-fired plants seldom arouse as much media attention as incidents in nuclear power plants that are not accidents at all. In fact, there are significantly more accidents in the whole production chain of natural gas than of nuclear power. Nevertheless, several studies show that fewer people have lost their lives through natural gas accidents than through accidents in the nuclear power industry, if indirect deaths are included. The resulting material damage has also been on a much smaller scale.

The increased attention paid to plant safety in the nuclear power industry can be attributed to the enormous damage that a single core meltdown can cause. Fortunately this has only happened once so far, in Chernobyl. Another ‘worst-case scenario’ meltdown is statistically unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out with absolute certainty. While the number of deaths resulting directly from such an event would be fairly low, we could expect several thousand indirect fatalities even in the case of Western European reactors. The likelihood of accidents in the natural gas sector in the future is certainly much higher, but the consequences would not be on a comparable scale.

Costs

Cost overruns are far from unusual in nuclear projects
While the price of natural gas has followed oil in making headlines over recent years, mostly on account of sharp increases and wild fluctuations, electricity generated in nuclear power plants has acquired the reputation of being cheap. This is because not all of the possible costs are taken into account when setting the price of electricity. The costs that would be incurred in the case of a meltdown could not remotely be recovered through insurance. Furthermore, it has not been clarified who would be responsible for the additional costs if damage were to occur at any of the sites used for the permanent storage of nuclear waste. Because this is a grey area, we have to assume that these costs would be borne by the state (i.e. the taxpayers), a factor that is reflected neither in the price of electricity nor in the calculations of the operators.

In comparing the costs of nuclear power and natural gas, we need to differentiate between capital costs, fuel costs and disposal costs. Increasing and/or volatile fuel costs have a much more marked effect on the price of electricity generated in natural gas-fired power plants than on electricity generated by nuclear power plants; in this respect, nuclear power has the advantage. On the other hand, nuclear power plants are disadvantaged by their capital and disposal costs, as these are far higher than for natural gas-fired power plants. They also often turn out to be higher than initial estimates suggest: cost overruns are far from unusual in nuclear projects. In the case of fully depreciated nuclear power plants, as in Germany, that are in line for an extension of their lifetimes, considerations of capital cost have no relevance. For new construction projects, however, this factor is a major hurdle. 

Impact on renewables

The natural gas lobby is keen to point out that natural gas is the ideal supplement to the expansion of renewable energy, as natural gas-fired power plants can be rapidly ramped up and down. If renewable energy in the form of wind and solar power is preferentially fed into the grid, despite the variable and

In order to increase environmental efficiency, the heat produced in the generation of electricity in nuclear power plants must be put to use
unpredictable nature of its availability, then the flexibility of the remaining conventional power plants takes on increasing importance. Opponents of nuclear power maintain that reactors are too cumbersome for this purpose. Extending the lifetime of existing nuclear power plants or even constructing new reactors would therefore hinder the expansion of renewables.

But this often-used argument is not as straightforward as it appears. Nuclear power stations can in fact be regulated sufficiently flexibly from a technical point of view, at least if, as in Germany today, they are part of a broad-based electricity mix, and within this, renewables do not exceed a certain share of at least 42%. (2) They will indeed become a technical hindrance at a later stage of the expansion of renewables; but depending on how the matter is handled, an extension of the operating life of nuclear power plants would not constitute an obstacle per se.

However, an extension of the operating life of nuclear power stations is capable of delaying the expansion of renewables, though for economic rather than technical reasons. Because the major energy companies are hardly likely to invest in wind farms if this means that, because of the preferential treatment of renewables by the grid operators, they have to reduce output from their lucrative nuclear power stations more frequently. It is questionable whether this effect will be cancelled out by the additional revenue that is expected from the extension of the nuclear power plants and which – under the new German government scheme – is earmarked for the promotion of renewables. In contrast to already fully depreciated nuclear power stations which generate worthwhile profits even when operating at lower capacity, newly constructed nuclear power plants must be operated at full capacity because of the high capital investment cost. New reactors such as those planned in many countries outside Germany are consequently in direct competition with the expansion of renewable energy. 

Security of supply

There are conflicting views on the security of our natural gas supply. While there are some who see it threatened by our dependence on imports, others regard it as assured because of our longstanding trade relations with the major suppliers who are considered to be trustworthy. The corresponding question of where the uranium for nuclear power is to be sourced from is, by contrast, hardly ever

Abolishing the price link between natural gas and oil would also be a great help
raised; instead, nuclear power is usually treated unquestioningly as a domestic source of energy, since the fuel elements are manufactured within the EU. The fact that the uranium for the power plants usually has to be imported tends to be ignored. In fact, there are not even any publicly available data on the sources of imported uranium for individual member states. Euratom, the EU agency that monitors the nuclear energy sector, only provides this information for the EU as a whole. It regards individual country data as confidential.

As it turns out, for the EU-27 the largest supplier of uranium is Russia, just as it is for gas. Russia supplies 21.5% of the EU’s uranium imports as against 35.9% of the EU’s gas imports (2007-2009). However, it should be noted that the EU produces over 38% of its own gas, and just 2.7% of its own uranium. Hence, its dependence on Russian uranium is almost as high as its dependence on Russian gas (20.9% of total uranium use in the EU is supplied by Russia as against 22.2% of total gas use).

The supply of uranium is also less diversified than of gas. The four biggest suppliers of uranium to the EU – Russia, Canada, Australia and Niger – provide 72% of the EU’s uranium needs. By contrast, the three biggest suppliers of gas – Russia, Norway and Algeria – provide 48% of the EU’s gas needs; the rest is supplied by a host of smaller suppliers, both within and outside the EU.

