In Obninsk there was a mausoleum

Nuclear power wants to pose as peace, sustainability. But to the world, it has always meant the bomb and danger. What are governments doing to sell nuclear power to their people? From Moscow and Obninsk in Russia, RICHARD MAHAPATRA reports on a hardsell

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

In Obninsk there was a mausoleum

Rust in Peace:  The Obninsk pl (Credit: Richard Mahapatra / CSE)In Moscow, a celebration. One date symbolically sutured the two Russian cities: June 27. On that day, in 1954, the world's first nuclear power station hummed into life in Obninsk, producing electricity till 2002. On that day 50 years later, 500 scientists and policy makers from 32 countries attended the inaugural of a week-long conference on nuclear power: 50 Years of Nucler Power -- the Next 50 Years. As an orchestra played Swan Lake, a magician turned a snake into a red handkerchief and vodka flowed -- some stereotypes simply cannot be jettisoned -- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Mohamed ElBaradei told the conference: "Life begins at 50." He said in his keynote address: "As the world warms up and energy consumption induces climate change, nuclear energy remains the saviour for the future," adding that "without adopting nuclear energy, the Kyoto initiative would turn turtle and the world would add more greenhouse gases. An uncertain future for nuclear power means an uncertain future for the Earth." This was the conference's pitch: revive nuclear. And if the reference to climate change was astute as well as fashionable, the point had been made: the public must be made to accept that nuclear power is a clean and reliable energy source.

But when scientists moved to Obninsk, late in the evening of June 27, to discuss the future, the mood was despondent. Fears regarding proliferation would keep nuclear energy production restricted. As ElBaradei put it: "We haven't recovered from Chernobyl. The problem of nuclear energy is massively based on public perception." We could add: the Three Mile Island disaster in USA, or the greatest one: wasn't this a kind of energy the world first witnessed in the form of the atom bomb? Since then people hadn't differentiated between the bomb, and peaceful uses.

1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman demonstrate nuclear fission
1942 USA starts Manhattan Project to build
the atom bomb. Fermi demonstrates self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction
1945 USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima, Nagasaki
1951 Electricity from nuclear energy first produced in the US
1954 President Eisenhower signs Atomic Energy Act, allowing private use of nuclear power
1963 USA and USSR sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits underwater, atmospheric, and outer space nuclear tests
1968 Non-proliferation Treaty for halting the spread of nuclear weapons signed
1973 Energy crisis due to Arab oil embargo
1979 Accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, USA
1986 Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor melts down. Massive radioactive leak
1987 USA selects Yucca Mountain for storing
radioactive waste
1992 USA’s Energy Policy Act becomes law, changes licensing process for nuclear plants
2002 House of Representatives approves Yucca Mountain as final disposal site for spent nuclear fuel
2003 Germany says it will phase out nuclear power
2004 World celebrates the 50th year of nuclear energy
Obninsk's perestroika
Nobody knows this better than Anatoly Sktyfurko, director of Obninsk nuclear power plant for 32 years. "This power plant is a chronology of world nuclear power," he said. About a decade ago, Obninsk opened its doors to the world, showcasing its technology. Suspected to be a weapon research facility, Obninsk's perestroika was a sign that nuclear establishments were changing. The plant is now struggling to dispose off spent fuel, and poor funding could make decommissioning drag into years. When L A Kochetkov, one of the core group that designed and built the plant, talks about these problems, he could be talking about all of nuclear energy today: "Challenges are there but that doesn't discount the role of nuclear energy in the future."

The conference's mandate to promote nuclear power as the sole reliable source of energy in the 21st century goes back to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa. The WSSD had refused to admit the role of nuclear energy in sustainable development, but had said: "the choice of nuclear energy rests with countries." The IAEA, now embroiled in a controversy over proliferation as a bullying tool, read in this statement a chance to push peaceful uses of nuclear energy. With nearly 60 countries announcing their grim determination to produce nuclear energy, what better forum could IAEA get to form a consensus among its member nations? It indeed tried to do so, but failed: concerns regarding proliferation and the environment overrode this agenda.

