Introduction to The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation

Abstract Nuclear energy was an assured energy source for electricity generation in the European region in 1960s. Between 1960s and 1990s, more than 190 nuclear power reactors were built in the European region, increasing the share of nuclear energy in the energy balance of several European countries. For this reason, nuclear energy was one of the energy sources that during this period contributed significantly to alleviate European energy supply dependency, and it is now an important factor in the reduction of local air pollution and global climate change. Two serious accidents, the first one at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979 and the second one in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, the second one with serious consequences for many countries in the European region, stop public support to the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation and led to a scaling back of the nuclear industry in the European region. A third big nuclear accident at Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011 increased further the opposition of the pub- lic opinion to the use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity in several European countries. Some of these countries were forced to shut down the oldest nuclear power reactors in operation, to reduce the participation of nuclear power in their energy mix for the coming decades, to shut down all units, to cancel the construction of new nuclear power reactors or to prohibit the use of this type of energy sources for the generation of electricity in the future.

Introduction

The practical use of nuclear energy for electricity generation was demonstrated on December 1942 when the first human-controlled, self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction was achieved at the University of Chicago under the guidance of Italian- born physicist Enrico Fermi. This experimental reactor (in those days called an “atomic pile”) made use of slow (usually called “thermal”) neutrons, capable of sustaining a chain reaction in the rare fissile uranium isotope U-235 that constitutes only 0.7 % of natural (mined) uranium; the rest (99.3 %) being the fertile iso- tope U-238. From this small experimental reactor, an entire industry emerged that has led to 435 operating nuclear power reactors (as of late 2014), 72 under con- struction, and 174 more on order or planned, as well as numerous research reac- tors around the world, delivering clean energy and a large number of products and services for use in many human activities, including medical diagnosis/therapy, industry and agriculture (Brooks et al. 2014).

Nuclear energy derived from fission of uranium and plutonium (transmuted from U-238) is capable of replacing most, if not all, of the stationary tasks now performed by the combustion of fossil fuels (thorium might also have a future application). However, many environmental organizations and governments have opposed, and continue to oppose, the application of abundant nuclear energy. Among the reasons usually given against nuclear fission energy are that it is:

• Unsustainable;

• Uneconomic;

• Unsafe;

• Has links to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The supply of energy is of significant importance for the EU due to its lack of energy sources. For this reason, the supply of energy will remain as one of the major issues of the twenty-first century in the European region, given its high dependency on energy imports. According to different sources, energy demand continues to increase in this region as a whole, raising concerns about the secure energy supply, the economic competitiveness of different energy sources, and repercussions on the economic and social development and the environment. Consequently, due consideration should be given to all these factors, to which others of special relevance may be added, such as liberalization of the energy markets, waste management, and public acceptance of different technologies, all of which have a certain impact on the energy scene (World Energy Council 2007).

It is important to highlight that nuclear energy was an assured energy source for electricity generation in the European region in the 1960s.1 Between 1960s and 1990s, more than 190 nuclear power reactors were built in the European region, increasing the share of nuclear energy in the energy balance of several European countries. However, not all EU countries support the introduction of nuclear energy in their energy mix and some of them continue to be against the use of this type of energy source for the generation of electricity until today.

There should be no doubts that nuclear energy could contribute to alleviate European energy supply dependency, local air pollution, and global climate change. However, during the consideration of the possible role to be played by nuclear energy in the European energy balance in the future, the following problems need to be thoroughly considered and favorably solved:

• Management of the radioactive waste, particularly high-level nuclear waste;

• Proliferation;

• Security;

• Operational safety of the nuclear power plants2;

• Economic competitiveness;

• Public acceptance.

The operation of several nuclear power plants all over the world, and particularly within the EU, has shown that nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except in those countries where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels. Important conditions for economic viability for the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation are given as follows:

• The presence of an open market that is not skewed in favor of some technologies by means of subsidies and/or by a legally imposed priority access for delivery to the electrical grid at a fixed high price that is unavailable to nuclear energy;

• Standardization of the nuclear power plants built in large series and supported by a standardized supply chain;

• A long-term governmental energy policy (stable over a time period of several decades), including, among other features, good (unbiased, accurate, and evidence-based) public information;

• A stable and streamlined licensing process that is technology-neutral, risk-informed, and capable of resolving promptly any safety issues that may arise during construction and operation;

• Careful siting considerations to avoid areas most prone to severe natural hazards;

• Introduction of the concept of payment for “external costs” (e.g., air pollution, solid wastes, and decommissioning) to be applied to all energy technologies based on common standards (Brooks et al. 2014).

