Second of two parts
IN the first part of this rejection of nuclear power, a topic that has to be taken up repeatedly in the Philippines due to the continually uncritical enthusiasm the energy “option” seems to generate, I briefly explained why nuclear power is neither as environmentally friendly nor as cost-effective as its advocates claim. But that discussion actually soft-pedaled the arguments against nuclear power; the truth is, nuclear power is not simply a poor choice in environmental or economic terms, but a horrifying one.
Let’s deal with the cost of nuclear power first. As I pointed out earlier, according to Lazard, the acknowledged expert source of cost analysis, nuclear power has the third-highest levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of any energy option, behind only gas-peaking power plants and rooftop solar installations. At the high end, nuclear power’s LCOE is $189 per megawatt-hour (MWh); the best-case LCOE is around $140/MWh and the average is about $151/MWh. Those figures take into account the costs and time required to build a nuclear plant, operating costs, regulatory costs, and whether or not construction or operations are subsidized to any degree.
While those generally accepted figures are unattractive enough — they are four to five times higher than the LCOE of alternatives, like utility-scale solar or wind power — they are actually far lower than the real costs, for three reasons.
First, Lazard bases its assumptions on an average construction time of 5.75 years for a new nuclear plant, which is far too low. Several studies that analyzed the construction and planning-to-operation (PTO) times of every nuclear plant in existence all came up with similar figures: PTO times of 10 to 19 years (or even longer, in a few cases), and an average construction time of 14.5 years. That factor alone adds about $21/MWh to the LCOE. Even the supposedly cheaper and easier-to-build small modular reactors (SMRs) have taken much longer than expected; Russia’s floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov — the same sort of plant the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom is trying to sell to the Philippines — took 11 years to build, from 2007 to 2018.
Second, the Lazard analysis does not take into account the cost of cleanup from nuclear accidents, which are far more frequent than advocates would like people to believe. True, there have been relatively few large-scale accidents, such as Britain’s Windscale, the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, but these have been incredibly expensive. The cost to clean up the three melted-down reactors at Fukushima has been estimated at between $460 billion and $640 billion; this is the equivalent of 10 to 18.5 percent, or an average of $1.2 billion, of the capital cost of each nuclear reactor in existence. This does not even include numerous smaller accidents involving reactors, processing facilities or nuclear waste.
Third, the costs of handling nuclear waste, which is produced in copious amounts by any nuclear facility, is not considered in the LCOE calculation. Currently, there are very few options for storing the most dangerous high-level waste, which includes used fuel rods and internal reactor components; this waste is generally kept near its source, and must be maintained for thousands of years. Low-level waste, such as waste cooling water, contaminated soil and contaminated equipment, poses more of a risk despite being less toxic because it is harder to control. For example, there have been numerous incidents of waste water being discharged into seas or rivers, either accidentally or intentionally.
Disaster waiting to happen
Nuclear advocates usually point to the comparatively low numbers of fatalities associated with nuclear power than with more conventional sources as evidence of the “safety” of nuclear power, but based on the historical record, nuclear power plants suffer failures of their core systems at a much higher rate than conventional power plants, where the failure rate of those systems is virtually nil.
Since the introduction of commercial nuclear power in the mid-1950s, about 1.5 percent of the world’s nuclear reactors have suffered some sort of meltdown. Only a few have posed a serious threat to their surroundings — namely Windscale, Chernobyl and Fukushima — but all have been catastrophic to their facilities; any degree of “meltdown” in a nuclear reactor for all intents and purposes destroys the reactor. Thus, any new nuclear reactor has a one-in-67 chance of destructive failure — odds that would not be acceptable to most insurance companies, if they were applied to a different context.
Here in the Philippines, the biggest risk of an environmental catastrophe is probably not the chance that a nuclear reactor would suffer a meltdown, but rather the risk of exposing dangerous nuclear to the environment. A fun fact about the Akademik Lomonosov is that it is configured for on-board storage of high-level nuclear waste for up to 12 years. That feature becomes alarming when one considers the near-certainty that such a floating power station will, at some point, perhaps frequently, be exposed to a typhoon.
It has happened before. During Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) in November 2013, Napocor’s Power Barge 103 near Estancia, Cebu (a bunker oil-fueled generator) was driven aground by the storm, rupturing its tanks and causing an oil spill that fouled about 20 kilometers of coastline and polluted the air so badly in Estancia that families that were otherwise unharmed by the typhoon had to be evacuated. Substitute smelly bunker oil for highly-radioactive spent fuel rods and their containment water, and the scenario becomes even more nightmarish.
Even if that sort of calamity is carefully avoided, the ability of the Philippines to properly handle radioactive waste of any kind is questionable at best. This country does not, after all, have a functioning infrastructure for the safe and efficient disposal of any kind of waste, let alone the highly dangerous discards of a nuclear power facility. Conducting an underwriting analysis on the issue of nuclear waste management indicates an accidental release is virtually inevitable, except in the highly unlikely scenario that allows the country to export 100 percent of its nuclear waste beyond its borders.
If the Philippines purchases nuclear power capabilities from Rosatom (or anyone else), there is precisely one benefit that will be realized from the arrangement: Rosatom will collect several billion dollars in revenue, while in return, the Philippines will gain a costly, dangerous and difficult-to-manage energy option that is greatly inferior to what it already has in almost every respect. Filipinos are known as a generous people, but this is ridiculous.