Special Report: Peak Oil

Exploding the Myth of Nuclear Energy Security

The old-time claim that nuclear power was not only safe and clean, but also cheap and secure was never strong - and is today even weaker. The time for major energy policy change is now.

By Andrew McKillop
Published April 05, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi, March 24, 2011 (Image Credit: Cryptome)
Fukushima Daiichi, March 24, 2011 (Image Credit: Cryptome)

In an incredibly ill-fated play of both publishing date and policy being urged on deciders in the energy field, the Japan-based United Nations University (UNU), in February 2011 published a long research paper on how Japan, thanks to nuclear power, could shield itself from a possible new Oil Shock.

The paper, written by Brendan Barrett, claimed that Japan must move faster with plans to build more reactors, and was sitting on an energy security time bomb because it had slowed down its nuclear program.

Barrett wrote that if alarm bells sounded by the OECD's International Energy Agency and leading business corporations like Virgin Airlines in the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil were not heeded "and our close proximity to the peak in world oil production is true, then Japan may be sitting on the equivalent of an energy security time bomb. The greatest concern is that this time bomb could explode as early as 2015, and with a high probability before 2020..."

The Myth that Atomic Energy Saves Oil

One of the biggest problems for this myth is that it has been heard before, many times and right across the policy-making networks of all major oil import dependent countries of the OECD for more than 35 years.

More recently, the same myth has been given heavy attention and large, if not total, support by energy deciders in the emerging economies dependent on imported oil and gas, especially China and India.

The main problem with this myth is simple: crying wolf did not work in the past, oil shocks came and went, and nuclear power-using countries fared no better or worse than countries not heavily committed to the atom. This real world read-out makes it easy to ask whether the present disaster in Japan signals a wake-up call to the unreality of this key myth.

Japan's trade and industry ministry (METI) has played copybook correct, urging and planning considerable growth of nuclear power. Before the present disaster, METI was forecasting its role would grow from 10% of Japan's primary energy today, to 24% in 2030 through building and adding at least 14 new industry standard 900 MW reactors to Japan's fleet.

This stood at 55 reactors, the third biggest in the world before the Fukushima disaster. Now, it will likely count no more than 48 or 50 for some while, due to at least five to seven reactors being either totally destroyed or unrepairable due to tsunami damage or to very high radiological contamination .

This especially concerns the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi site, but possibly also the four-reactor Fukushima Daini site. Nearly all of the damaged reactors are 25 years old or older. Whether or not Japan continues developing nuclear power is now outside the tight circle of government and corporate deciders and the issue is democratized due to public concern, therefore bets are off for future Japanese reactor building.

We can surmise that Peak Nuclear in Japan may have occurred at a very precise date: 11 March 2011, but it is conversely hard - increasingly so - to put a date stamp on Peak Oil.

Peak Nuclear Danger

Due to the Japanese disaster, we will now find that public opinion is easier to mobilize concerning the Nuclear Menace than concerning an unsure and always delayed arrival of Peak Oil. Even in Japan, renowned for its civic obedience, opposition to nuclear power is mounting rapidly - for evident reasons as the extent of losses, the costs, and the almost open-ended health risks of the nuclear disaster become known.

Cost estimates for the nuclear disaster, even a few weeks after the event, are scaling up rapidly. By comparison, the Chernobyl disaster, concerning one reactor which suffered total meltdown, likely cost a total of more than US $250 billion equivalent in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and across Europe over the 25 years since the catastrophe of 1986.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in Germany and France, citizen and political opposition to nuclear power has mushroomed since March 11, with demands for a total halt to nuclear power now coming from mainstream political parties, like France's main opposition PS-Parti Socialiste.

This was formerly a rock solid supporter of the atom, including the so-called plutonium economy based on massive development of FBRs-Fast Breeder Reactors and the building of giant sized national stockpiles of plutonium (in the French case some 450 000 tons by around 2035). From late March 2011 however, the PS officially seeks a complete shut down of French nuclear power by 2031.

We can note that 1 kilogram of plutonium metal when fully detonated is equivalent to 20 000 tons of chemical explosive such as dynamite or TNT, and that 1 milligram of fully dispersed and inhaled plutonium will generate 500 lethal lung cancer doses. Saving oil with atomic energy presents what can be called a certain level of risk.

Underlining the highly asymmetric or tilted risk of intensive nuclear power development as a supposed strategy for reducing oil dependence. We find that while oil covers around 38%-40% of world final commercial energy demand, nuclear energy supplies only 15% of world electricity, which itself only supplies about 40% of total energy needs in the most electricity-intensive economies.

In many Emerging and developing countries, electricity supplies less than 25% of final demand - making the counterpart to almost open ended world nuclear risk being at most 6 percent of world final energy supply.

