27 October 2013, 03:29

25th VoR Live Panel. Sources of energy: all angles of security

How do you cut energy prices? The problem is more acute than ever in both Europe and the US, and various solutions are being offered. In Britain, the plans for construction of the Hinckley atomic power station, the first one in 20 years, inflamed a major debate. The problem is that Chinese investors are going to control at least 30-40 percent of the consortium building the station. For its 25th Live Panel the Voice of Russia invited three prominent experts from Moscow, Washington, and London to discuss these and many other issues.

This individual case is a part of a bigger theme, which is common for the UK and other EU member countries, as well as for Russia and the US: the theme is called energy security.

Is it really so important who owns the stock of an energy source? Can this owner dictate the prices? Are countries which invite foreigners to build for them nuclear power stations or to construct gas pipeline networks become losing a part of their sovereignty? And can foreign participation in nuclear energy and other energy projects have a positive impact on prices?

All of these themes will be discussed at three-way discussion on the radio Voice of Russia, with our studios in Moscow, London and Washington participating.


Moscow studio guest:

Sergei Vakulenko -the head of the department of strategic planning at the Gazpromneft company

London studio guest:

Malcolm Grimston - Associate Fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London, the author of the book “Double or Quits – the Global Future of Nuclear Energy.”

Washington studio guest:

Paul Gunter - Director, Reactor Oversight Project in the Beyond Nuclear, which is a public organization studying nuclear energy and the ways to make it more secure.


VoR: Britain’s Government has given the go-ahead to UK’s first ever nuclear power station in a generation. It will have the backing of France’s EDF Energy, which will lead a consortium of investors including Chinese ones to build the Hinkley’s C plant in Somerset. But no sooner had the announcement been made than the agile nuclear concerns were raised about how waste would be disposed of. Environmental groups pointed out that UK loses 8 times more energy through inefficiencies than all that is produced by nuclear power stations and that this should be the focus of Britain’s energy policies.

It also comes at a time when much of Europe is scaling back its nuclear power stations, such as Germany in particular. Especially after the accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant renewed fears of nuclear safety. But, at the heart of this debate, is energy security and how should a country go about securing this. At the concerns over nuclear safety been put to rest and how does nuclear fit into a broader energy mix. Well, to discuss this, I’m joined in the studio by Malcolm Grimston. He’s Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College London and he’s also the co-author of Double or Quits - the global future of civil nuclear energy. In Washington DC we have Paul Gunter. He specializes in reactor hazards and security of operating reactors and he’s the Director of Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear. And in Moscow we are joined by Sergey Vakulenko who is the Head of Gazprom Neft Strategic Planning Department. Welcome to you all.

Malcolm, first of all, Britain did lead the world in nuclear power at one stage. It was in 1956, Calder Hall. We’ve seen images of that this week on the news, of the opening of that. Times have changed and now we have a nuclear power plant to be built by the Chinese. By Chinese money, by French expertise. Is this humiliating for Britain, do you think?

Malcolm Grimston: No, I don’t think so. I think there are three reasons why Britain’s early lead in the technology wasn’t maintained. First was, we stuck to a very British technology. We stuck to what was called Gas Coldrant while the rest of the world was boiling water, so we really cut ourselves off from the nuclear mainstream in the 1970s. As a result, those plants were unique to Britain; if they went wrong it was pretty much unique to that plant needed a unique solution. We never got economies of scale and so that program wasn’t very successful economically. Secondly, we’ve discovered vast amounts of North Sea oil and gas just as that program was moving forward. And suddenly we became the next energy exporter, against all the expectations. And thirdly, we liberalized our power market, we introduced competition into power. Nuclear power stations are extremely expensive to build, thought fairly cheap to run once you’ve got them. Compared to, say, gas turbines, which are very cheap to build, thought quite expensive to run. In a market, people don’t like spending an awful lot of money at the front and risking that they are not going to get it back over 40 or 30 years. So for the last 15-20 years we’ve really been building gas-fired stations But that no longer looks like quite as sound an issue, we’re running out of our own North Sea gas. We desperately need to build power stations of some sort and we want to cut greenhouse gas emission. So, I think that’s led to a reappraisal of the roll of nuclear.

