Seminar on “Energy Security and Climate Change: Nuclear Energy as a Solution?”
Mr. Konstantin Foskolos
Head a.i., Laboratory for Nuclear Materials, Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), Switzerland
Dr. Dennis Berry
Director Emeritus and Consultant, Sandia National Laboratories, USA
15 July 2008, RSIS Conference Room
In his presentation, Mr Konstantin Foskolos argued for the adoption of nuclear power as an alternative source of energy in the long run. He was of the opinion that nuclear power unlike the conventional fossil fuels offers far more returns in terms of energy production which is also cleaner and more sustainable in the long run. Nuclear power thus is a good source of alternative energy source for countries which needs to secure its energy security by diversifying the energy mix. The relevance of nuclear power is gaining increasing importance and urgency as it is believed that the world’s supply of fossil fuels would not be able to meet demands. However, Foskolos opined that the reason why nuclear energy is underutilised is due to safety issues. Thus, in support of his thesis on the safety of nuclear energy, he shared the research findings from his multi-criteria life-cycle analysis framework which showed that nuclear energy is by far the safest, most energy efficient and cost effective.
Mr Foskolos gave a brief rundown of Switzerland’s energy market which comprises 55 percent hydro, 40 percent nuclear and five percent others. In the long run, he explained that Switzerland would not be able to meet its own energy needs and the same can be said of the global energy market. This is because, Switzerland, which is also typical of the global trend, will be characterised by increasing energy demand. Therefore, there is justification in calling for an increased share of nuclear power in the global energy market. However, there is too much bad press on nuclear energy despite its obvious advantage especially when an environmental issue such as climate change has become a major global issue. Therefore, in accessing the benefits of nuclear energy in relation to other energy sources, he proposed the use of Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) framework. Foskolos explained that this assessment framework takes different component, such as ecology, technology, economics, environment and health, into account.
In a nutshell, the LCA studies the impact of the different energy sources on the various components. However, for a more comprehensive study, Foskolos added the use of a multi-criteria analysis which reflects the human and social costs which is best measured from the dimension of ‘sustainable development’. Foskolos shared the findings of his study which was based on this approach and the result showed that nuclear energy is a much more efficient, cleaner and sustainable alternative compared to oil and natural gas.
In the second presentation, Dr Dennis Berry argued that nuclear energy is not the way forward in meeting the challenges of global energy security and climate change. He argued that even if there is a 28 percent increased in the use of nuclear energy between now and 2030, it would still remain insufficient in reducing the world carbon emissions. However, he opined that nuclear energy does help diversify the energy market and thus help achieved energy security especially for countries which are too dependent on oil and natural gas.
Dr Berry argued that while nuclear energy looks promising for the future, it is still uncertain whether it can resolve environmental issues such as climate change. He explained that even if there is a 28 percent increased in the number of power plants in the world by 2030, it would only effectively reduced the projected global carbon emission rate by 0.9 percent while the carbon emission from the use of fossil fuel would have increased by approximately 50 percent. Berry explained that the problem cannot simply be resolved by adding more nuclear plants because these plants are costly and need a high capital outlay and thus developing countries may not afford the construction of nuclear plants. At the same time, the emerging economies of non-OECD countries want the cheapest and most available power source readily available to them. Therefore, Berry opined that the way forward with regard to climate change has to be in the form of the following combination: increase energy efficiency, use more renewable energy and use more nuclear energy.
Berry also stressed that nuclear power cannot address the issue of climate change on its own because of the high reliance on oil in the transportation industry. This is one area where the increased use of nuclear energy cannot make a significance difference because nuclear plants are mainly used to generate electricity. The rate of car ownership is growing and is expected to grow further in the future. As it stands, Berry estimated that car ownership and the transportation industry contributes about one third of the global carbon emission. However, Berry concluded that nuclear power has an important role in moving countries towards energy security because these countries are able to diversify their energy mix and thus reduce their dependency on fossil fuels. Also, it helps countries play their part in reducing the global carbon emission.
During the discussion session, questions raised included the use of smaller nuclear plants in developing countries as well as in small countries (like Singapore), and whether there is sufficient uranium to supply the global demand for nuclear energy.