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Nuclear Energy's Grim Future

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

Each of the major reactor accidents has had a major negative impact on global nuclear prospects, and Fukushima will be no exception.

The most immediate effect was in Germany, which immediately shut down its older reactors and put the rest under review. For a decade, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trying to negotiate an "exit from the nuclear exit"--the plan adopted by a socialist-green government in the 1990s to phase out reliance on atomic energy completely. But she appears now to have thrown in the towel. Even more importantly, though nuclear-dependent generators have been trying to fight the reactor shut-downs, the national association of electricity generators has parted ways from that effort and seems to be acknowledging that nuclear power is basically dead in Germany.

In the meantime, China has suspended approvals of new nuclear reactor projects, the United States has inaugurated a review of existing plants, and proposed plants in India have suddenly become much more controversial. All older plants are subject to suspicion, and naturally the same is true of any plant proposed for a coastal site on the Pacific or Indian oceans and any in an area susceptible to severe earthquakes. As a result, the number of nuclear plants shut down in the coming years is sure to exceed the number of new plants brought into operation.

But that's nothing new. According to a Worldwatch Report released last week, in the three years from 2008 to 2011, eleven plants were closed worldwide while nine new plants were finished. Worldwide, the share of electricity generated from renewable resources now exceeds the fraction obtained from nuclear reactors. "In 2010 . . . worldwide cumulative installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375nGW prior to the Fukushima disaster," says Worldwatch.

All this does not mean, of course, that there's no future role whatsoever for nuclear energy. Growth in wind energy may run into limits as the most attractive sites are exhausted. Sharply increased reliance on natural gas already is raising questions about the integrity of water supplies; because of chronic leakage of methane from gas distribution systems, the climate benefits of switching from coal to gas may be overrated. Photovoltaic electricity still is far from competitive in grid-scale applications, and may never be. So, in many instances, as countries and regions seek to cut carbon emissions and replace high-carbon energy sources, reactors will still look like the best alternative in some instances.

This last week, interestingly, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) almost simultaneously announced plans to shut down 18 coal generating plants in response to tighter environmental regulation and, because of Fukushima, to upgrade infrastructure at six nuclear power plants.

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Fukushima Severity Upgrade

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Japan's upgrade of the Fukushima accident severity, though long overdue, has been greeted with some perplexity by reactor safety experts, as the Financial Times notes in a report today. After all, said one, there's been no sudden change in the state of the three affected reactors and four spent fuel ponds.

Had the upgrade been to 6 rather than 7 on the IAEA scale, it probably would not have encountered the same skepticism. From Day 2 of the unfolding accident, when the first explosion destroyed an outer containment building, the situation was plainly worse than Three Mile Island, which was rated Level 5. But has it been as bad as the Chernobyl Level 7 catastrophe?

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of Japan's nuclear regulator, stated the essential difference admirably, showing that the upgrade decision must have been carefully considered. "Mr. Nishiyama," reported the New York Times, "stressed that unlike Chernobyl, where the reactor itself exploded and fire fanned the release of radioactive material, the containments [that is, the steel reactor vessels] at the four Fukushima reactors remained intact over all."

The difference between Fukushima and Chernobyl deserves to be underlined. Both hydrogen and steam explosions can occur in the standard light water reactor used around the world, and such explosions can take place in the inner reactor vessel, damaging the core (though at Fukushima, so far at least, they have occurred only in outer containment buildings). But at Chernobyl, the reactor core itself exploded, sending radioactive materials 9 kilometers high into the atmosphere, to be carried across Eastern Europe to Scandinavia, where they were first detected.

So why are the Japanese now classifying Fukushima as Level 7? It's because, as my fellow blogger Eliza Strickland has explained, the accident appears to meet the IEAE criteria for environmental release of radioactive materials into the environment. Though it's improbable that the total releases will ever exceed Chernobyl's, it's still possible, as the situation remains grim and the reactors not fully stabilized. Japanese authorities have said releases to date are about 10 percent of Chernobyl's, though Strickland makes a good case they may in fact be well under 5 percent.*

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* The New York Times has a report today that sheds considerable light on the discrepancies in Japan's reported ejection of radioactive materials. The authorities are saying now that releases of radioactive cesium and iodine were much higher in the first days immediately after the accident than previously believed.