A 100-odd papers into the conference, it became clear that nuclear energy faced two challenges: environmental and political. Concern for the environment wouldn't give it public approval, and after 9/11 sharing nuclear technology has become a political minefield. Other challenges existed: aging infrastructure and developing technology to prevent proliferation, as Y A Sokolov, deputy director general of IAEA, put it. "By 2010 we need to demonstrate that the most pressing problem of waste disposal has been addressed, or we will continue to have a pessimistic image of nuclear energy," he added. In the end, participants agreed that military use had driven nuclear development for 50 years. What would the driving force be in the next 50?

About energy security

Bold enough: Stade Nuclear Pla (Credit: REUTERS)Would it be cynical to interpret the conference's call to revive the nuclear power sector as hardsell? No. The present is as opportune a moment as can be. And for two sets of reasons.

For one, 70 per cent of the world's 442 nuclear reactors will have turned utterly geriatric by 2010, ripe for decommissioning. Secondly, the sector is just not able to corner a bigger share of the power generation pie. In 2002, all reactors, with a combined capacity of 360 Gigawatt-electrical (GWe), provided just 16 per cent of the world's electricity. Not only has this percentage remained the same since 1987 -- the best proof of stagnation (of course, public dislike for its growth is equally important here) -- IAEA dolefully says that total installed power capacity in 2015 will be just about 10 GWe more. Scientists predict that by 2030 the 400-odd lifetime-extended reactors would have to be replaced by new ones to avoid a huge electricity shortage. In Europe, countries with new nuclear power production capacities won't help much. "From this year we need at least four reactors every year to increase capacity. Is this realistic?" asked Ronald Steur of IAEA's nuclear power technology development section. Add to this the sorry state of nuclear proliferation -- locked in a China shop with a US bull, but also a cause to go nuclear carpetbagging: although IAEA's membership is 130, only 30 have nuclear reactors.

At the same time, there are countries that wish to keep jogging on the nuclear path. Then there are those who want to join them. And there are companies trying to convince other countries about the joys of jogging.

Can't run so fast now
Developed countries that turned nuclear years ago are keeping the sector alive by extending old reactor lifetimes. This is cost-effective and a necessity because the public there wouldn't allow new ones. What has fuelled this process further is 'energy security'. USA's Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved upgrades of 96 reactors since 1977; some of them by 20 per cent. Switzerland has increased the capacity of its five reactors by 12.3 per cent. Japan plans to extend plant lifetimes by up to 70 years. In 2000, Russia extended the lifetime of its 12 oldest reactors from their original 30 years to a further 15. Spain is spending US $50 million on the Almarez nuclear plant to boost its capacity by more than 5 per cent. Finland has raised its Olkiluoto plant's capacity by 23 per cent.

Energy security churn
In the European Union (EU), a peculiar situation is emerging that exactly captures what the conference cheered or moaned about. Germany plans to phase out nuclear power by 2025, because of concerns about safety and waste. In France, 80 per cent of all electricity generated comes from nuclear power; it plans to increase this capacity. Between these extremes lie a host of nations, following trajectories that could be grist to the hardsell mill. And what better mantra than energy security? (see box: A better mantra?)

In May 2004, the Swiss rejected a plan to phase out reactors by referendum. The Swedish government's plan to phase out all its 11 nuclear reactors is facing other hurdles too. After closing Barseback I reactor in 1999, the government wants to shut Barseback II but has to prove how it will compensate for electricity loss. After talks with power utilities failed, government negotiator Bo Bylund announced on May 11, 2004 that Barseback II wasn't included in the overall phase out plan. Belgium's phase out plan gives its seven reactors a 40-year lifetime, and allows them to keep working if the country faces power shortage. Finland's new nuclear plant will be ready in 2005.

Of the 10 states that joined the EU this year, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania operate 19 largely Russia-designed reactors. They are being given extensions or replaced with new plants.

Churn and seek
As governments seek energy security, 'nuclear energy' has become an insistent note -- at the conference this was sweet music to many -- in policy and vision documents. According to USA's Nuclear Power 2010 initiative, the government and private companies will work together to explore sites for new nuclear plants. The first new plant built under this initiative, announced last year and granted US $38 million by the US government, will be ready by this decade's end.

