[Editorial] Greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced dramatically, but nuclear power isn’t the way

Posted on : 2021-08-08 10:19 KST Modified on : 2021-08-08 10:19 KST
If you factor in the risk costs, the Fukushima disaster shows that the economics of nuclear power are by no means a safe bet
Storage tanks for water contaminated with radioactive matter from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Yonhap News)
Storage tanks for water contaminated with radioactive matter from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Yonhap News)

In 1986, the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which was one of the Soviet Union’s socialist republics at the time.

With an impact on par with the explosion of an atomic bomb, the accident had consequences that shattered humanity’s hopes for nuclear power.

Amid the boom in nuclear power plant construction around the first petroleum crisis in 1973, work began on 315 plants worldwide over the 10 years of the 1970s. By the 1980s, that number dropped to 166; by the 1990s, it dwindled to 29.

In 2011, another disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant dealt another blow. It reminded people of just how devastating a single accident can be.

The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported in March 2021 that some 13.3 trillion yen (US$121.1 billion) was spent on compensation and decommissioning over the decade after the disaster. It also predicted that the total costs would vastly exceed the 21.5 trillion-yen (US$195.7 billion) projection shared by the Japanese government in 2016.

As of January 2021, a total of 433 nuclear power reactors were operating around the world. The number has risen by just two over the 10 years since Fukushima.

In Japan, the number of reactors fell by 11 amid the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and other factors; in the US, it fell by 10. The number also dropped by nine in Germany, which embarked on a rapid shift away from nuclear power. Reactor numbers fell by four each for the UK and Sweden and two for France.

The global number of reactors increased despite all this has largely to do with China, which built 37 new reactors as it grapples with severe air pollution caused by coal-fired power generation.

Russia also added six new reactors as it seeks to build its diplomatic influence with support for nuclear power plant construction in developing countries. Other increases included four for India and three each for Pakistan and South Korea.

Before the climate crisis, the risks of nuclear power were already sending warning signs to humanity. The inability to resolve the issue of processing spent nuclear fuel for more than 60 years since the UK began generating the first commercial nuclear power has also been a check on the industry’s growth.

Now, as humanity has gained an acute sense of the severity of the climate crisis and the countries of the world have begun assuming responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases, plant operators are once again emphasizing the economic benefits of nuclear power.

But even in terms of economics, there are growing questions as to whether nuclear power plants are a variable “alternative” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If you factor in the risk costs, the Fukushima disaster shows that the economics of nuclear power are by no means a safe bet.

On July 12, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced its first unit cost estimates in six years for different power generation sources.

While the unit cost of nuclear power stood at 5.9 yen (5.4 cents) per kilowatt-hour in 2004, a new calculation factoring in increased safety and decommissioning costs showed that rising to 10.3 yen by 2030 (9.4 cents). In contrast, solar power had unit costs of roughly 9–11 yen (8.2–10 cents) for commercial use and 10–14 yen (9.1–13 cents) for home use, making it the most affordable source.

The ministry also predicted that the unit costs of inland wind power and natural gas power could also be cheaper than those of nuclear power.

When the costs of nuclear power are calculated in South Korea, the numbers only include the direct costs (including construction, management, and materials) and the insurance premiums for the 500 billion-won (US$438.1 million) value that represents the scope of providers’ responsibility in the event of an accident.

In a 2014 report titled “Nuclear Power Generation Costs: Controversies and Tasks,” the National Assembly Budget Office said that the costs of nuclear power generation were being underestimated due to the calculations’ failure to reflect areas where the power company did not bear responsibility — including the costs associated with accident risks, safety regulations, and disputes over plant sites.

Some are suggesting that another possibility may be found in the small modular reactors (SMRs) that the world’s nuclear power businesses are competing to develop as alternatives to large-scale plants.

But it takes at least 10 years to test their safety and economic feasibility with experimental and prototype reactors before a commercial one can go online. It’s too soon for anyone to say anything for certain — and even these SMRs don’t solve the spent nuclear fuel problem.

Outside of China and Russia, the rest of the world’s advanced nuclear power users are contenting themselves with the reactors they already have in operation while hesitating to build new ones.

Various factors — the risk of nuclear accidents, difficulties disposing of nuclear waste, and reduced economic feasibility — have led them to center their future plans around new and renewable energy sources.

South Korea currently possesses the world’s sixth-highest number of nuclear power plant facilities, after the US, France, China, Japan and Russia. Following China’s footsteps in increasing our use of nuclear power would not be a smart choice.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles