Friday, March 09, 2007

Nuclear Electric Power and Public Acceptance

Panel Discussion


The Role of Nuclear Electric Power and Public Acceptance

Organized during the Seminar on The Prospects of Nuclear Electric Power in Indonesia, Jakarta 22 February 2007, by BATAN, JETRO and KADIN

Revised Version of Statement by

Budi Sudarsono

Chairman of Masyarakat Peduli Energi dan Lingkungan

(Energy and Environment Awareness Society)

The introduction of nuclear power in developing countries faces two major obstacles, namely financing and public acceptance. Financing, because the capital costs of nuclear power plants are significantly higher than fossil power plants: on a per kilowatt basis about twice the capital costs of coal-fired power plants and three times the capital costs of natural gas combined-cycle plants. It is said that capital is scarce in developing countries and therefore should be used wisely. Public acceptance is necessary, since otherwise delays caused by protests and demonstrations could easily inflate capital costs due to possible increases in interest charges and therefore such protests and demonstrations should be avoided.

In the case of Indonesia, other prerequisites for the introduction of nuclear power into the Jawa-Madura-Bali system have been met or, even if only partially met could be met without too much difficulty. The Jamali system installed capacity is nearly 20,000 MW with an evening peak load of about 15,000 MW. Thus a nuclear unit of 1000 MW can easily be accommodated within the system even now. A core of experienced engineers and scientists is already available within PLN and BATAN to undertake the project, not to mention other experienced personnel in state enterprises and private companies with the requisite qualifications in the power industry. The demand for power is evident from PLN’s experience in increasing its sales at more than 6 percent per annum. The constraints in the availability of energy sources is being felt.

The present statement will focus on the role of the media and non-government organizations (NGOs) in the promotion of nuclear power and in obtaining the public acceptance for the nuclear power programme. Clearly both the media and NGOs have a big responsibility in providing objective information to the public. If the information is not objective then it becomes public disinformation and could lead to public deception.

Controversies of public information on nuclear power concerns the following topics.

Safety of nuclear power plant operations.

In the past there have been two notable events involving commercially operated nuclear power plants: the Three Mile Island II incident in 1979, and the Chernobyl-IV accident in 1986. Both events, traumatic as they were at the time, have been “blown up” out of proportion in the past. It is now nearly 21 years after Chernobyl, and perhaps the general public has largely forgotten. But the true scale needs to be borne in mind. An international multi-agency conference was held in 2005 specifically for this purpose and it was widely reported in the media. The main conclusion was that the damage cuased by the accident was not as widespread as originally thought.

It should also be borne in mind that there are at present 443 commercial nuclear power plants in 31 countries, all providing reliable supply of electricity safely and cheaply.

Nuclear power economics.

Nuclear generating costs are regarded by many as higher than fossil generation costs. According to the World Nuclear Association, this is definitely not anymore the case since December 2005. Prior to that, fossil generation costs are lower in cases where cheap fuel supply is available.

Energy prices have never been stable. The international oil price increased two to three times in 1973-1974, then again in 1979-1980; then it plunged from $30/bbl to $12/bbl in February 1986. But at present it remains at a high $56-58/bbl, having gone above $70/bbl recently. No one can say what it could be in 2010 or 2020, but the current belief is that it would not go below $50/bbl, because of continuing global demand increase and the perception that world resources may be depleting.

Thus if people claim that nuclear plant capital costs are high, they should also take into consideration the high fuelling costs of fossil fuel power plants. A 1000 MW coal-fired plant would require 2.5 million tons of steam coal annually, which at $40/ton would cost $100 million per year. And this price is likely to increase….

Waste disposal.

Nuclear waste is long-lived and no permanent means of waste disposal has been applied commercially. However, this does not mean that mankind would face a future catastrophe from the spread of nuclear waste. The existence of several prehistoric “natural reactors” at Oklo in Gabon is sufficient proof that nuclear waste is and should be technologically containable, as there is no evidence that fission products produced by the reactors have spread from the original site. True, only a few countries have definite plans for a repository. But the fact is that nuclear waste disposal is a very long-term undertaking and spent fuel can be safely stored for decades. Even the United States with its 104 power reactors would operate its first repository in 2015 or even later. Furthermore it is quite possible that in the future the United States would also reprocess spent fuel in order to reduce the volume of high-level wastes, as is being done in Europe and Japan.

Thus the media and NGOs have the obligation to provide the relevant scientific explanations to the general public about these and any other pertinent questions regarding nuclear energy, nuclear electric power generation and nuclear fuel cycles, including of course the hazards thereof and the measures necessary to contain them. It is no wonder that now that it is evident that nuclear power should become part of the solution facing mankind’s biggest challenge, that of the impacts of global warming, such prominent greens as Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) and James Lovelock (founder of Gaia) have become pro-nuclear.