The EU's November 2000 Green Paper on Energy Security has recommended a wider acceptance for nuclear energy, as Europe's dependence on imported energy sources could rise to 70 per cent in 20-30 years. According to Brussels-based European Atomic Forum president Eduardo Gonzalez Gomez, by 2007 -- the second phase of EU enlargement -- 15 of the 27 member states will be nuclear powers. "Beginning 2010, it will be necessary for Europe to increase its nuclear electricity production to maintain supplies," says Gomez. "With the development of the European Pressurised Reactor, and Finland adopting it, a new era has emerged. I can see a global market of 400 reactors in the next three decades," says J Bouchard, chief of the France Atomic Energy Commission.

Hardsell is good

Nightmare: Testing for exposur (Credit: INSP)Four problems bedevil the nuclear energy sector: proliferation, political coyness over technology options that discourage proliferation, radioactive waste, and -- of course -- money. The conference was polarised on the proliferation question. Sombrely, it discussed a world full of peace- and plutonium-filching terrorists. The US wants to shut down Iran's nuclear programme, to -- it says -- stop proliferation. IAEA officials admitted such political posturing made it difficult for all nations to access nuclear technology. "We see a great future for nuclear energy and at the same time have all kinds of restrictions on technology transfer for peaceful uses. It is a contradiction that might affect the future," said I Ennison of Ghana Atomic Energy Commission.

In a conference discussion paper, IAEA said states shouldn't import nuclear fuel to non-proliferation treaty signatories found producing nuclear weapons. IAEA could create its own nuclear fuel reserve, to be used use if a state reneged on its commitment to export nuclear fuel, was another suggestion. Consensus eluded both ideas.

On to another dilemma
Yet another dilemma got thrown up. Internationally, efforts were on to create technology that was proliferation-resistant. Such technology was safe, but expensive. Only the richest nations could afford it. And how would nations compete in selling cooperatively produced know-how? Within the rubric of such questions, two initiatives were intensely discussed. The 19-nation International Project On Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO), begun in 2000 (a thinktank for future reactors, for instance those with a closed fuel cycle, so producing too little spent nuclear fuel for a bomb), and the one called Generation-IV (GEN-IV), initiated by the US along with the Russian Federation and IAEA.

Both technologies, it was agreed, were fund-gobblers, for they needed huge inputs from physical science, materials science, nanoscience and other technologies. The initiatives catered to two different blocs -- GEN-IV comprises 11 nations that have selected six technologies suitable for industrialised countries; INPRO helps developing countries, which will make the greatest demand for energy in the next 50-100 years; eight nations are in both groups -- and there was no agreement on disseminating technology. At the conference, scientists were polarised: it looked like a (polite) fight between nuclear haves and have-nots. Steur stressed that though the two programmes differed, they worked together..

GEN-IV will develop advanced commercial reactors. The project has been divided into a 'near-term' (GEN-IV A) component that will develop thermal systems for advanced high-burn up fuels and 'long-term' GEN-IV-B systems using fast reactors. "The US, which has not ordered a new nuclear plant in more than 25 years, must break the barrier," said William Magwood, director of US department of energy's office of energy, science and technology. INPRO, when it began, had a non-budgetary account with IAEA but from 2004 became part of agency work. INPRO phase IA, which finished in June 2003, has developed a method to assess innovative reactor systems. Phase IB ended in June this year and seeks to validate the methodology developed earlier by applying it to a number of case studies, like Argentina's carem reactor and China's Pebble-Bed reactor.

"The challenge of proliferation is intrinsic to INPRO's work. But theft and terrorism have a put a question mark on it. This is particularly after 9/11 and international pressure to secure everything from terrorism," said Steur. INPRO is based on two principles: use proliferation-resistant technology and conventions and state commitments to fuel supply and return agreements, and institutional arrangements. It wants international cooperation for the first. But the US is wary. That's why INPRO and GEN IV have not linked. Ideas, like applying INPRO's assessment method to GEN IV, have been dumped. "For the time being no one is interested," said Vyacheslav Kuznetsov of Russia's Institute of Innovative Energy. And to stop proliferation, IAEA needs 3,000 new inspectors.