VoR: Paul Gunter in Washington DC, you’re Director of Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear. What do you make of the safety concerns that have been expressed, the agile nuclear concerns? And certainly Europe has seen a scale and back of every nuclear energy reliance. What do you think of Britain’s move? Is it doing the right thing?

Paul Gunter: Well, I think that our concern is that the UK and the straight prices that have been negotiated here make British ratepayers indentured energy servants and the cost of nuclear is exorbitantly expensive, in terms of not only just construction, but the idea that there are a host of hidden costs with nuclear that will eventually be saddled either by current ratepayers or generations who will not receive one Watt of electricity, but all of the liability from the nuclear waste. You can’t find a Chief Executive Officer in the United States in any of the energy corporate boardrooms that is willing to risk their own money in constructing new nuclear power plants in the United States. They require either full support of the US taxpayer or the financing of the construction by the ratepayer in advance of a single Watt of electricity. So the cost of nuclear power clearly has taken it out of the mix here for a new generation. And we’re seeing a record number of old nuclear power plants closing because utilities are finding it exorbitantly expensive to maintain this aging and deteriorating industry. What is inherently dangerous - requires these multiple barrier systems - backups to backups to backups. And even then what we’ve seen at Fukushima is that when they fail, and they do fail, accidents will continue to happen. The consequences are completely unacceptable. So we think it’s a wrong move for the UK to be moving into foreign ownership and domination by French and Chinese industry.

VoR: Sergey Vakulenko, what do you think about this energy mix that Britain is focusing on? I mean, in terms of this particular nuclear power plant? It would supply something like, I think, 10% of Britain’s energy needs, but it still obviously needs gas. It can’t rely just on nuclear energy. Gas will still be very important, won’t it?

Sergei Vakulenko: I think so, and also I think that on a balance it’s probably one of the best, if not the best energy supply. For the reasons of flexibility, it’s probably the best fuel to augment renewables. When it comes to nuclear, there are countries which rely on nuclear energy for the bulk of their energy supply, like France. Like some other European countries and so far nothing drastic happened to them. But I would think it a wise measure to have portfolio of nuclear gas and green energy or hydro, if you of course can have it.

This is something that Paul Gunter would disagree with. What you’re basically saying is that the safety aspects are not in place for this kind of technology and we saw that that was born up with what happened in Fukushima in a very-very advanced society.

Paul Gunter: Exactly. And the issue is that nuclear power is an inherently dangerous industry. What we’re seeing with the French reactors, particularly the new generation that they’re proposing to build in England and as well as what’s under construction there in Finland and in Flamanville France. Again, you have the need to build these multiple barriers and multiple backups against this inherently dangerous power generator. And ultimately thought you’re still left with the open spicket of nowhere for the nuclear waste to go. So long after the last Watt has been expanded from this technology there will be a generational impact from the nuclear waste. Additionally, we have concerns with regard to electricity being a fleeing byproduct of nuclear power. The real legacy is nuclear waste and ultimately the basic building blocks for nuclear weapons. It’s really a dead-end future for nuclear power. But clearly, here, in the United States what’s being reflected is that even the utilities are recognizing the financial risks associated with one bad day as we have seen multiple times now with nuclear power is an increasing unacceptable risk for the chief financial officers of these utilities. And the largest deployment of electricity now in the United States is really wind power. We’re seeing this is an investment attractive power generator. The Google Corporation now is investing billions of dollars in offshore high voltage DC direct current lines to interconnect a future in offshore wind for the United States. These are the burgeoning generators of a XXI century high bred renewable energy efficiency and conservation.

VoR: Malcolm Grimston, co-author of Double or Quits - the global future of civil nuclear energy. It is interesting (the political aspects of this), I suppose, because normally these things take a long time to build and they are very expensive. And the politicians who are making this policy now won’t necessarily be there to cut the ribbon. Why the urgency? Why do you sense the urgency now, is there a real fear that the lights will go out in the UK?

