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N-energy: IEA conveniently leaves out larger societal issues, environmental costs

Shankar Sharma, Power & Climate Policy Analyst, writes to Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency, Paris*:

I would like to draw your kind attention to the latest analysis of IEA: Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transitions.
Few points in the Executive Summary of this analysis by IEA caught my attention: (a) Nuclear energy can help make the energy sector's journey away from unabated fossil fuels faster and more secure; (b) As an established large-scale low emissions energy source, nuclear is well placed to help decarbonise electricity supply; (c) Extending nuclear plants’ lifetimes is an indispensable part of a cost-effective path to net zero by 2050; (d) Nuclear power plays a significant role in a secure global pathway to net zero; (e) Less nuclear power would make net zero ambitions harder and more expensive;(f) The industry has to deliver projects on time and on budget to fulfil its role.
It would have been vastly more appropriate, if each of these arguments were diligently considered from the true welfare perspective of the human kind. As has been in the past w.r.t its dogged advocacy on fossil fuels without much substantiation, IEA seem to have focused only on few issues such as capital costs, finance, and some technical jargons, while conveniently leaving out larger societal issues such as environmental costs; costs associated with enormous chunks of land and massive quantities of fresh water additionally required; costs and operational risks associated with the massive complexity associated with huge and heavily loaded integrated grid network to accommodate such vast nuclear power capacity; questions on the availability/ reliability/ costs of the required quantity of nuclear fuels; massive logistical issues in doubling the nuclear power capacity by 2050; credible threats/ costs associated with nuclear radiation, accidents, and terror; last but not least is the safe disposal/costs associated with spent fuels/nuclear wastes.
Since, this IEA analysis has focused largely on secure energy transition by 2050 in the context of climate change, I would like to raise a few associated issues:
(1) One global estimate indicates that in order to have any discernible benefit from the Climate Change perspective, nuclear power needs to be about 33% of the total installed power capacity at the global level. This estimate also indicates that about 2,500 nuclear reactors of average capacity of 1,000 MW would be required, and nearly four new reactors would have to begin construction each month until 2075. This projection upto 2075 may not be too far different to the scenario by 2050, as has been the projection by IEA. The issue of importance here is the enormity of the challenges to increase the nuclear power capacity to make any discernible impact from the climate perspective. This global estimate also says: If nuclear power were to play more than a marginal role in combating global warming, then some nuclear-power reactors would have to be operated even in those countries, where there is no nuclear power as of now. Looking at the recent past experience of slow electricity demand growth, the increasing public opposition, the safety issues, and the threat of nuclear terrorism etc. such a huge addition of installed capacity is impossible. For a resource constrained and densely populated country like India, diversion of thousands of Sq. km of its agricultural/ forest lands for setting up hundreds of nuclear reactors, including the safety zones, can be said to be next to impossible. In such a scenario, why should the most costly and risky technology of electricity generation be a part of our energy basket, when we have many benign options available?
(2) For every developing country like India, the capital cost and hence the consumer end price of the delivered nuclear energy should be a critical factor in choosing the most appropriate energy technology option. As of today, nuclear power is evidently the costliest option for India (as it is elsewhere), and is only likely to be the costliest option by a huge margin even in future. For the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project (6 reactors of 1,650 MWe each) in Maharastra state in the country, the estimated cost per MWe is between INR 300 million to 400 million, whereas the lowest cost is for renewable energy sources of wind and solar backed by storage batteries, which is in the range of INR 80 million to 100 million per MW.
This stark contrast in capital costs of various electrical energy options is corroborated by a recent LCOE analysis by Investment bank Lazard (15th edition of its highly regarded Levelised Cost of Energy Analysis). It goes to show that wind and solar power technologies don’t just beat new installations, they are by and large competitive with even existing coal, gas and nuclear plants, even after the huge capital costs of those plants have been amortised. In all cases, they are five times cheaper than nuclear power plants. Even storage and network costs don’t come close to making up the difference. Such a contrast in capital costs can only become much starker in the future because of the continued efficiency increases in solar, wind power, and energy storage battery technologies on one hand, and the continued escalation of capital costs of nuclear power on the other hand. It is reasonable to assume that these issues will be similar to all other poor/ developing countries also.