A similar lack of consensus has landed the International Thermonuclear Experimental reactor (ITER) in a political cul-de-sac. This ambitious nuclear fusion project involving many countries was mentioned in passing at the meeting. It failed to receive further commitments. The ITER consortium is deadlocked over where the reactor should be built. The US, Russia and China want the reactor to be built at Cadarache in France, but the US, South Korea and Tokyo support a Japanese site, Rokkasho-mura. Yevgeny Velikov, who has been working on nuclear fusion since 1978, said it was important to decide the site in the next three months. "If there's a decision this year, ITER could start operating eight-and-a-half years later," he said. "All the design and technical details are settled, and the funding -- it's only the site we're waiting for. But that's a very political decision. And an election year in the US is a bad time for agreements."

What about waste?
No country on Earth knows how to dispose off radioactive wastes safely and permanently (see box: International dump yard). In other words, spent uranium must be guarded for at least 15,000 years, and plutonium for about 75,000-100,000 years. Every year the world's 442 nuclear plants produce 12,000 tonnes of radioactive waste. Add 50,000 tonnes of plutonium, if nuclear weapons are dismantled. "More than 50 countries need to dispose off nuclear waste," said ElBaradei. "We are talking about a (storage) guarantee of say at least 10,000-15,000 years," said Ken E Brockman, safety expert at IAEA. Nuclear power is expected to grow between 2015 and 2050. Where will the waste go?

It took USA 47 years to find a permanent dump: Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. This alone would not help: merely to dispose off wastes that keep getting produced, it has to build disposal sites every four years for 50 years. Several nuclear power pioneers and countries with nuclear programmes for military use also have their 'legacy wastes'. The UK has 90 tonnes of plutonium waste and will accumulate more when it dismantles nuclear weapons. Disposing this off is estimated to cost some US $93 billion. What about India? Said Kakodkar: "Our waste is very small and we need not worry now." But India's nuclear programme is an old one, and yet it has never disclosed how much radioactive waste it has. Moreover, its search for a permannent disposal site has failed: both the Kolar gold fields and Pokhran were tried, and then rejected.

As no other country wants a disposal site on its soil, an international effort is on for cooperative disposal. In July 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for regional disposal sites and the IAEA keenly accepted. No one else did. Russia offered to store the spent fuels of other countries at the Mayak Chemical Combine facility in the Southern Urals, but there were no takers. It hoped to get US $20 billion for modernising its nuclear establishment. No country has accepted the offer.

Task remains daunting
In May 2004, US energy secretary Spencer Abraham announced the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), which by 2005 will call back all highly enriched uranium the former USSR supplied to 17 nations. The spent fuel of this uranium will be retrieved by 2010. Both will be shipped to Russia for storage -- a huge project for which the US is spending US $450 million.

Environmentalists like Alexei Yablokov, president of Moscow-based Centre for Ecological Policy of Russia, support GTIR: "This very good step should have been taken long ago." But can all the fuel the USSR sent out be traced? If this looks daunting, then consider the GTIR plan: convert highly enriched uranium at 100 reactors in 40 countries to low-grade uranium by 2013. In Russia's case, low-grade uranium will be used at US power plants. But how will Russia do this? Its only spent fuel reprocessing plant, at Mayak, is swamped with the spent fuel of rusting nuclear submarines.

Cost: major hurdle
The cost of producing nuclear energy is, in any case, a major hurdle to its commercial acceptability. In the EU and industrialised nations, the deregulation of electricity markets has further precipitated the problem, for nuclear power must now compete with coal, gas and hydro-electricity.

This has had a peculiar fallout: while profits are up at well-run nuclear plants (mostly in developed countries), setting up new plants has become prohibitive. For operating plants, high construction costs have either been paid off or written off as subsidies, thus lowering operational costs -- often lower than coal and gas-bas based power stations. Thus any increase in productivity in existing plants directly translates into profits.

In France and the US this has led to existing plants being efficiently managed. Indeed, this has become a worldwide trend: in 1990, nuclear power plants were, on average, running for 71 per cent of their time. This has gone up to 84 per cent in 2003; an improvement, according to the IAEA, equal to building about 34 new 1000 megawatt nuclear plants, almost free.