Fuel costs for nuclear power plants are a minor proportion of total generating costs, though capital costs are greater than those for coal- and oil-fired plants. In assessing the cost competitiveness of nuclear energy, decommissioning and waste disposal costs should be taken into account. If no actions are taken by the EU to solve the above-mentioned problems, then the participation of nuclear energy for electricity generation in the region will decline notably due to the following reasons:

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0201

• There are only three new nuclear power reactors under construction in Europe in 2014. However, this situation could change in the coming years due to the position adopted recently by the UK, the Czech Republic, Poland, among other EU countries in favor of constructing new nuclear power plants.

• The closure of several nuclear power plants, due to the extinction of their exploitation license, if extension of these licenses is not requested and approved in the coming years.

• The decision adopted by Germany and other EU countries to shut down all nuclear power reactors in operation in the coming years, and the prohibition to build new nuclear power reactors in the future adopted by others.

Two serious accidents, the first one at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979 and the second one in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, the last one with serious consequences for many countries in the European region, stop public support to the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation and led to a scaling back of the nuclear industry in that region. A third big nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011 (Fig. 8.1), increased further the opposition of the European public opinion by the use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity in several European countries. As a whole, the EU requested a deep revision of all safety measures that were in forces before the accident in Japan in all nuclear power plants in operation all EU member states. Some of these countries were forced to shut down the oldest nuclear power reactors in operation (Germany, Spain, among others), to reduce the participation of nuclear power in their energy mix for the coming decades (France to not more than 50 % of the total and Germany to shutdown all units before 2022), to cancel the construction of new nuclear power reactors (Belgium, Switzerland, among others), and to pro- hibit the use of this type of energy sources for the generation of electricity in the future adopted by Austria, Italy, Denmark, among others.

Due to different reasons, the debate about the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation started again in several countries of the European region. The first reason is the foreseeable high price of oil in the long term, as well as an increment of the natural gas price foreseeable in the coming years. The second reason is the need to reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere due to the commitments of the European member states to the Kyoto Protocol. The third reason is the dependency of the Europe region, and particularly the EU, to the import of fossil fuel from politically unstable regions such as the Middle East and from Russia, a country subject to a number of economic sanctions in different sectors, including the energy sector as a result of its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine.

One of the main problems that the European region is facing is its electricity vulnerability. Europe electricity vulnerability depends on the following three main fac- tors: The first factor is the margin of surplus capacity in relation to the peak power demand. In a public monopoly system, this margin is often comfortable, since one of the priorities of the monopoly is to prevent energy failure. It is certainly a costly strategy as reserve capacities are not used and it is the consumer who bears the cost. In an open-market system, it is not necessarily in the companies’ interest to have an overcapacity. Risks of energy failure are more likely, unless the regulator imposes a public service obligation either on the incumbent or on all the operators. The second factor is the interconnection rate between countries. Electricity inter- connection with neighboring countries makes mutual assistance possible in periods of pressure on supply and demand and this limits the risks of failure. It is well known that the EC directive recommends an interconnection rate of about 10 % in terms of the installed electricity capacity of a country. The situation varies from one European country to another. The vulnerability of the “electricity peninsulas” (the Iberian, Italian, and English peninsulas) and the Baltics states is significantly higher than that of other continental countries with many borders. The third factor is the net import rate, i.e., the percentage of electricity consumption, which is imported. About 60 % of the gas consumed within the EU crosses at least one batter while cross-border electricity only amounts to 7 % of the electricity consumed within the EU. Electricity long distance transport costs are high due to line losses, and there is a maximum level of electricity imported that should be considered as politically acceptable. As electricity cannot be stored, dependence on imports is sometimes considered to imply a great risk and such dependence on a strategic good is unacceptable to some countries (World Energy Council 2008).

During the consideration of the role that nuclear energy should have in the energy balance in the European region in the coming years, three main realities should be taken into account. These are the following:

• Expectations in the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation that are raising again in some European states;

• The answer to questions like “is nuclear power economic” cannot be made using a single universal answer. As with just about everything else in life, the answer is “it depends”—sometimes yes, sometimes no;

• Whether the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation is more economics or not will depend on how cheap it is compared to other energy sources.

