Ifreputation is everything then nuclear energy is in desperate need of an imagemakeover. But the industry's focuson preventing the next Fukushima-like meltdown might be unintentionally harmingits self-esteem, pondered nuclear experts at the Nuclear Energy Institute's2016 Nuclear Industry Summit in Washington, D.C.
Tostart improving its public image, the nuclear industry needs to stop obsessing oversafety to the point it creates self-doubt and the false impression that theindustry is "unsafe," said Phumzile Tshelane, CEO of the state-ownedSouth African Nuclear Energy Corp., during a panel discussion March 30. ThreeMile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are not "badges of honor" toprominently display but the nuclear industry's obsession over safety hasstrangely made them out to be, he said.
"Ithink that we need to be concerned about the safety [of nuclear plants] but wetalk about it much more than we should," Tshelane continued. "Weshould be working on it and exchanging information and ensuring that we actwith confidence rather than show this lack of confidence in our ability to stopincidents from occurring."
DanielPoneman, president and CEO of CentrusEnergy Corp., recommended the industry go on the publicityoffensive by educating the public of the tremendous challenge of mitigatingglobal warming, the role carbon-free nuclear generation can play in cuttingemissions, and what benefits nuclear power already brings to sustaining people'squality of living. However, he still thinks nuclear plants can never be safeenough when it comes to securing them against natural disasters, safetyincidents, and terrorist and cybersecurity attacks.
"Wehave to realize that it is not merely the right thing to do to be safe and tobe secure, it is [also] the expedient thing to do because there is nothing thatwill destroy your productivity faster than a safety incident or securityincident," Poneman said. It is also a false dichotomy to pit safety andsecurity enhancements against financial interests, he said.
DanielLipman, the Nuclear Energy Institute's vice president of supplier andinternational programs, stressed in a statement the financial importance ofnuclear plant security and safety. "A lapse in either safety or securitycan be the cause of a shutdown mandated by our independent regulator.Similarly, if there is an incident of significance in either safety orsecurity, that too would have a financial impact on operations," he said. "Asa result, the United States nuclear industry has developed a culture ofexcellence in its operations, one that meets and even exceeds safety andsecurity goals in its normal operations and ensures excellent financialperformance."
Ponemanalso noted that the negative impact of an incident at a plant is not bound bycorporate liability or geography. "Just as an accident anywhere is anaccident everywhere and, we've seen this time and again, so too is a securityincident anywhere would be a security incident everywhere," he said.
Theimpact a nuclear plant incident can have on another country's nuclear fleet wasmost drastically seen in Germany following the March 2011 meltdown of theFukushima plant in Japan when the German government announced the acceleratedphasing out ofGermany's 17 nuclear plants by 2022. Only eight of Germany's nuclear plantsremain online after the latest retirement in June 2015. In addition, an October2015 Cabinet-approved draft law threatens to hold utilities liable for thenuclear shutdown's €47.6 billion costs.
"Idon't see what improving the public image on nuclear will do. The risks remainthe same and the climate impact of nuclear is minuscule," said RebeccaBertram, energy and environment program director of the Washington, D.C.-basedHeinrich Böll Stiftung North America foundation, in a statement.
"Nuclearpower is not a safe and sustainable form of energy," Bertram said. "Thetechnology is old and outdated and unfit to meet some of the current securitychallenges (e.g. terrorism). Over half of US nuclear reactors are over 30 yearsold and almost all are older than 25 years old. Their life span keeps gettingextended without a clear understanding of the security risks involved."
The Böll foundation is affiliated with the electorally popularGerman Green Party, which champions Germany's ambitious policies to cut carbondioxide emissions from 1990 levels by 80% and generate 80% of its electricityfrom renewables by 2050. Despite a November2015 government-commissioned report warning Germany will need totriple its annual emission cuts to achieve 2020 goals, Bertram believes theenergy transition can be done without nuclear if Germany gets serious about itsenergy efficiency measures, extends cuts in the transportation and heatsectors; and phases out coal as well.
Incomparison, Bertram cited a recent analysis of a "highly unlikely scenario"that found nuclear can at best only cut emissions globally by 10% if the numberof nuclear plants around the world somehow triples by 2050. "At currentrates of consumption, uranium for light-water reactors will only be availableat affordable prices for roughly the next 30 years. Nuclear is therefore not asolution, even if you believe the risks are manageable and your main goal is toreduce carbon emissions," she said.