Stop talking, start building

September 5, 2008 | 00:00

Stop talking, start buildingThe time is right for a major change in world attitudes to energy - and the world cannot afford to wait before embarking on building the hundreds of new nuclear reactors that will contribute to a secure and clean energy future.Opening the World Nuclear Association's (WNA's) 33rd Annual Symposium in London, WNA director general John Ritch announced the launch of the WNA Nuclear Century Outlook, a projection of where nuclear power could potentially be headed over the course of the century. Built on a country-by-country projection keyed to the years 2030, 2060 and 2100, the Outlook presents 'high' and 'low' case scenarios.

The lowest scenario, which predicts a world nuclear capacity of 2000 GWe by 2100, represents a six-fold increase of world nuclear capacity over current levels. "The nuclear renaissance," said Ritch, "is on." The high scenario sees over 11,000 GWe. So far so good - but there is a downside. Even making the most robust assumptions about the growth of renewables and the contribution of carbon sequestration and storage (CCS) technology, the low scenario would leave a huge 'clean energy gap'.

The high scenario, while ultimately meeting clean energy requirements by 2100, offers "hope but hardly reason for optimism" because a large deficit in low-carbon energy will continue for at least the next 50 years.  In facing this challenge, nuclear and renewables should no longer be seen as competitors but as clean energy partners, Ritch said, concluding that "We must act now."

"The Outlook underscores that our world has no more time for psychological denial, political timidity, greenwash hypocrisy, environmentalist myth-mongering and technological fantasy," Ritch declared.

The call to action was echoed by US assistant energy secretary Dennis Spurgeon. Speaking in a keynote address to the Symposium, Spurgeon said that he is confident that, as far as the USA is concerned, the nuclear renaissance is imminent. However, energy matters are now on a cusp - growing concerns about energy security and climate change will provide the trigger for a major change in approaches to energy, he said.

The substitution of electricity for fossil fuel, with features such as the use of electricity for personal transport coming into the mainstream, would raise the main question of how to make the most of existing energy resources in the short term, Spurgeon said. Indeed, the USA could use liquid fuel derived from coal to eliminate all of its oil imports - and would need to rely on nuclear energy to do so effectively and efficiently. The technology to convert coal to liquid fuel already exists - the Fischer-Tropsch process - but is very expensive in terms of coal and water. Not only is the process energy hungry, but also relies on coal as the feedstock. The combination of hybrid use of nuclear energy and proven technology to produce liquid fuel from coal cleanly could allow the USA to do this - a win-win situation, bringing widespread economic benefits. US domestic coal resources, used in this way, would be sufficient to last for at least two centuries.

The technology already exists, Spurgeon said, and future technological developments, such as the advent of high temperature gas cooled reactors (HTGRs) that would be even more efficient at producing hydrogen, would of course make it even easier. Some 400 light water reactors, or 250 HTGRs, would be needed to generate the hydrogen for the process. Wind or solar electricity could also contribute to hydrogen generation.

Hydrogen generation and coal conversion notwithstanding, Spurgeon said that to achieve a 50% nuclear share by 2035 the USA would need to build 165 nuclear plants of 1400 MWe - nine per year coming on line from 2016 onwards, a target that is eminently possible, said the Spurgeon, provided adequate capital is made available.

"We have the technology today to make the US energy secure... we can get started now," Spurgeon emphasized. "The era of cheap oil is over. It is time to stop talking and start building."

Making it happen
The companies tasked with delivering the much talked of renaissance are developing strategies to help reach the goal. New approaches to managing nuclear new build programs to lessen the risks attached to such high capital projects, the need for knowledge transfer, embracing technological advances and the need to communicate the manifold benefits of nuclear were amongst the themes addressed by a raft of speakers in a keynote panel.

That the industry must not neglect its existing fleet in the excitement of new build was a warning issued by several speakers, with the continued safe operation of plants an essential part of the picture. Said Raul Deju, Energy Solutions' chief administrative officer: "Both government and industry have roles and responsiblities and we must earn continued confidence and acceptance by the public through safe operation of nuclear power plants."

This article featured on World Nuclear News on the 4th of September 2008

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