By Dave Elliott
In a fully free-market energy supply system there is no direct commercial incentive for generation companies to ensure that the lights stay on long term, by investing in new and/or backup capacity. Given that some old plants are scheduled for closure and more reliance on sometimes variable renewables is planned, the UK government has stepped in to create a new ‘capacity market’ to try to fill the potential gap in terms of reserve capacity and grid balancing capacity. (more…)
By Dave Elliott
In my last post I looked at how competitive market pressures were being imposed on renewables by the UK coalition government, via new Contacts for a Difference contract auction processes. While progress is still being made, as the technologies develop and become more economic, the rapid expansion of some options does seem to be facing difficulties in the UK, arguably as a result of government policies- or, in some cases, the lack of them. (more…)
By Dave Elliott
The interim energy policy outline that emerged in 2012 after the Fukushima nuclear disaster envisaged getting between 25% and 35% of Japans electricity from renewables by 2030, with wind and solar playing major roles. A new fuller plan is expected soon, but in the meantime progress is being made with renewables, with the Japan Renewable Renewable Energy Foundation claiming that ‘Japan will be able to increase the electricity from renewables to at least 20% of its total consumption by FY2020 without putting an undue burden on corporations or on households’. (more…)
By Dave Elliott
After a US Congressional visit to the Fukushima reactor complex earlier in the year, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said ‘The scope of damage to the plants and to the surrounding area was far beyond what I expected. The precarious status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear units and the risk presented by the enormous inventory of radioactive materials and spent fuel in the event of further earthquake threats should be of concern to all.’
By Liz Kalaugher
As the first big nuclear accident in the vicinity of a good measurement network, the events at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in March 2011 enabled scientists to find out more about the spread of radioactive dust and its associated health risks. That’s according to Masatoshi Yamauchi of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, speaking to the press at the EGU 2012 meeting in Vienna.
The incident contaminated an area of more than 100 km diameter with radioactive materials, releasing 10-20% of the radioactivity of Chernobyl. Yamauchi and colleagues used measurements of atmospheric electric field at Kakioka, 150 km southwest of the plant, in combination with a radiation dose measurement network and soil samples to assess dust transport.
After the first problems at the plant on March 11th, the potential gradient measurements at Kakioka dropped by an order of magnitude; ionising radiation increases atmospheric electrical conductivity and decreases potential gradient.
The potential gradient also dropped on March 14th and March 20th. Yamauchi believes the March 14th drop was due to contamination by surface winds, which left radioactive fallout suspended near the Earth’s surface. This is potentially a health risk, especially for children as they breathe closer to the ground.
The March 20th drop was probably down to transport by a relatively low-altitude wind followed by rain, which caused the dust to settle on the ground.
Yamauchi and colleagues recommend that all nuclear power plants are surrounded by a network of potential gradient measurement stations.
After the Fukushima accident, Japanese Prime Minister Kan, said ‘Through my experience of the March 11 accident, I came to realize the risk of nuclear energy is too high. It involves technology that cannot be controlled according to our conventional concept of safety.’
His view that ‘Japan should aim for building a society that is not dependent on nuclear power’ now seems widely shared. In a national poll in September, 60% of those surveyed said the number of nuclear reactors should be reduced gradually, while 20% said the nuclear reactors should continue to operate, but no more built. 12% wanted all reactors stopped as soon as possible, while 6% said the existing reactors should be operated and new reactors should be built. The survey showed that overall 70% wanted an end to the country’s reliance on nuclear power generation. Interestingly 65% would accept a cut in electricity use, even if living standards dropped.
Japan plans to formulate a full new energy policy for 2030 by ‘early 2013,’ with the emphasis on renewable energy- it has already introduced extra support for PV solar. When stepping down as Prime Minister, Kan said he would devote himself to renewables, and has called on Japan to do ‘everything we can to make renewable energy our base form of power, overcoming hurdles of technology and cost.’
A similar position has been adopted in Germany, where Angela Merkel has said ‘Germany can become an international pioneer, the first nation to manage to move away from traditional energy sources to renewables.’ It now gets over 20% of its electricity from renewable sources, which will be expanded to around 35% by 2020, by which time most of the country nuclear plants will be closed- the last ones are scheduled to close in 2022.
Italy is in the perhaps enviable position of having no nuclear plants to close, and following the national post-Fukushima referendum, when 94% opposed the governments plans for new nuclear build, it is also now focusing heavily on renewables. Interestingly, it now has more wind power capacity installed than the UK.
