Is it all change for the low-carbon mix?

As engineers continue to battle to contain the situation at the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear power complex its impact, both from an environmental and economic perspective will be felt in Japan for many years to come. However, it is not just Japan that will be affected we are already seeing profound consequences on the nuclear power industry globally.

Government responses to the Fukushima incident have ranged widely from knee-jerk reactions to more measured responses. Within days of the accident Berlin temporarily shutdown seven reactors and German Chancellor Merkel announced that there would be a “measured exit” from nuclear power. Germany is not alone in taking a big step back from nuclear power. Switzerland has suspended the approval process for three new nuclear plants, while Italy is rethinking its plans to build new reactors.

In contrast, US president Barack Obama was quick to reinforce his commitment to keeping nuclear energy as part of the US’ energy mix. However, he may face a battle to win back public support. According to a number of polls, less than half of adults in America now support the expansion of nuclear power. Similarly, the UK government, which continues to support nuclear as part of its energy mix, may have its new nuclear build programme delayed until a final report on the implications of Fukushima is published. According to Professor Stephen Thomas, head of Energy Studies at Greenwich University, he does not expect the UK to have any new nuclear power stations before 2030.

Analyst UBS has also published a damning report, which says that the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is likely to hurt the credibility of the nuclear power industry more than the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. According to Per Lekanker, one of the report’s lead authors, there will be an entire re-evaluation of the risks of nuclear power, leading to higher operating costs and making it a much less attractive option for investors. Lekanker says that he does not foresee investor-owned utilities building nuclear plants in the near future.

Clearly, nuclear power has received a significant body blow and whether the industry can recover from it only time will tell. If nuclear will no longer play a role in helping us meet our environmental targets, i.e. creating a low-carbon electricity sector, what options exist?

Could we see some countries turning to renewable energy? In Europe, for example, where legally-binding targets to cut carbon emissions have to be met by 2020, could we see an even greater level of investment in renewables. Germany has already signalled it wants to reach the ‘age of renewable energy’ as soon as possible. Further, if nuclear is no longer part of the low-carbon equation, could the economics of offshore wind become much more attractive? In certain countries, could we also find solar power garnering greater favour, i.e. Abu Dhabi, with its abundant solar resources, is potentially rethinking its ambitious $20 billion nuclear investment? However, renewables are still some way off being able to provide a secure baseload supply, so could we see a return to favour of fossil fuels, in particular coal and gas?

Could utilities, especially those who in the not-too-distant future will be battling to keep the lights on, revisit the closure plans of their existing coal plants? Could we see a slight relaxation in environmental regulations to enable upgrade and modernization progammes for the life extension of such power plants? Finally, could the halt in the nuclear renaissance provide the impetus needed, both politically and economically, for the commercial-scale development of carbon capture and storage?

It is likely that both renewables and coal will benefit from nuclear power’s current troubles, but the real winner, certainly in the short-term, is expected to be gas; cheap and quick to build, as well as producing lower carbon emissions than coal ” it arguably ticks all the boxes. With the uncertainty over nuclear power’s future one thing is for sure the drive towards a low-carbon generation mix has suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.

Kind regards,
Dr Heather Johnstone,
Chief Editor

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