Photo: TEPCO

Wind Turbine Blade Tumble Called a "Singular Event"

Last week we noted how a planned wind farm in North Dakota has "fallen" due to concerns over endangered bird species. A more literal fall, though, took place last month at an existing North Dakota farm, when the blades of one of 71 turbines at a Pierce County installation tumbled to the ground. The companies involved are now calling that event "singular" and "very out of the ordinary."

Apparently, the blades were not aligned with a power shaft on the turbine tower, eventually causing bolts holding the blade in place to fail. Inspections of the bolts on other turbines are being carried out as a precautionary measure.

No one was hurt when the blades fell. The company that manufactures this particular turbine, Suzlon, told the AP that it is unclear why the misalignment occurred.

Wind power has by and large been a very safe form of power as it has scaled up in the last decade, but accidents like this one are not unheard of. "Wiring anomalies" caused damage to two towers in upstate New York in 2009, and an impressive video of an out-of-control turbine in Denmark made the rounds online in 2008. There have also been injuries: In 2007, a turbine tower on a wind farm that had yet to begin operations snapped in half and killed a maintenance worker.

Still, the safety concerns for other power sources -- from nuclear crises like that at Fukushima, recently upgraded in severity to match that of Chernobyl, to the BP oil spill or Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion -- far outpace that of wind power. No energy source, though, will ever be completely free of hazard.

(Image via ruei_ke)

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Fukushima, TMI, and Chernobyl

April10

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Early in the crisis still unfolding at Fukushima, the thought crossed my mind that when all the dust settles, there will be those arguing that even when much more goes wrong than anybody imagined possible--not just partial reactor meltdown and probable pressure vessel breaching, but hydrogen explosions blowing up outer containment buildings and a spent fuel pond overheating--the consequences of very bad nuclear accidents are still well within the range of what we tolerate in other areas of modern life.

Hundreds die in the occasional airline crash, after all, and oil refinery and chemical plant explosions often take many dozens of lives. Tens of thousands die prematurely every year from exposure to air pollution in the United States, and hundreds of thousands in China. Seen in that perspective, are worse than worst-case nuclear accidents really all that bad?

After all, no fatalities are attributed to the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, and even the dreadful Chernobyl catastrophe caused only a few dozen immediate deaths. To be sure, thyroid cancer rates soared among children in Ukraine and Belarus, but long-term leukemia incidence traced to the accident still seems to be considerably lower than might have been expected.

This is a tempting line of thought, but it also leaves a lot out.

For one thing, the situation at Fukushima is still far from stabilized and under control. So all the consequences of the accident may turn out to be even worse than we know about now. In addition, as in many situations like this, as soon as investigators start looking into the conditions that led the disaster, unsavory ramifications come to light that will be costly to fix now that they have to be fixed. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Japanese reactor operators have long been using low-tier labor on short-term assignments to get the dirty work done at nuclear power plants, exposing them to unsafe conditions. It's like turning over a rock and finding the worms and lizards underneath.

For another thing, there's the question of dealing with the long-term environmental consequences of the accident--and the very real issue of whether the consequences will ever be adequately addressed. Today, two and a half decades after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the severely damaged reactor still has not been properly encased and secured. Ukraine has been seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance to take care of the job, and so far the money has not been forthcoming. So Ukraine continues to drag its feet. Meanwhile, vast areas of surrounding land will be uninhabitable or only partially habitable for decades to come.

If the world nuclear industry and the political authorities that nurture it cannot be counted on to clean up the mess when something really bad happens, then it's pretty hard to make any honest case for further expansion of atomic power.