Switzerland has decided not to replace its existing nuclear plants, and several other countries around the world have also backed off from planned nuclear programmes , including Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The situation in the UK is very different- we still have plans for eight new plants. The nuclear lobby takes some comfort from opinion polls, some of which suggest that, although support in the UK had fallen after Fukushima, it still outweighed opposition. For example, according to an Ipsos-MORI Poll in August carried out for the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), when asked ‘how favourable are you to the nuclear energy industry’, 28% said favourable, 24% unfavorable. When asked ‘do you support or oppose building new nuclear power stations to replace the existing fleet’, 36% supported, 28% opposed. However, the results are not consistent across all polls: a poll for the British Science Association found that opposition was still in the majority: it said 37% of the UK population support the use of nuclear power for producing energy in the UK, but opposition was at 47%. www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/ News/FestivalNews/nuclearpoll.htm
Moreover the responses depend a lot on the questions asked. An earlier Ipsos MORI poll, in May, part of a global survey, found that, in the UK, 74% disagreed with the idea of ‘modernization’ of electricity production via nuclear, while a massive 80% felt that ‘nuclear was not a viable long term option.’ www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos- global-advisor-nuclear-power-june-2011.pdf
Given this ferbile context, it is perhaps unfortunate that the BBC has seen fit to produce a series of what many critics have seen as unbalanced, very pro-nuclear TV programmes- notably a Horizon documentary, and an edition of its popular science show, ‘Bang Goes the Theory’, both ostensibly focusing on nuclear safety. The main message from them was that the science was clear- there were relatively few deaths at Chernobyl and none could be expected from radiation at Fukushima. This is not the place for a rehearsal of the data and its analysis, but it was not made clear in the BBC programmes that there are divergencies of scientific opinion, over for example the potential negative long-term impacts of low level radiation contamination and the significance of absorbed ‘internal emitters’. This is a contested area, and one you might think worthy of proper coverage. For example, for an exemplary exercise in exploring some of the different views, see: www.safegrounds.com/radiation_risk.htm
Many groups have reacted angrily to the alleged lack of balance in these BBC programmes: for example see: www.sgr.org.uk/resources/sgr-supports-joint-complaint-bbc-over-fukushima-documentary
The critics view is that the programmes basically adopted the arguably rather limited view that what mattered was the hard, confirmed, data, on deaths, rather than speculation. So Bang Goes the Theory claimed that they were just 122 from Chernobyl and zero, from radiation, from Fukushima. A report on Chernobyl from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, published in February, adopted a similar approach. While earlier IAEA/WHO studies had talked of possibly around 4000 subsequent early deaths in the region amongst some classifications of those exposed, and studies covering a wider area put the full figure for total eventual deaths very much higher (ranging up to 60,000), the new report decided not to speculate about future deaths ‘because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions’.
Even higher death rate projections have been put forward by some critics. See for example www.wagingpeace.org/articles/db_article.php?article_id=141 and [http://fukushima.greenaction-japan.org/
They, and the other dissenting critics, may be wrong, but it is arguably evasive to just ignore the debate or the issues. But you can see why it might be an attractive approach for those keen to promote nuclear power.
Nuclear safety and risks are very emotionally charged issues, with any uncertainty clearly being likely to lead to public concern. But limited and simplified analysis may not be sufficient to calm fears. Dr Mike Weightmans new NII report on UK plant safety gives the UK nuclear industry a clean bill of health, but, given what its critics see as a relatively narrow terms of reference, it may not convince those opposed to nuclear power, who in any case put forward many other reasons for their opposition. While the nuclear industry and the government many wish the debate over nuclear to be closed down, economic, security, and other wider strategic issues, as well as the ongoing debate over risks, seem likely to continually open it up. In that context, and with Japan, German, Italy and others backing off from nuclear, what we need from the media is coverage that is better balanced.
By Matin Durrani, Physics World
The impact of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan earlier this month has been truly devastating, with the latest reports suggesting 9000 people have died and a further 13,000 currently unaccounted for.
But if you spend your days following media reports of the disaster, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the biggest catastrophe has been the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
I’ve sometimes felt as if the mainstream media almost want an epic nuclear disaster to take place so that they have something to get their teeth into and fill their rolling TV news bulletins.
The picture above, which you’ll need to click here to see in full, tries to quantify to the best of Munroe’s ability the real risks from the plant.