Malcolm Grimston: Yes, there is. And actually, a lot of that fear happening in the next two or three years and we can’t have new nuclear stations operating in that period of time, now. And I think many of us in the UK do wish we’d done what the French had done, they’ve developed their nuclear energy 30 years ago, they now have the cheapest and most reliable electricity in Europe. I think we would like to be in that position, but we’re not. And in the short term it will have to be gas-fired turbines, they’re the only ones we could build quickly enough to fill that energy gap. But that energy gap isn’t going to go away in two or three years. We’ve got a lot of our old coal capacity coming off line in the course of next few years. A lot of it because of European Union regulations. Our second generation nuclear stations will be running on the end of their lives. So we need to replace it with something. And yes, Paul is absolutely right. Nuclear and renewables are an extreme challenge for the marketplace because renewables are also extremely expensive to build compared per kilowatt installed. They have the extra challenge of the intermittency and what we’re seeing in the United Kingdome is that the sort of distortion of the market you have to do to manage renewables is now causing a lot of concern. We’ll be subsidizing renewables in the year 2020 roughly to the tune of a three Hinkley point C 3000 mega nuclear stations every year. And I think that’s starting to be unsustainable. Nuclear is clearly the cheapest of the carbon energy. We have to decide if we want to reduce carbon emissions or not and if we do, we’re going to have to pay for it.

VoR: And let’s get the view of Sergey Vakulenko, who’s the Head of Gazprom Neft Strategic Planning Department. Just on the idea of the sovereignty and Paul Gunter refers to a kind of handing over of sovereignty of Britain’s energy future to foreign interests and in this case it’s EDF and also Chinese investors. Do you see it that way? So you think it’s a handing over of sovereignty just because it requires foreign expertise and money to get it built?

Sergei Vakulenko: No, I don’t really think so. The station is going to be on UK soil, it’s going to be operating under UK laws, and most likely it would be operated by UK nationals. And it would be inspected by UK inspectors of all sorts. And if there is a threat, a concern of cyber security, cyber threat and so on, nothing precludes appropriate governing UK bodies of installing firewalls, internet firewalls and whatnot to save this particular power plant from the threat. Just the same way as UK border patrols patrol borders around the UK. I would like to go back a little bit and discuss the safety issue. It’s common impression that nuclear stations or other large installations of this sort are very inherently dangerous. However, there is an interesting conundrum of public perception of safety. Things like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or Fukushima incidents grab the headlines, they grab the attention of the public. But if you compare the impact of these really terrible disasters, disasters that happen usually once in 20 years, to low-level, but persistent damage of other forms of energy generation, the jury would be out. Which creates higher impact? Yes, we need to take into account the security and safety issues of large installations like nuclear. WE have to keep in mind what we are going to do with nuclear waste. But also have to understand that all other forms of energy generation do have their impact on the environment safety and so on. And if they are low-level and less noticeable day after day, it doesn’t necessarily mean that over a long time their accumulative impact is low.

VoR: Malcolm Grimston, can I get your reaction to that? Do you think that incidents like Fukushima which is being invoked there, as well as Chernobyl unfairly skew the argument over nuclear safety? These are once in a generation incidents according to Sergey, there. Would you agree with that?

Malcolm Grimston: The levels of radiation even among the workers received of Fukushima will not be enough to cause any death. Some deaths at Chernobyl, among those who’d been on site. And youngsters who go cancer as a result caused by the Chernobyl accident. But Chernobyl is the only accident which has had any monsterable offsite consequences. We should bear in mind that Fukushima was a 40-year old plant which was hit by a 15 meter tsunami.

