A Nuclear Update For A Swedish Energy Summit

 “Nuclear’s Best Years Are Behind Us” – Perry Sioshansi (2011)

“More than 70 new nuclear reactors are now under construction, but that’s not nearly enough to make a strong dent in CO2 emissions worldwide,” So the question is, why aren’t we building more?”  – Jacobo Buongiorno (Professor of Nuclear Science, MIT)

You aren’t trying to fool us, are you Perry? I mean, claiming that “the global nuclear generation peak has already occurred, most likely in 2005-6”. But according to a recent claim by the World Nuclear Association, there were 76 reactors under construction at this time last year, which should  be sufficient to raise the number from the 437 you cited four years ago to more than 500 by 2020. “Should” can be emphasized here, because Chinese and Russian nuclear salespersons are scrambling through every country in Africa, Asia and South America in which somebody/anybody sitting in a governmental office publicly states that nuclear energy has something useful to offer.

In the same issue of the IAEE Energy Forum  in which Perry talks his talk, there is also an article by Rob Graber and Margaret Harding (2011) in which they  remind us of a few things. The incident at Fukushima Daiichi is the third nuclear ‘disaster’ in 32 years, but in Japan the issue was “initiated by a series of external events that border on the improbable.” As far as I can tell the improbable in this case was putting the facility in the wrong place, and not by any “design or operational flaws”, which they say were relevant in the case of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. (Note the expression “which they say”, because as far as I am concerned, those two incidents are completely different – or perhaps better, non-comparable.)

Most important though is their claim that the Fukushima incident could have been prevented “by very basic measures, such as increasing the elevation of the emergency diesel generators that are designed to maintain power to the reactor pumps in the event of a station blackout”. I have heard a lot of things about what should or should not have been done to keep the Fukushima incident from taking place, but as far as I am concerned, one the most important – if not the most important – is the contention by these two experts that with the new reactor designs there are passive safety measures that will eliminate experiences of the type mentioned above. Incidentally, this was pointed out in Sweden decades ago, but completely ignored by self-appointed experts.

Why should you believe this? Perhaps you can accept the reason that I present my colleagues and students and – in the silence of my lonely room – my good self. In terms of GDP, Japan is the 3rd largest country in the world. It also happens to be true that in terms of constructing reactors and guaranteeing the safety of their operations, they can do anything that has been done in the U.S. or Sweden or anywhere else, and for reasons that I mention in the long survey chapter for my next book, they might be able to do it better. 

The above introduction should get readers into the rhythm of the present short exposition (which is partially extracted from the aforementioned long survey chapter), but please take my humble advice and do not expect valuable information on this subject from The International Handbook on the Economics of Energy (2011), which is more than 800 pages, and contains many articles. It ignores nuclear energy however, which strikes me and should strike you as odd, but maybe that doesn’t matter.  On the basis of a brief perusal, I believe that like most publications that ignore nuclear where the real as compared to the fictional energy future is concerned, this so-called ‘Handbook’ has little or no pedagogical value.

Thus I continue with the following important message: the nuclear facility at Fukushima was constructed about 40 years ago from blueprints prepared 5 or 10 years earlier. Suddenly it was a victim of one of the most powerful earthquakes  experienced in Japan in the last 200 years, and also in the path of a destructive tsunami that featured waves up to 40 meters high. The tsunami killed more than 18,000 people along Japan's north-east coast and forced the evacuation of 150,000 residents from villages and towns close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But – AS NOTED BY THE Canadian nuclear engineer and executive Malcolm Rawlingson – the survival of the Fukushima nuclear facility (with only 1 fatality) could be described as a structural miracle. Similarly, as indicated by the testimony of the Swedish diplomat and nuclear expert Hans Blix, its survival demonstrated what we can  expect from future generations of (technologically superior) nuclear equipment.

The bottom line here is that exuberant claims about the utility of nuclear energy should not only be tolerated, but promoted, and where the teaching of nuclear economics is concerned, as much emphasis should be put on history as on economics, because history rather than the fantasies of insufficiently educated  anti-nuclear propagandists is where the truth about nuclear is to be found.

Sweden is the perfect country in which to  study energy disciplines. Perhaps 45 percent of the electric production capacity in Sweden (in e.g. Megawatts) is accounted for by nuclear, although annually – at various times in the past –  nuclear probably provided at least 50 percent of the electric energy (in Megawatt-hours) produced in this country. Initially, nuclear and hydro gave Sweden a cost and price for electricity that was among the most favorable in the world (and also some of the lowest output of carbon dioxide). The pointless deregulation of electricity helped to put an end to that very satisfactory price arrangement. 

More significant for me and my work, the Swedish nuclear inventory of 12 reactors was installed in  slightly less than 14 years, which was a feat of technological brilliance that in some respects was analogous to the expansion of the United States Navy and Air Force in the years immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (At least eight of these Swedish reactors were produced by ASEA, a Swedish firm that inexplicably was moved from Sweden to Switzerland in 1988,  becoming the A in ABB, or Asea Brown-Boveri.)

Something I never fail to stress in my formal lectures or informal harangues is the importance of moderately priced AND RELIABLE electricity for an industrial economy, and on that score Sweden was once in the forefront of world economies. Of course, one of the things at the top of the anti-nuclear booster club’s wish list is reducing the demand for electricity, and so together with half-baked energy experts from Sweden and elsewhere they  unleashed a  torrent of lies and misunderstandings about nuclear energy that eventually resulted in the bad news for consumers of electricity that has sometimes characterized the Swedish electric market. During the last decade the price of electricity to households in Sweden has occasionally been extremely high, although – wisely –  electricity may still be sold to Swedish industries at a lower price. At the present time electricity prices in Sweden are reputedly low, and as a result the sound of ignorant voices can be heard calling for the closure of four or five of the Swedish nuclear installations.

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