But new plants cost up to three times more to build than fossil-fuelled plants. Completion takes about 12-15 years, blocking return on capital investments. In fact, from being a blueprint to turning operational usually takes 25-30 years. "I don't think any investor would pump in money and wait for three decades to get the return," says Ronald Steur of IAEA. In a deregulated market, nuclear power becomes severely unlucrative. As proof, one needs to only track the manner in which, in Western Europe and North America, recent investments have veered towards natural gas.

This is why the mega expansion of nuclear power is occurring in countries where electricity demand is rising, but supply alternatives aren't. Thus in western Europe and North America, where electricity demand is growing relatively slowly and alternatives like hydropower, gas and coal are in plenty, there has been no new construction since the Civaux-2 reactor in France in 1999. On the other hand Japan and South Korea, where alternatives are fewer, have begun four nuclear power plants in the last three years and three more are under construction. These countries face disruption in the import of natural gas and oil. Similarly China and India: a growing economy and corresponding energy demand leads to reactors.

"New nuclear power plants with shorter construction times and significantly lower capital costs could help promote a new era of nuclear power," said Yuri Sokolov, IAEA deputy director for nuclear energy. "In India nuclear is the only viable source left for us," says B R Grover, BARC's strategic planning group head. The Central Electricity Authority, in a 1998 report Generating Capacity Planning Studies has suggested power generation for the next 15 years i.e. 2015. It suggests a nuclear power addition of about 12,485 megawatts by the end of the 11th Plan. India has spent huge amounts of money on its nuclear programme. Now, as it takes up power generation in a big way, it lacks investments. Since the government is the sole investor the money is not always available. That is why India wishes to amend the Atomic Energy Act: pave the way for private participation. The cabinet is yet to decide on this.

It is a chain reaction

-- India's nuclear power programme is also entering a crucial phase. Every challenge for the next 50 years the conference debated, India has to face and sort out before running the nuclear path. It needs to do that fast because it is just beginning to take its nuclear power programme seriously.

From the current three per cent share in the market to 25 per cent in 2050, the Indian nuclear power programme is attempting to leapfrog. This means it has to capture half-a-per cent of the energy market consistently for the next 26 years. "For India to become a developed country, India's energy demand would grow eight times and nuclear energy is going to be the most reliable source for it given the limitation of other sources," says R Chidambaram, principal scientific advisor to government of India.

The first challenge is making nuclear power competitive in the domestic market. The Indian energy market is being deregulated. India hopes to sell nuclear power, more as a compulsive option than a commercial energy choice. Given that our coal and gas resources would just be enough for the current century, India would be left with just nuclear and renewable sources of energy.

But in a competitive market scenario this may not help. Taking care of the Rs 10,00,000 crore the government has already spent since Independence on nuclear power infrastructure, the return of three per cent electricity is a massive waste of resources. The department of atomic energy hopes these massive investments would start giving return as cheaper electricity when they now compete with other sources.

According to a cost analysis of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd done on two 500 MW capacity nuclear and thermal plants which would be commercially viable in 2004-05, nuclear power has gained in cost competitiveness due to a massive government spending on infrastructure. The capital costs at the price level of 1997-98 shows that the nuclear plant would cost Rs 5.23 crore/MW, and Rs 3.75 crore for the thermal plant. While for the thermal plant the cost of ash disposal and abatement cost for greenhouse gas emissions have been excluded, in case of the nuclear plant waste have been excluded. This is a major capital expense the government has traded as reprocessed fuel for the next generation fast breeder reactors. In fact nuclear energy companies in France and UK are facing bankruptcy now due to massive financial commitments for waste disposal. Though they were collecting a cess for it, they didn't keep the money away.

In the final analysis the cost of generating electricity from nuclear power after the initial 4-5 years has been found to be cheaper than thermal power. But this analysis is based on government discounts to electricity generation: if the discount rate is high it favours low cost option like the thermal plant and when it is lower it favours the low fuel cost option like nuclear. But in a deregulated energy market, which India is very fast moving towards, it doesn't mean anything.

"We are already competitive and when the production reaches a certain level, the price would definitely come down. Also, in future nuclear energy would be getting benefits of carbon emission savings, thus making it further cheaper," says B R Grover, strategic planning head, BARC.

Rather than allow its compulsions to turn into an obsession, India needs to keep its energy options open. Nuclear energy isn't an imperative: so can India not get seduced by nuclear hardsell?

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