Paul Gunter: I would just like to remind everybody that we’ve had five nuclear meltdowns in the last 35 years. So, in terms of probability, there is a very high probability that we will continue to have these consequential nuclear accidents. Particularly in an aging industry. But to predict that there will be no health consequence from Fukushima, just defies the clinical evidence that chronic low-dose exposure to radiation causes cancer, causes genetic mutations, causes birth defects, causes a whole host of maladies. That’s medical evidence. And to put that into context, you know, there is a cancer epidemic worldwide. I will admit that it will be difficult to do a ballistics evaluation on a neutron particle But if you run the clinical studies and you look at the clinical evidence, that neutron can and does and has caused health effects. We have radiation standards that are influenced by the very industry that it’s designed to regulate, so we do have a situation right now, where the protection standards that these industries operate under are geared towards healthy young males and not the most vulnerable populations like pregnant women and fetuses. You would think that the most conservative standards would protect the most vulnerable, but that’s not true. I think that we have to very careful of predictions that are being thrown around very loosely that there will be no health consequence from three multiple meltdowns of a nuclear power plant in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Let me also remind everybody that this accident is still going on. We have three hundred tons of radioactive water flowing into the ocean every day since that accident tree began two and a half years ago. We have a very precarious situation where hundreds of tons of nuclear waste could be involved in an open atmospheric fire. Still if the mitigation efforts are not successful, I would caution listeners to keep their reservations about these loose predictions that radiation coming from these multiple sites will not have any impact on public health and safety.

VoR: Let’s get your view, Malcolm, on 4th generation nuclear plants. I mean, it’s a radical idea, but the idea of actually using the waste produced by nuclear plants and recycling that, given that a very small proportion of energy produced is actually - most of it - is actually waste. More than 90%. Is there something that can be looked at? Is that too radical? Is the technology there? It wouldn’t require building any more nuclear plants at all.

Malcolm Grimston: I think that’s unlikely. Certainly, today in what they call Thermal stations they only use something like 3% of the fuel. And there are some types of future reactors, fast reactors, in various types of new consoles which could burn that fuel not particularly as a way of getting energy, but burn up the longer lived radioactive waves. I have to say, I’m a bit surprised that there seems to be such a hysteria over waste in the United States, if I’m hearing it right. I know that President Obama backed out of the Yucca Mountain Project. In Europe we’ve got Finland and Sweden which are building waste repositories and, actually, in Sweden it’s become the biggest tourist attraction in the local area. People are fascinated by this, not scared by it whatsoever. The new plants will have to have facilities to store all of its waste on site for the rest of its operating history and long into the future if necessary. And a separate fund is put away on some very pessimistic assumptions to make sure the future generations don’t have to pay for any of our waste. So, all of that is taken in into account in the financing deal. In fact, that’s around 2 billion of the 16 billion cost is specifically to make sure that future generations don’t have to face that sort of problem.

VoR: Paul Gunter, we’re talking about future generations here and you’re unconvinced by the safety of storage of waste material from nuclear plants. Do you think that the technology could ever develop into a point where, given that we know that nuclear material is around for thousands of years, that it could ever be a viable modern form of energy that we can rely on? And I’m thinking 40, 50, 60 years ahead of us.

Paul Gunter: Right now, a lot of what’s driving the energy policy debate worldwide is global climate change. And to suggest that we put more reliance on nuclear without a waste management plan for the long-term is a catastrophic mistake. Finland certainly is still going through the debate of whether or not they even want future generations to know that there’s a nuclear waste repository out there. If you leave some kind of hieroglyphic marker for generations to come or if you basically hope that nature covers over any disclosure of these sites, that’s still an open debate. I don’t think that that’s hysterical. If you’re putting hundreds of thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste into the surface of the earth you’ll also be generating a lot of heat which will set up convection currents that can actually draw water to a repository site and set up a convection system that involves potentially a steam explosion someday. These are the kinds of surprises that will outlive the policy that we’re forging now. And clearly here, in the United States, the fact that we singled out Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the only scientific venture of what to do with nuclear waste. That’s driving a lot of the reasons for a evaluation. Yucca Mountain is crisscrossed with earthquake faults that - in the faults themselves we evidence volcanic ash. And this is where we’re talking about putting 120 thousand metric tons of nuclear waste. These are the kinds of the question that are more of a political mugging of state Nevada than science venture. Clearly we have to figure out what to do with the stuff. But the first step in a quest for managing nuclear waste absent, the manager plan is to stop generating this problem.

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