Forecasting Peak Oil

When we look at Peak Oil we find this is a highly complex subject. The reasons include nitty-gritty technical factors, especially fast growing output of Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) extracted during oil production - and increasingly from natural gas production - more than compensating the loss of conventional "black oil" production worldwide.

Given the surge in shale and coal seam gas extraction, more gas condensate liquids will certainly be produced. Placing an exact date on when or even if Peak Oil will occur has been tried many times since the 2000-2005 period, is difficult, and onlt the supply side, as well as demand side is getting more difficult.

In a nutshell, one major problem for setting a date for Peak Oil concerns the basic question: how do we define "oil"?

Both for demand and supply side reasons, date forecasts for when world oil output becomes structurally and clearly less than world oil demand has been repeatedly pushed forward, with favoured dates as shown in the excerpt from the UNU article, now set at about 2015 or 2020.

Ten years ago, the favoured forecast was for Peak Oil to arrive no later than 2012. By the end of 2012, because so many variables are in play on the demand side, as well as the supply side, it could even be necessary to suggest it will arrive by 2020 to 2025, or later. Fighting the specter of Peak Oil with the atom gets even more difficult to plead when we find that world oil demand, due to "demand side management", and also due to the price of oil may continue at least a five-year trend to extreme low annual growth rates, and proven ability to contract in a low OECD regional economic growth environment.

This again deals a sharp setback for the favoured argument by the nuclear industry that it is very urgent to build more reactors all around the world because Peak Oil is imminent.

The usual received wisdom is that world oil demand only stagnates, or even worse contracts, during painful and long economic recession but this rearview mirror wisdom is beginning to wane. Energy conservation, efficiency raising, the development of gas reserves and renewable energy sources, and changing social attitudes to energy, all play a part in this sea change.

Oil, Nuclear Power And The Energy Economy

Oil and the economy have been intensively focused study subjects in agencies, institutes and research centres for more than 35 years. This has thrown up many insights on the exact relations between what is called the energy economy and the better-known general economy. Unfortunately, most of these insights rarely trickle through the media and into the political domain, and the high ground is filled with outdated, often completely false concepts and notions.

Taking a key indicator like oil intensity of an economy, for example Japan versus countries with similar GDP per capita scores but low levels of nuclear power development shows almost nothing. For example both Japan and Australia have almost the same oil intensity of around 14 barrels per capital per year, but Australia is zero nuclear.

Both France and Japan have intensively developed nuclear power, but France uses about 33 percent less oil per capita (11 barrels/capita/year compared with 14 for Japan). Other EU27 countries with a low nuclear energy economy but similar GDP scores to France, for example Italy or Spain either consume a little less oil, or a little more oil per capita that France - and much less oil than Japan.

When we compare the energy economic history over the last 25 years of countries with high/low oil intensities and high/low nuclear power development, we again get no conclusive evidence, at all, of nuclear power in any way saving oil across the economy and society.

In some cases we even find negative correlation: as the role of nuclear energy increases, so does the oil intensity of that economy. One striking example is la plus parfaite Nuclear Nation, France, where oil intensity in some economic sectors - especially agriculture - has risen about 15%-20% over 20 years, totally unaffected by rising nuclear electric power output.

The bottom line is simple: along with rapidly changing oil and gas supply side factors, demand side changes, energy economy change and social change the key argument that nuclear power "saves oil" is unsure and even archaic.

Oil Security Versus Nuclear Security

Oil security only concerns one thing: supply security. Nuclear security not only concerns uranium import dependence and vulnerability to cut-off for any reason (mine accidents and outages, commercial relations with supplier countries, terrorism), but also nuclear power plant accidents, waste management and nuclear weapons proliferation - including DU-Depleted Uranium weapons production and use.

As we know, the most nuclear-intensive countries of today are either mostly or totally dependent on imported uranium. In turn this makes a mockery of the vaunted claim by the nuclear industry that atomic energy is "intrinsically" higher security than oil energy.

Date stamping Peak Oil is by necessity pushed forward, but Peak Uranium defined as world mine supply being structurally lower than annual demand for uranium for the world's 440-odd civil reactors, 292 research and military reactors, and 390 submarine and surface ship reactors has existed for more than 10 years.

Concerning only uranium needs for world civil power reactors, world mine supply in 2010 was about 20 percent below demand. We can toy with the idea of what a similar shortfall would do to and for oil prices, if there was a 20 percent undersupply of world oil, about 17 million barrels a day "missing".

Another vaunted claim for nuclear power, and another myth is that atomic energy is low carbon and delivers "climate security".