Photo: TEPCO

Large North Dakota Wind Farm Falls to the Birds

Wind power's impact on wildlife has long been a sticking point when it comes to the renewable resource's development. Ever since the Altamont, California turbines went up in the late 1970s, bird kills have been highlighted as the best reason to show some restraint on massive wind farms. Nothing has changed today: most recently, Minnesota-based utility Xcel Energy canceled a contract to build a 150-megawatt wind farm because of concerns over bird impacts.

The wind farm, which was to be built in southeastern North Dakota by enXco Development Corp., would have cost about $400 million and was scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. But two endangered species have scuttled the plan: the whooping crane and the piping plover. Xcel would have had to spend time and money attempting to mitigate any threats to the birds, and apparently those requirements made the project too uncertain to move forward.

Bird groups and some other environmentalists have focused heavily on the wind turbine impacts; a recent American Bird Conservancy video showed a vulture being struck by a turbine, and there are reportedly hundreds of thousands of bird fatalities each year due to wind power. As Andy Revkin points out at Dot Earth, though, this is actually a fairly low number compared to other manmade structures. If buildings kill hundreds of millions of birds every year, stopping short on wind power entirely because of such concerns might be the wrong move.

Still, Xcel's move to protect two species that are down to only a few individuals in certain areas is commendable. Proper siting and configuration of wind farms can obviously help with this issue as well; the Altamont turbines were small and situated extremely close together. Doing things carefully, in this case, will be better than not doing them at all.

(Image via Dirk Ingo Franke)

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Fukushima Inspiring Change in China and Germany

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Amidst the stubbornly disappointing string of news emanating from Japan's Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear complex, there are signs that its melting nuclear fuel rods are inspiring some important and long-overdue developments in global power systems. And there's good news for both nuclear supporters and critics.

Hopeful spinoff number one: Berlin is getting serious about upgrading the balkanized and inadequate transmission grid that represents a serious liability for Germany's renewable energy ambitions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision last month to shut down Germany's oldest nuclear reactors and temporarily scrub life extensions for the rest was widely seen as a sop to voters in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Well, Merkel's Conservative Democrats lost the state to the Green Party, and she hasn't looked back. Last week a document leaked from Germany's Economy Ministry and reported by Bloomberg revealed plans to revamp the power grid--a precondition to replacing nuclear energy with solar, wind and other renewable power sources.

The need for action is evident. The German Energy Agency estimated in 2005 that the country needed 850 kilometers of new high-voltage lines by 2015 to absorb growing levels of wind power on its fragmented grid. So far, only 90 km have been built, and the challenge keeps growing: An updated study released in November estimated that 3,600 km of new lines have to be built by 2020/2025.

Hopeful spinoff number two is China's modest nuclear slowdown. Beijing reaffirmed its nuclear ambitions immediately after Japan's earthquake-tsunami double-punch unhinged Fukushima Dai-1's cooling systems. But then it began to backpedal, suspending new plant approvals and stepping up safety inspections at existing plants. Whether you're a nuclear supporter or not, this is very good news.

That's because while China's nuclear future is assured, its nuclear safety is not. China has some two dozen reactors under construction, including a domesticated and upgraded version of France’s existing light-water reactors, Westinghouse’s AP1000 advanced light water reactors, and a modular pebble-bed reactor of Chinese design.

Problem is that China's nuclear exuberance outstripped the process of training  nuclear operators and inspectors. That inspired surprisingly frank criticism from National Nuclear Safety Administration director Li Ganjie two years ago -- to little apparent effect.

Confronting proposals to more than double the pace of China's nuclear construction schedule, Ganjie courageously warned an IAEA meeting in Beijing that "over-rapid expansions" could diminish reactor quality and safety. Ganjie lost that round, and China's nuclear capacity goal for 2020, already set to jump more than four-fold to 40 gigawatts, shot up to 86 GW. 

Now we're hearing a different tune. Last week AP cited state media reporting that, "China is likely to scale back its ambitious plans ... under a new policy that stresses safety instead of rapid development." AP quoted deputy director of the China Electricity Council, Wei Zhaofeng, predicting that the policy change would trim growth by 10 GW.