Certainly, the nuclear industry can influence this issue by bringing down costs, but there are factors outside the industry’s control, such as the price of natural gas or of carbon credits that will also determine, for any particular investor, whether nuclear is a cost-effective option (McDonald 2008).

Currently, the EU-28 generated in 2013 a total of 833.2 TW or around 25 % of its electricity from 131 nuclear power reactors currently in operation in 14 countries. According to some expert’s opinion, and based on the commitments adopted by the European countries regarding the Kyoto Protocol, the above-mentioned proportion should be maintained or increased in order to meet the 2020 target, with an increase in the actual wattage generated to meet increasing power demand. The Kyoto Protocol requires industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, most of which arise from burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal for electricity generation.

It is a fact that nuclear energy is already making a substantial contribution to an energy policy that is low carbon, cost-effective and that provides assured supply. At present, nuclear supplies almost one-third of Europe’s electricity produce very low CO2 emissions calculated over the entire fuel cycle (comparable to wind energy) and has a quasi-indigenous character, i.e., it can rely on a complete European nuclear fuel cycle. In addition, it contributes to the stabilization of electricity prices, owing to the favorable ratio of primary investment costs to fuel costs (Blohmieber 2008).

Today, a strong debate is happening once again among some of the most industrialized EU member states, which, on the one hand, do not want slower growth and on the other wants to reduce the high dependency of the region from the oil and natural gas supplied by Russia. Some of these countries are beginning to view once again nuclear energy as a real alternative for the production of electricity under the current energy and political crisis. The foreseeable increase in oil prices expected to occur in the coming decades changed the minds of people in the European region who turned against nuclear power after the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents (Morales Pedraza 2012).

Although less pronounced than in other parts of the world, energy and electricity consumption in the European region are expected to continue increasing over the foreseeable future, at least until 2030, and most likely beyond. At the same time, energy resources are becoming ever scarcer and more expensive, and excessive emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere are driving the impending threat of climate change.

To satisfy the foresee growth in the demand of electricity in the coming years, the European energy balance should include all available energy technology, including nuclear energy. For this reason, nuclear energy should contribute to alleviate energy supply dependency, local air pollution, and global climate change in the European region in the future, at least in several of its member states. The EU’s energy plan envisages the following three goals:

• A 20 % cut in EU’s GHG emissions (or 30 % as part of an international agreement);

• A 20 % energy’s share from renewable sources;

• A 20 % increase in energy efficiency.

These targets are to be achieved by the year 2020. The ultimate goal of the plan is to limit the average global temperature rise to 2 °C (Blohm-Hieber 2008).

In 2004, the nuclear share of electricity production in the EU reached 31 %, which represents a “non-emission” to the atmosphere of nearly 900 million tons of CO2 per year.3 This represents almost the quantity of carbon dioxide produced annually by the transport sector. Given these facts, it is very unlikely that the goal of a 20 % CO2 emission reduction by 2020 can be achieved, if the EU energy mix does not include an important share of nuclear energy. It is important to highlight that unless Europe can make domestic energy more competitive in the next 20–30 years, between 60 and 70 % of the EU energy requirements, compared with 50 % today, will be met by reliance on imports from regions threatened by insecurity. According to some expert opinion, not only it is expected that this dependence would increase up to 60–70 % by 2030, but reliance on imports of natural gas is expected to increase from 57 to 84 % by 2030. In the case of oil, this increase would be from 82 to 93 % (Morales Pedraza 2008).

The European region, particularly the EU, is consuming more and more energy and importing more and more energy products in order to satisfy its increasing energy needs. External dependence for energy is constantly increasing and this situation is considered by many politicians and experts very dangerous from the political and economic point of view. If no measures are taken, in the next 20–30 years, 70 % or more of the EU’s energy requirements will be covered by energy imported from outside the European region. Why the EU is increasing its energy import from outside the region (see Fig. 8.2)? One of the main reasons is that the energy production within the EU is decreasing and there are not exploiting as much as they could their indigenous and renewable sources of energy. Instead of moving toward the stated objective of a 12 % share for renewables in the European region energy balance, the region is stagnating around the 6 % mark, which is half of the agreed objective. Despite of the efforts made during the past years by several European countries to increase the share of renewable energy in the energy balance mix, the outcome of these efforts is not enough and has no change significantly the current composition of the energy balance within the region as a whole.

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0202

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