Grupo de Economia da Energia

Fukushima Nuclear Accident: a dilemma for the world energy planning

In nuclear energy on 11/04/2011 at 00:30

By Renato Queiroz

The accident in Fukushima Daiichi power plant, located about 250 km from Tokyo, and the classification of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) on the explosions occurred in the Japanese generation plant that reached the level 6 (serious accident), in an international scale for nuclear events until level 7 [*] engraved energy experts worldwide. That adds a strong element of uncertainty for the global nuclear industry.

The INES level (6) means serious accident, stating that there was release of radioactive material and as consequences the adoption of measures to protect the population in the affected area.  This reflects the world public opinion, causing major concerns and pressure against the generation of electricity through this source.

Shortly after the accident, some experts, under the impact of the tragic news and images in real time, agreed with the thesis that the revival of the nuclear industry was being aborted.  Perhaps the question not discussed is: Without using nuclear energy, how can we meet the increasing consumption of energy required by societies in the coming years in a context of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases?

Certainly, it is recommended to follow the directions set out in China’s energy plans, the current energy superpower.  Thus, if the pace of implementing new nuclear plants will slow down, this will depend partly upon the Chinese decision. It is necessary to highlight that the Chinese energy planning has signaled some changes of directions, and actions related to the environment are being announced. The current Chinese energy policy includes applying a tax on CO2 emissions in 2012.

In this context, it also included the increase of renewable energy, natural gas with exploitation of unconventional gas and nuclear energy for generating electricity.  The new policy aims to reduce the share of coal in Chinese matrix. In the case of nuclear energy, there is no expectation that planned projects are realized, China may have an installed capacity, based on nuclear fission, which will exceed 100 GW, although after the accident in Japan, the Chinese have announced that they would review their program. But any figure close to that amount of 100 GW keeps a strong movement of orders in the nuclear industry.

Within this framework, certainly there will be investments in more advanced and safer reactors, minimizing concerns and meeting needs for power consumption. Just to remember that the Chernobyl accident, in 1986, affected undoubtedly the generation of electricity from the nuclear fission energy, but as a result brought the emergence of new more safe technologies and reduction of the decay time of nuclear waste. The current accident incorporates a new concern: the site to install plant.

Another element to indicate an energy matrix with fewer nuclear plants is the expectation of plenty of natural gas in the world. A great number of natural gas plants is certainly on the planners’ minds, after Fukushima accident. Just to remember about the new scenarios of unconventional gas exploration in North America.

It is true that planners consider that a greater supply of gas in the world would replace coal. Besides coal, the question is whether there will be gas molecule to all replace the nuclear source in their energy matrixes However, for such new policy, policymakers shall be concerned. Gas emissions will increase and the planet will get warmer. Problems coming.

Renewable sources such as Wind, Solar, Biomass and others will surely receive more incentives and their portions will be higher after the event in Japan, which is good for the Planet. We hope greater call to Energy Efficiency will come, especially in developing countries who predict a significant increase in power consumption.

But the technical planner does not work under impacts of accidents. He must have surely a range of options to meet society’s future consumption. To illustrate, the recent accident in the Gulf of Mexico is not considered by planners as a cut in offshore oil activity. The planner analyzes which energy sources should be chosen taking into account the requirements of lower investment costs and fuel, greater average operating capacity factor, lower level of emissions, greater access to energy resources, level of technological knowledge, and other factors resulting in greater energy security.

And what about Brazil? How can we analyze the expectation of increased nuclear generation after the Fukushima accident?

The country has two nuclear power plants operating in Angra dos Reis with a capacity of 2,000 MW. This set of plants represents less than 2% of the total energy matrix.  Angra III, the third power plant, whose construction is back, will add 1,400 MW to the interconnected system.  The Ministry of Mines and Energy – MME – outlined Brazilian energy policy by 2030, from technical studies prepared by the Energy Research Company – EPE – between 2005 and 2007.

The expansion of generation supply among alternatives to evolution of the hydrothermal mix for meeting the future demand for electricity considered for the period 2005-2030 the need for increasing installed capacity of about: 88,000 MW to hydroelectric power plants and 23,000 MW to thermal power plants, with 12,300 MW of natural gas, 4,600 MW of coal and 5,400 MW of nuclear energy, by including Angra III, the power plant now under construction. And about 20,000 MW through other sources such as Wind, Small Hydroelectric Power Plant, Sugarcane Biomass, Urban Waste, etc.

We have to emphasize that such prospective study found that energy efficiency measures in the country would reduce expected energy consumption about 53 TWh in 2030. It is mean that if this amount of energy efficiency does not occur, more conventional or unconventional power generation plants will be needed. Energy policy works with real data.

It is important to emphasize that all results of long-term plan were presented at MME in open seminars in Brasilia, offering opportunities for experts to discuss the assumptions and results.

Such energy planning studies starts from the global and domestic macroeconomic scenarios, by employing a series of plan models of final uses, technical and economical plan of final consumption for energy and energy supply. With a menu of technologies for available power generation, planner provides models with technical and economical parameters and finds solutions for energy supply to meet consumption planned. In the next step, energy policy makers incorporate the technical results from strategic decisions that should lead the country into a state of energy security in the medium and long term.  Energy security is the main goal of those who control the energy decisions in a country.

In the specific case of nuclear energy, prospective studies suggested the use of 3rd and 4th generation nuclear reactors providing higher availability of fuel and better efficiency for converting heat into electricity.  These studies also evaluated as a strategy the fact that Brazil has considerable reserves of uranium and field of enrichment technology, which gives the country strategic and economic advantages from the geopolitics perspective. It should be mentioned that few organizations in the world enrich uranium commercially.

Considering the anticipated needs of new installed capacity to generate electricity, as per 2030 PNE (National Energy Plan), there is uncertainty whether the country can install by 2030 the total amount of GW through hydroelectric power plants, in long-term plan.  The current reactions regarding of Belo Monte and Jirau plants concerns, which leads to other options in another possible scenario. Thus, nuclear energy and coal come up.

Certainly, when a portfolio of energy projects is organized, the security of supply, costs and environmental damages constitute a number of risks and uncertainties.  After the accident in Japan nuclear energy has brought concerns to the population and brings undoubtedly difficulties for politicians to defend the installation of a nuclear plant in their country, state or city. In Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, in Germany, several protests against nuclear plants operating are occurring.

But it must be made clear that assessments of energy supply involve complex and multidisciplinary analyses. Not making a decision or a bad decision will cause severe consequences to society.

In this sense, the options for future energy matrix prepared by the respective bodies of a country should be widely discussed in forums attended by experts with diverse approaches. Society must understand the problems faced by planners to conduct a strategy of expanding the supply of energy and solutions suggested. With a good understanding on the process, population may be safer upon choosing future sustainable energy alternative generation.

Governments should explain as often as necessary their strategies for long-term energy policy, especially in situations of uncertainty as the current one after the event in Japan.

Complexity of evaluating the best opportunities for choosing sources that make up the electrical matrix does not allow future decisions without major assessments and reassessments.

Fortunately, Brazil has a range of technology options for electricity generation that provides the energy policy maker a greater flexibility than that found in other countries.

Certainly the moment brings new issues for energy planners.


[*] The International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) developed by a group of experts convened by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD (NEA/OECD) classifies occurrences related to nuclear and radiological security. According to experts, INES scale aims at providing society the severity degree of an event.

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