Sure, it would be great if the reactor had survived the earthquake and tsunami – and there’s no harm making sure other reactors around the world are as safe as they can be as many countries are doing – but this shouldn’t be the signal for the world to end the recent revival in nuclear power.
You only have to think about the damage caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year to see a true environmental disaster.
Of course, the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry is the fear of “radiation” and ionizing radiation in particular. You can’t see it or smell it, which makes it, to some at least, creepily scary.
But hopefully Munroe’s chart puts things in perspective a bit.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to follow how the quake is affecting Japan’s physics community. Things are looking not too bad and the odd bent beamline is far from catastrophic given what else has been taking place.
By Susan Curtis, at the APS March Meeting in Dallas
Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1956 to 1963, once famously said that the biggest challenge facing politicians was “Events, dear boy, events”. Little did the American Physical Society (APS) know that those same words would apply to session H5, entitled “Drowning in carbon: the imperative of nuclear power”, when it was conceived some nine months ago.
Unsurprisingly, the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan reverberated through the entire session. Most telling was that Toshikazu Suzuki of Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, who had been due to speak on the country’s nuclear programme, was unable to attend because of his responsibilities in Japan.
Other speakers and commentators focused on the partial meltdown at Fukushima, as well as the impact that such a serious incident will have on nuclear-power programmes in other parts of the world. Ray Orbach, former under-secretary for science at the US Department of Energy and now director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, had originally planned to talk about the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, but instead gave a detailed commentary on the damage sustained by the Fukushima reactor and lessons for similar reactors in other parts of the world.
According to Orbach, the reactor shut down safely immediately after the earthquake, but it was the subsequent tsunami that caused the emergency power generators to fail – and with them the water-based cooling system used to store spent nuclear fuel rods. But he questioned why it took more than two days for the reactor’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to start injecting seawater into the core to stop the fuel rods from overheating.
“Why did they wait so long?” he asked. “Well of course you ruin the reactor when you do it. It’s also a question of the power company not wanting to admit that all else has failed.”
TEPCO was also criticized for keeping a large inventory of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds on the reactor site. Fuel rods are normally water-cooled for a number of years before being transferred to dry concrete casks for off-site storage, but at Fukushima the number of spent fuel rods in the cooling ponds had accumulated because of delays in building an off-site reprocessing facility.
Despite these issues, Orbach offered some technical solutions to improve safety at similar reactors in other parts of the world. Top of the list is to introduce passive cooling for spent fuel storage ponds, which would be unaffected by any disruption to the power supply.
That theme was picked up by Robert Rosner of the University of Chicago, who was also director of the Argonne National Laboratory from 2005 to 2009. Rosner argued that the US has reached a pivotal time in its use of nuclear energy. There are currently 104 nuclear power plants operating in the US, but there have been no new starts since 1977 – largely because of public concern over safety.
“We need to choose whether to only focus on regulation – or even stop nuclear altogether – or to spend some money to identify and fix the safety problems,” he told the meeting. With US funding for energy research falling, and an even more suspicious public in the wake of Fukushima, could it be that the balance is tipping away from nuclear – at least in the US?
All Japan’s wind farms evidently survived the recent disastrous quake and tsunami – even a semi-offshore one. With nuclear power’s reputation besmirched, following the spectacular failures at Fukushima, is that the way ahead for Japan?
Japan’s heavy reliance on nuclear (29% of electricity, compared with the global 14%) is the result of the fact that it has few indigenous fossil fuel resources and has to import most of its energy. As a small heavily populated series of islands, the potential for wind and other land-using renewable-energy technologies has sometimes been seen as limited. But Japan at one time did lead the world in solar PV development and production, and was also a pioneer, albeit on a smaller scale, in wave energy. And it played a major role in the early stages of the global negotiations on greenhouse gas reduction, hosting the UNFCC gathering at Kyoto in 1997, which gave its name to the first global climate change protocol. However banking crises and recession pressures have weakened its economy and it has retrenched on its earlier quite strong commitment to renewable energy, and in 2009 it even opposed a replacement for the Kyoto protocol, backing the weaker non-binding Copenhagen Accord.
Could its approach now be reversed? That would require a major policy shift. A 2008 US Embassy Cable recently released by Wikileaks reported outspoken criticisms of the existing approach from Lower House Diet Member Taro Kono, with the Japanese bureaucracy and power companies seen as ‘continuing an outdated nuclear energy strategy, suppressing development of alternative energy, and keeping information from Diet members and the public’.