Under the title “List of cancelled nuclear reactors in the US”, Wikipedia, has provided the details of about 200 cancelled reactors, including many in the construction stage, stating that: “Of the 253 nuclear power reactors originally ordered in the United States from 1953 to 2008, 48 percent were cancelled, 11 percent were prematurely shut down, 14 percent experienced at least a one-year-or-more outage, and 27 percent are operating without having a year-plus outage. Thus, only about one fourth of those ordered, or about half of those completed, are still operating and have proved relatively reliable.”
What a journey for the nuclear power industry: from the tall claims of ‘endless & cheap even to meter energy’, to never ending claims of innovations (such as Magnox, AGR, PWR, BWR, CANDU, RBMK, gas cooled reactors, fast breeder reactors etc.), to Fusion reactors and Small Modular Reactors (SMR) etc.; to a large number of cancelled reactors in the US, to cost & time over-runs etc.; but totalling only about 3.8% of the global electricity capacity; and now to the tagline of ‘costliest and riskiest power generation technology’, and associated with concerns on global nuclear terrorism and intergenerational waste management issues.
(3) Other serious issues associated with nuclear power, which have not been addressed satisfactorily so far, are the cost & time overruns of almost every nuclear project; quality/ safety issues as have been plaguing the French EPR reactors; forced shutdown due to defects and cooling water availability (in summer months of Europe); import dependence issues (fuels and technology available only in few countries/ companies); nuclear proliferation/ terror; nuclear waste disposal etc. None of the global agencies, such as IAEA, or the advocacy groups have come up with a satisfactory technology to store the nuclear waste for hundreds/ thousands of years. What are the associated costs and GHG emissions?
(4) A recent article by Prof Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA, can be seen as providing us a credible pathway to smooth energy transition without the costs and risks associated with fossil and nuclear fuels; provided our political leaders and bureaucrats are convinced of the very need for timely and smooth energy transition, which is not apparent at present. On the basis of the credible level of confidence shown by this team, which studied the use of wind, water and solar power technologies in 143 countries and 50 states, and found that the grid can stay stable everywhere in the world with 100% WWS, it should be techno-economically viable for most countries, if not all, to make the necessary modifications to the above referred simulation model to suit their specific needs, and implement the same with a high degree of confidence. 100% WWS basically means wind, water and solar power technologies, without any need for nuclear and fossil fuels. It is a shame that global agencies like IEA and IAEA seem to have completely ignored such benign alternative technologies from a holistic perspective of the true welfare of all sections of the global society.
In the context of these evidently glaring facts, it should become obvious that poor countries, like India, should not waste their meagre resources on nuclear power technology, which evidently has no true relevance to their energy future, and also because they may have humongous potential in renewable energy.
Whereas, the above discussed main considerations alone can be seen as ‘the necessary and sufficient factors’ for all poor countries, like India, to shun nuclear power technology for their future, a host of other concerns such as cost & time overruns (such as at Flamanville, France; Olkilouto, Finland; Hinkley Point C in UK; Vogtle in US), over-reliance on imported technology/ nuclear fuel, calamitous threats of nuclear accidents, public opposition etc. will be very serious hurdles.
If IEA, being a high profile and influential global entity, chooses to continue to push for the wider acceptance of nuclear power technology, the minimum obligation it should take upon itself is to provide adequate clarification to each of the concerns as discussed above, and as contained in the enclosed file, and as applicable to India and other developing countries.
IEA’s continued advocacy on nuclear power can be seen as a clear parallel to its own relentless and dangerous advocacy on fossil fuels till recently (despite repeated warnings from the concerned individuals and NGOs), which has led to the UN's clarion call to move away from fossil fuels urgently to save humanity.
Entities like IEA and IAEA, while making such fleeting advocacies, should provide adequate focus for the overall welfare of every section of global society on a sustainable basis, instead running the credible risk of being seen only as the mouthpiece for the industrialised and rich countries/ corporations.
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*Excerpt

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