That 10 GW may look small relative to China's target, but in real terms it is a massive quantity of reactor construction. Most nuclear power proponents will count themselves lucky if the U.S. adds that much reactor capacity by 2020.

Vestas Unveils Goliath of Offshore Wind Turbines

Danish wind power giant Vestas has announced plans for a turbine of giant proportions. The 7-megawatt behemoth is an offshore design; it will rise 135 meters (443 feet) above the waves, and feature a rotor blade that measures a full 80 meters (262 feet).

This isn't the first turbine to crack 7 MW -- that honor probably belongs to Enercon's E-126 -- but it is the first time the world's biggest wind turbine company raised the bar that high. In an introductory video for the Vestas V164, the company's technology R&D president Finn Madsen said this is the first turbine "100 percent dedicated to offshore, and optimized for the conditions in the North Sea."

Most of the existing offshore wind turbines -- none of which, of course, are yet spinning in U.S. waters -- max out at around 5 MW capacities. Vestas is responsible for a huge percentage of the worldwide offshore wind capacity: as of the end of 2010, the company had installed 580 offshore turbines, for a total capacity of 1407 MW. This accounts for about 43 percent of the world market.

The first 7-MW giants will be built by the end of 2012, with full scale production starting a few years later.

Of course, building any turbines, let alone truly enormous ones, in offshore conditions is difficult. As Peter Fairley has reported here, wind conditions around the world could be changing and making it even more challenging; increasing dangerous gust conditions could require big turbines like the new Vestas entry to shut down to avoid damage more often than in the past.

(Image via Vestas)

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Energy Shocks

It must be a tough time to be working at the OECDs  International Energy Agency. Ordinarily, what could be better, if you're a bright young economist or computer modeler, than working in a plush Paris suburb and dining at Michelin-starred restaurants? But right now your job is to figure out how prices for all fuels will be affected in the coming year by Mideast turmoil and the Japanese nuclear crisis--and the obvious truth is, nobody has the slightest idea how much costs of alternative energy sources will rise, and what all the ramifications will be.

Less that a week after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Financial Times reported that European natural gas prices were up 13.4 percent, coal prices 10.8 percent, and carbon emissions allowances 10.8 percent. Even before the crisis coal prices in Asian markets had climbed by a factor of four from 2003 to 2011 and in European markets by a factor of 2.5.

With the global oil industry still reeling from the aftershocks of last year's Gulf oil spill, and companies like Shell and Toyoto predicting gasoline prices of over $5/gallon by 2015, now more than ever the prospect of such sky-high costs is credible. To what extent will consumers opt for hybrid electrics or much more fuel-efficient conventional cars?  And will utilities go mainly for gas, wind, or alternative fuels, and how fast?

Those aren't the only unknowns that have energy specialists chewing their nails rather than sipping their Beaujolais.

In response to the ongoing Fukishima reactor crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel temporarily shut down the country's seven oldest nuclear power plants and ordered a review of all operating reactors. She has asked for a Europe-wide "stress-test" review of all the continent's 143 nuclear power plants. The industry is pooh-poohing that idea. But Merkel, a PhD physicist, has repeatedly shown a determination and stubbornness that one underestimates at one's peril.

China, though continuing to build some 30-plus nuclear power plants, has suspended authorizations for any additional ones. A comprehensive review already is on in the United States as well, and it's a pretty safe bet that the most dubious operating reactors--those nearest big cities, and those vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis--will soon be shuttered for good.

Overall, the net number of nuclear power plants operating in the advanced industrial countries--that is to say, countries rich enough to have many options--will decrease rather than increase in the coming decades. That would seem to be bad news for all those who have sharp reduction of greenhouse gases at heart--except that there's also a countervailing effect, namely, the impact of generally rising energy costs, which will induce conservation and efforts at greater energy efficiency.