In particular Kono claimed that the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) was committed to advocating nuclear energy development, despite the problems he attributed to it, and although METI claimed to support alternative energy, in actuality it provided little. He claimed that METI in the past had ‘orchestrated the defeat of legislation that supported alternatives energy development, and instead secured the passage of the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) act,’ which simply required power companies to purchase a very small amount of their electricity from alternative sources. He also said that ‘the subsidies were of such short duration that the projects have difficulty finding investors because of the risk and uncertainty involved’.
He provided a specific example of how renewables were sidelined, noting that ‘there was abundant wind power available in Hokkaido that went undeveloped because the electricity company claimed it did not have sufficient grid capacity’. But in fact ‘an unused connection between the Hokkaido grid and the Honshu grid that the companies keep in reserve for unspecified emergencies’.
New policies could obviously help. But how much energy could Japan get from wind and the other renewables? While space is a major constraint, that’s also true of the UK and Denmark, and both to varying degrees have significant renewable energy programmes, with on-land wind dominating so far. Japan could certainly do more. On-land wind installation reached 2.3 Gigawatts (GW) there in 2010, compared to 4GW in the UK and 3.5GW in Denmark, and both the latter have since pushed ahead with more, increasingly offshore.
Offshore wind is an obvious choice for Japan. One early study suggested that up to 12 GW of offshore wind capacity could be installed around Japan by 2010, generating around 39 TWh pa, about the same as was expected from then planned 17 nuclear reactor expansion programme. But that’s small compared to what is now talked of for offshore wind in the UK, with up to 32 GW off the UK coast by around 2020, and eventually perhaps 150 GW in the North Sea as whole.
The UK is also now pushing ahead with offshore wave and tidal power, aiming for perhaps 2 GW by 2020, and that is something Japan could also do. Japan pioneered wave energy in the 1970/80s, with a floating ‘Mighty Whale’ Oscillating Water Column system and some harbour wall/breakwater OWCs, but did not follow it up, in part due to its economic crisis. But research now indicates the Sea of Japan is suitable for the use of wave-power technology, while marine current technology would be better suited for power generation plants in the Pacific Ocean or the Inland Sea. It’s been estimated that ocean energy plants in coastal areas could provide generation capacity of 30–50 GW.
There are some interesting new projects emerging. For example, Nova Energy Company is setting up a tidal power project near Seto Inland Sea, using tuna fish shaped turbines as conceived by Suzuki. METI is also supporting a joint venture with the industrial and academic sectors of a combined offshore wave power and marine current powered-generation plant, with commercialization scheduled for 2016.
Although China has taken over as leader, Japan is still well placed for PV solar, with a large PV manufacturing base. In terms of deployment domestically, it started off with a ‘70,000 roofs’ programme in 1994, and it is now aiming to have 28GW installed by 2020, 10 times the 2005 level, and then boosting it to 40 times the 2005 level by 2030.
Good progress has also been made on the heating side, the use of rooftop-mounted solar heat collectors is widespread in Japan, as is the use of natural geothermal heat that’s one advantage of being a geologically compromised area.
As a ‘High Tech’ player, Japan has also developed some large fuel cells, and the ‘hydrogen economy’ options are seen as increasingly important strategic industrial developments at various scales. One intriguing large-scale hydrogen economy idea is an ambitious proposal for a gas pipeline across NE Asia, to be fed with hydrogen gas (plus some methane) produced by power from wind and geothermal energy sources, and in particular the large wind energy potential that exists along the Aleutian Islands and Kamchatka Peninsula. A renewable energy-managing base would be built on one of the Kuril Islands between Japan and Russia, which would distribute the energy to eastern Russia and Japan.
That is obviously some way off, as are proposals for High Voltage Direct Current Supergrid connections around the Pacific rim, linking up a wider range renewable sources, and enabling more effective grid balancing. If renewable are to expand significantly in Japan and neighboring areas, then, to help deal with the variability of the sources, something like that will have to be developed, as is now planned in Europe.
How much might be expected from renewables in total? A 2003 report commissioned by Greenpeace – ‘Energy Rich Japan – Full renewable energy supply of Japan’ – claimed that Japan could make a full ‘transition to clean, renewable energy without any sacrifice in living standards or industrial capacity’. The report used 1999 energy data, and showed that demand could be reduced by 50% with energy efficient technologies that were already available, saving nearly 40% in the industrial sector, more than 50% in the residential and commercial sectors and about 70% in the transport sector. The report then showed how renewable energy could be used to meet that new level of demand, reducing and ultimately eliminating the need for imports. Six scenarios of how this might happen were outlined, moving up to 100% renewable energy for Japan.
