By Peter Wallace
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network
Safe? Yes, let’s get that old spectre out of the way first. In the past 50 years, about 170 people worldwide have died from nuclear accidents. And that includes more than 30 people at Chernobyl in Russia, which was a disaster waiting to happen. In that same period, some 40,000 people died in plane crashes, while a truly frightening 50 million died on the roads. If you want to save lives, ban motor cars, not nuclear power plants.
Japan’s Fukushima, indeed a disastrous accident, has resulted in only one known death related to radiation. The other 2,000 deaths were stress-related due to the evacuation. Some 16,000 died due to the tsunami, which resulted in the dislocation and relocation of 340,000 people. The Philippines’ last great natural disaster, caused by super-typhoon Yolanda, killed 6,300 and displaced 5.13 million people.
Nuclear power’s strong safety record can only get better, as new designs are getting even safer. Nuclear is becoming more and more attractive as an alternative safe energy source.
What about clean? Like other conventional thermal power plants (coal, gas and oil-fed), a nuclear power plant uses its fuel to turn water into steam, which turns the turbine. The difference is that a nuclear power plant does not burn fuel to create steam. Heat is produced from a process called fission, by splitting atoms. As a result, unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants do not release carbon or pollutants like nitrogen and sulphur oxides into the air. Radiation from the enriched uranium (the fuel source) could put humans at risk, but that is well-contained. A concrete liner houses the reactor’s pressure vessel and acts as a radiation shield. That liner, in turn, is housed within a much larger steel containment vessel that serves as a barrier to prevent leakage of any radioactive gases or fluids from the plant.
Reliable? Once turned on, a rather complicated process, it just runs until there’s no more enriched uranium – or four years in today’s plants – then you just add more. Maintenance can be done on the run. Shutdown every two years is recommended for a complete check-up. It’s available 90 per cent of the time, compared to wind (only 45 per cent) and solar (16 per cent).
The Philippines is a relatively small polluter, contributing only 0.31 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, so coal should remain acceptable as our main energy source. But the environmental protection movement will grow, putting coal’s future in doubt and increasing the pressure to move away from it. Another base-load source will be needed then, and we could move toward renewables – hydro, geothermal, solar, wind and biomass (burning organic waste).
Installing solar power to meet the Philippines’ needs would be difficult, as it needs a massive amount of land in a country with too little to spare. Solar, on the other hand, needs about 180 times land more than a nuclear plant, and wind needs 400 times more. You can float solar on water, but that’s limited, too. Solar will have an increasingly larger role in supplying power, but not in the massive base-load needs required.
Geothermal is good, and the Philippines is the world’s second largest producer. But there are limits to its expansion. The same with hydro – there just isn’t much water flow that can be tapped. Biomass hasn’t really entered the picture, and it’s not very efficient, is limited in size and is dependent on the availability of the fuel. Gas is good, but given its limited supply, will soon run out if more isn’t discovered – and if the Chinese let us, in our own waters. It can be imported, but that’s a reliance we’d be better off without.
Then there’s the final concern: cost. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run. In countries using nuclear power, nuclear energy is cost-competitive with fossil fuels as a means of electricity generation, if waste disposal and decommissioning costs are included in the operating costs as they should be. If the social, health and environmental costs of fossil fuels are also taken into account, the competitiveness of nuclear power is even better.
Nuclear makes good sense – if we can set aside emotions and think factually. This is the biggest block to nuclear: nothing about it technically, just unfounded public fear.