And then there are the ongoing effects of ever-stricter coal and carbon regulation. The week after the Japanese crisis began, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues unprecedented rules for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which the agency said might save as many as 17,000 lives annually. The impact of those rules on coal generation will be sharp, even if Republicans succeed in blocking EPA from also issuing greenhouse gas reduction rules, contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that instructed EPA to do so.

The week before Fukishima, the European Commission made known that it plans to adopt a new goal for reducing the European Union's greenhouse gas emissions even more than previously sought. Europe's existing objective is to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020 relative to 1990, and it "is on track to meet that goal," as The New York Times reported. The new goal will be a 25 percent cut.

So, will utilities and localities seeking to find alternatives to nuclear have no choice but to increase reliance on fossil fuels, or might new alternatives emerge? In New York City, the city government is quietly reviving the idea of building waste-to-energy plants in all five boroughs, an idea that went down in flames a couple of decades ago because of community opposition. If the concept can be revived, it would kill two or three birds with one stone: It would help solve the city's garbage problem, which became critical with closure of the huge Fresh Kills disposal site on Staten Island; and it would not only generate alternative energy but save energy, because of all the trucking as associated with garbage disposal at a distance. It might also help make up for energy lost if the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the city is forced to close.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is on record as favoring closure of Indian Point. Now, under the circumstances, he may just succeed.

Luckily for those poor folk in Paris, they have till the fall to figure out what will be said in the next world energy outlook, which normally appears in November.


 

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A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines

In January we reported that winds across the Northern continents were losing some of their punch, and that climate change threatened to weaken them further -- altogether bad news for wind power. In stark contrast, Australian researchers report today in the journal Science that gusts are accelerating over Earth's oceans.

Unfortunately the trend offers offshore wind power a mixed bag: stronger but also more dangerous winds. "Mean wind conditions over the oceans have only marginally increased over the last 20 years. It is the extreme conditions where there has been a larger increase," says Ian Young, vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra and principal author of today's report.

Young and collaborators at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology created a global picture of offshore wind trends by mining 23 years of nearly continuous data from satellite-based altimeters. The biggest trend they found was a stiff boost in winds gusting in the 99th percentile for wind speeds, which have been increasing over most oceans by at least three quarters of one percent per year.

Those winds pack lots of extra energy, since the energy in wind increases with the cube of its speed. But it's extra energy that's worse than wasted on wind turbines, which must feather their blades and shut down to avoid being damaged by extreme winds.

The Australian researchers did find a boost in mean wind speeds where offshore turbines thrive. Those increased by 5-10 percent over the past two decades.

Even that "marginal" boost for offshore wind may be ephemeral. Young's team is confident in their satellite-based snapshot, which matches up well with measurements from ocean buoys. But they say the satellite dataset is still too short to predict whether the observed trends are here to stay.

At the Speed of a Gas Fill-Up: Battery Advance to Allow Rapid EV Charging?

An advance in battery technology could help push past one of the persistent criticisms of electric vehicles: the extended time needed to charge the battery.

Researchers at the University of Illinois published a paper this week in Nature Nanotechnology on a change to the cathode of a battery that allows for rapid charging and discharging without a loss of capacity. They describe it in their abstract as follows:

We demonstrate very large battery charge and discharge rates with minimal capacity loss by using cathodes made from a self-assembled three-dimensional bicontinuous nanoarchitecture consisting of an electrolytically active material sandwiched between rapid ion and electron transport pathways.

The 3-D structure could eventually allow an EV to charge in the amount of time it takes to fill a tank with gas. Senior author Paul Braun said in a story published at ClimateWire and Scientific American that batteries in the lab can be charged in "tens of seconds."

The lithium-ion batteries used in todays EVs generally take hours to charge fully. For example, Nissan says that charging the Leaf (battery pack pictured above) at home will take about seven hours; Chevrolet says the Volt can recharge in about four hours. Charging stations, where existing batteries can be refilled in shorter periods, will need to provide more power if the new battery type's rapid-charge abilities are to be used fully.

(Image via Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

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