Nuclear power generation should be part of the mix

Douglas J. Smith

Managin Editor

Today 437 nuclear power plants in 31 countries generate 17 percent of the world`s electricity. With worldwide electricity estimated to grow between 58 to 86 percent by 2015, it is essential that nuclear power be part of the solution to supply the increasing need for new electric capacity in the 21st century. Kevin Dodman`s cover feature in this issue of Power Engineering International magazine discusses nuclear power and the development of a new European nuclear reactor that will utilize passive systems for cooling the reactor in the event of a steam cycle or feedwater system failure. Siemens of Germany claims the combination of active and passive safety features being incorporated into the new reactor designs make a core meltdown even more improbable than in existing reactors.

Framatome of France and Siemens are jointly working on the European pressurized water reactor (PWR) project. The goal is to design a reactor that initially will be used by Electricité de France and German electric utilities. Construction of the first European PWR is expected to start in 1999, with commercial operation planned for 2005. Long term, the objective is to sell the reactor to electric utilities throughout the world. Increased demand for electricity in Asia is expected to grow to 119 percent by 2015; and to meet this demand, electric utilities in Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Thailand are all considering using nuclear power to supply part of the new capacity. Japan alone expects to have 70,500 MW of nuclear power online by 2010.

However, before we see a revival for nuclear power, the industry still has to convince the general public that nuclear power is safe, and this is not easy. The biggest obstacle to the development of nuclear power is the continuing public concern over another Chernobyl-type accident. Germany`s environmental minister, Dr. Angela Merkel, is on record as saying the actual effects of Chernobyl have social and economic aspects which are possibly more significant than the radiation exposure itself.

Resolving the safety problems associated with the RBMK-type reactors should be given priority. The worst-case scenario is the complete shutdown and decommissioning of all RBMK-type reactors. Unfortunately, Lithuania, Russia and the Ukraine have a dire need for the electricity produced by these units. In addition, the countries do not have sufficient capital to construct new non-nuclear plants to replace the capacity if the units are decommissioned. Capital is also scarce for upgrading the current RBMK nuclear reactors in operation. If nuclear power is to be a viable option, then Western manufacturers and operators of nuclear power plants should step in with technical and, if possible, financial support. Unless the problems with the existing RBMK reactors are resolved, the market for new nuclear reactors will be nonexistent.

Given favorable public opinion, nuclear power can help supply the ever-increasing need for new electric capacity. However, the nuclear industry must still convince the general public that it is safe, and the first step is to rectify the damage caused by the accident at Chernobyl. Nuclear fallout from a nuclear power plant accident has no borders.