Starting from a basic model (Scenario One) providing more than 50% of total energy needs from domestic renewable sources, each subsequent scenario provides variations or expansions on Scenario One, gradually reducing the reliance on imported energy, factoring in different population projections and expected improvements in renewable generation capacity and energy efficiencies, until by Scenarios Five and Six, no energy imports are required. And of course, no nuclear either.
Some of Japans nuclear capacity has, in effect, phased itself out- very painfully. It will be interesting to see if a new direction is now taken in Japan, and indeed elsewhere.
For more information, visit http://www.energyrichjapan.info.
The death, injuries and extensive damage cased by the major 8.9 Richter scale earthquake in Japan are bad enough, but they are also having to contend with a nuclear crisis, on-going as I write.
Three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six Boiling Water reactors, and the four reactors nearby at Daini 200 miles or so north of Tokyo, were evidently in operation when the quake hit, at which point, WNN reported, they shut down automatically and commenced removal of residual heat with the help of emergency diesel generators. A small fire in an outbuilding at Daini was eventually extinguished
However, at Daiichi the emergency cooling pumps suddenly stopped about an hour after they were started, due it seems tsunami flooding. Portable power modules were then called in to replace the diesels and enable continued cooling, vital to avoid fuel meltdown. But pressure inside the core containment vessel, due possibly to leaking coolant, had evidently built up to a point where emergency venting was being considered “which will be filtered to retain radiation within containment.” As a precaution though evacuation plans were triggered and were later extended to 12 miles.
Then (early on 12 March UK time) there was a major explosion on the site, which some unconfirmed reports claim led to the partial destruction of an outer containment building. There had been earlier reports that internal radiation levels were at 1000 times normal, and unconfirmed reports that exposure rates outside the plant were at about 620 millirems per hour, about the same as the annual permitted exposure. But that may have been before the explosion, which some reports talking of a partial fuel meltdown.
Hard, verifiable, information is scarce, not least since it seems that key radiation monitors outside were disabled by the earthquake/tsunami. Although radiation leakage has been reported, the reactor core containment is said still to be intact, But if the cooling operation is not successful then there is a risk that, aside from the (hopefully low) possibility of a explosion as at Chernobyl, or a hydrogen explosion (as was feared at one time at Three Mile Island in the USA), melting fuel could burn through the core and the floor of the reactor building and enter the soil, a risk that would be heightened if the floor structure was cracked by the earthquake.
That’s all speculation at present, and hopefully the situation will be brought under control. But to make matters worse, there were warnings of possible secondary shocks and tsunamis.
Japan is prone to major earthquakes and buildings and other structures are designed accordingly, as was well demonstrated, they had done very well in this regard with few major building collapses. But the tsunami adds an extra dimension for structures on the coast, which is where the nuclear plants are located.
The major 7 reactor 8.2 GW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex in central Japan, was hit by a Richter scale 6.8 earthquake in July 2007, which fortunately only led to a relatively small (1200 litre, 90 k becquerel) radioactive leak into the sea. 400 drums of low-level waste were also dislodged in a store, with the lids of around 40 becoming open to the air, with it seems some radioactive gases being ventilated. A transformer unit also caught fire, and there were reports of 50 other problems, including broken pipes and radioactive water leaks. But all were said to be well below safety thresholds.
However, all seven reactors were closed and were off-line until recently.
A review of others around the country was initiated- most of Japans 55 reactors are only designed to withstand quakes of 6.5 – and of course, it’s not a linear scale, every unit increase in the Richter scale is ten times more in energy effect terms. An earlier proposal to raise the standard above magnitude 7.1 was shelved because of the high costs. That may now change.
After the 2007 episode, Japans Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center commented. “Japan is simply too quake bound to operate nuclear plants,” and there were calls for the closure of the reactors at Hamaoka- directly above a geologically active fault 60 miles West of Tokyo.
Hamaoka 4 and 5 were running at the time of the current earthquake but apparently were unaffected and are evidently still running at present, as are Kashiwazaki-Kariwa 1, 5, 6, 7, and Tomari 1, 2 and 3, but Onagawa 1, 2 and 3 automatically shut down as did the plant at Tokai, while WNN noted that the reprocessing plant at Rokkasho is being supplied by emergency diesel power generators.
It’s hard to say what will happen next in terms of nuclear power in Japan – it all depends on the unfolding events at Fukushima.