In future, however, the picture for gas will change considerably, as domestic gas production in the EU is declining. The conclusion may be that the supply of natural gas is currently more secure than that of uranium, but in future there seems to be a higher risk to imports of natural gas than to those of uranium. 

Social acceptance

Who has ever taken part in an anti-natural gas demonstration? Or joined a pro-natural gas rally? The answer is probably no one. The issue of nuclear power, by contrast, has for decades drawn huge crowds of people on to the streets, especially in Germany where emotions seem to run the highest when it comes to nuclear power.

If we want to compare the social acceptance of fuels, we can only really refer to a Eurobarometer survey from 2007 (3), since all other surveys dealing with the acceptance of different energy sources refer either to one fuel only or to a single country, or else pose subliminally loaded questions. Even though the results of the survey might be different today, following for instance the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis of 2009 and the incidents at the Krümmel nuclear power plant in 2008/09, they nonetheless offer interesting insights.

If we divide the results of the survey into ‘agree’, ‘disagree’ and ‘undecided’ across the EU as a whole, the percentage in favour of nuclear power and natural gas was broadly the same, while nuclear energy encountered more hostility than natural gas. Nuclear power tends to polarise opinion more sharply, so that the proportion of respondents who had no strong views either way is significantly smaller for nuclear power than for natural gas. Overall, natural gas was accepted by a significant majority of EU citizens; nuclear energy on the other hand met with antipathy.

But when we look at the individual member states, there are marked differences. In Germany, as expected, nuclear power is rejected by the majority, but somewhat surprisingly, this is also the case in France. By contrast, both countries demonstrate an above average acceptance of natural gas. In Finland on the other hand, both nuclear power and natural gas were accepted by the majority, natural gas more than nuclear power. In Sweden too, nuclear power enjoys above average acceptance, while the attitude towards natural gas was undecided.

Weighing the evidence

All the arguments must now be weighed up in the context of a proper debate. How are we to balance climate impact and cost calculations against each other? What about capital costs in relation to fuel

Abolishing the price link between natural gas and oil would also be a great help
costs? What significance should we attach to social acceptance as compared with risks to supply? Do we feel sufficiently reassured by the statistical improbability of a core meltdown to dismiss this without further consideration, or do we conclude that even a slight residual risk which cannot be completely ruled out is still too dangerous to ignore?

Improving the use of nuclear energy

If the public debate in the EU or individual member states reaches the conclusion that we wish to continue to use nuclear power, or to use it to a greater extent as a ‘bridging solution’, a number of measures need to be taken. 

  • In order to increase environmental efficiency, the heat produced in the generation of electricity in nuclear power plants must be put to use. This does not include the uneconomical use of electric heaters. 
  • The risk of accidents in reactors and of proliferation must be reduced; any unavoidable residual risk must be dealt with openly. Modern reactors are inherently safer than older ones. At the same time, we have to bear in mind that the construction of new reactors will reduce the economic attraction of expanding renewable energies to a much greater degree than extending the operating life of fully depreciated reactors. 
  • The hitherto unresolved issue of safe permanent storage for nuclear waste must be resolved. This fundamental question arises even in the case of an immediate shutdown of the nuclear power industry. However, if we retain nuclear power or expand it, the volume of radioactive waste we have to dispose of will continue to grow. 
  • In the pricing structure for electricity, the failure to take into account the costs of an unlikely (but not impossible) meltdown or damage to permanent nuclear waste storage sites must be addressed and rectified. The potential imposition of costs for damage on the public purse represents an unfair advantage that nuclear power has over other fuels, since society at large would have to bear the consequences. 
  • In the EU as a whole and in most member states, the public has to be won over to greater acceptance of nuclear energy.

Improving the use of natural gas

If public debate leads to a decision in favour of the continued or increased use of natural gas as a ‘bridging solution’, measures have to be taken with particular regard to the following problems. 

  • In order to boost the security of supply for the EU as a whole, as well as for individual member states, a single market for natural gas must be created. The creation of the necessary infrastructure for this within the EU will be as effective as the diversification of countries of origin and transit routes.
  • In order to increase environmental efficiency, the development of CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology – i.e. the sequestration and underground storage of the CO2 produced by burning natural gas – must be driven forward, and natural gas-fired power plants must be equipped and modified accordingly. 
  • Because the price of natural gas is susceptible to major fluctuation, mechanisms need to be put in place at an international level to restrict this price volatility to a quantifiable ‘price corridor’. Abolishing the price link between natural gas and oil would also be a great help. 
  • The pipelines, storage tanks and power plants which are currently designed to handle natural gas must increasingly be adapted to take bio-methane and renewable methane as well. (4) Taken together with natural gas as a ‘bridging solution’, this opens up a sustainable opportunity for further development within the natural gas industry. 

About the author

Marcel Viëtor (vietor@dgap.org) is Resident Fellow for Energy and Climate Politics at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations. This article was first published in German in Internationale Politik 6/2010. It is based on a detailed study which will be published by Nomos Verlag at the beginning of 2011.


Footnotes

1 PRGS Business Consulting: Communication Concept Nuclear Energy – Strategy, Arguments and Initiatives (in German only), 19/11/08, p. 31

2 Matthias Hundt et al: Compatibility of renewable energies and nuclear power in the generation portfolio – Technical and economical aspects

3 European Commission: Energy Technologies. Knowledge, Perception, Measures, Special Eurobarometer 262. January 2007

4 Michael Sterner: Bioenergy and renewable power methane in integrated 100% renewable energy systems. Limiting global warming by transforming energy systems 

 

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