In fact, as faithfully reflected by the very intense cost inflation operating in the nuclear sector, with reactor building costs growing at more than 15 percent per year in recent years, and explained by the industry as mainly due to raw material costs, this shows the high carbon oil, coal and natural gas intensity of the materials and processes used for nuclear plant building - plus the impact of nuclear energy assets being very speculative.

This also applies, it goes without saying, to uranium mining, processing and transport, like nuclear waste processing, transport and long-term storage.

The bottom line is for the least somber for the atom. Whether we are talking about geopolitical energy security, fuel supply security, climate security or economic security we find that nuclear power is very weakly placed as the saving grace for today's society and the global economy.

The old-time claim that nuclear power was not only safe and clean, but also cheap and secure was never strong - and is today even weaker. The time for major energy policy change is now, and is likely to occur.

Andrew McKillop is a writer and consultant on oil and energy economics. Since 1975 he has worked in energy, economic and scientific organizations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. These include the Canada Science Council, the ILO, European Commission, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and South Pacific, and the World Bank. He is a founding member of the Asian chapter of the International Association of Energy Economics. He is also the editor, with Sheila Newman, of The Final Energy Crisis (Pluto Press, 2005).


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By Ezaki Glico (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 10:19:47

The operator of Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant said Tuesday that it had found radioactive iodine at 7.5 million times the legal limit in a seawater sample taken near the facility, and government officials imposed a new health limit for radioactivity in fish.

The reading of iodine-131 was recorded Saturday, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said. Another sample taken Monday found the level to be 5 million times the legal limit. The Monday samples also were found to contain radioactive cesium at 1.1 million times the legal limit.


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By Myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted April 05, 2011 at 11:38:10

I am proud to say that my watch runs on nuclear power and so does my BLT sandwich. All those horrible terrifying wind generators are nuclear powered - and so is that coal burning electrical plant and the gas turbine plant in Halton.

If we didn't have ubiquitous nuclear power, the human race and in fact, life as we know it would never have come into existence.

Yeah - the day star - it's a very large nuclear reactor and it pours both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation at our planet all the time.

The Fukushima disaster is what happens when you run a high output BWR reactor 15 years past it's design lifetime. If you make exceptions to the very conservative rules, you can fully expect that you will have significant issues. Nuclear power isn't as cheap as we'd hoped with the reactor designs that we have, but it's pretty cheap compared to the ecological cost of 70GW worth of coal burning generation capacity in brand-new maybe-emissions-controlled coal plants that are being commissioned over the next 3 years. If we were to use better designs - and almost certainly the thorium fuel cycle rather than a uranium fuel cycle.(2)

There are very safe ways to run nuclear reactors. If you are a Hamiltonian, you're living very close to one of the few places in the world with an open fission reactor -- you can visit and see it for yourself (3) any weekday afternoon. There's been less radiation released from the MNR /EVER/ than is released from coal burning at US Steel / Arcelor-Mittal in one year. (1) And the coal exhaust goes straight into the air we breathe and the water we drink.

It's time to realize that our extraordinarily high requirements for energy are not going away and we need to approach our future (and our childrens' future) energy consumption needs with something other than "We do it the way Grandpa used to do it." energy policy that pervades discussions about oil and nuclear and the gimme-what-I-want-or-I'll-pout NIMBYism that we accept as normal. And ZOMGWTFBBQ - we need a comprehensive science, technology, engineering and math education program for EVERYONE - so we can at least have a discussion that isn't at the "gee whiz, looks like we need to call Dumbledore to fix it" level.

(1) All coal burning plants release naturally occuring uranium and thorium in addition to entrapped heavy metals as part of the combustion and exhaust process. If you're in the stack shadow (~1km) then you get an additional 5% over the normal background radiation does that you get from being on this planet. Hamilton's drinking water source is within that stack shadow.

(2) http://www.aecl.ca/Reactors/CANDU_Fuel_C...

(3) http://mnr.mcmaster.ca/index.php/overvie...

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By Mark (registered) | Posted April 08, 2011 at 19:37:27 in reply to Comment 61875

Don't forget that this reactor took a 8.9 magnitude earthquake, one of the highest ever recorded.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 05, 2011 at 11:40:02

Thank you Andrew.

It blows me away that we can have lengthy discussions about the carbon and petrochemical costs of something like Tar Sands extraction, but don't count the cost of hard-rock mining and refining uranium. Likewise, we're now seeing a flood of nasty facts about coal (radiation, deaths etc) but none of that kind of homework is being done on the extractive end of nuclear power. We complain that cars release more carbon before they hit the dealership floor than they'll ever spew from their tailpipes. But we still put up with industry spokespeople that claim nuclear power stations are "carbon neutral".

And then there's the financial end of it. How one can claim that one of the most expensive generating stations you can build will lead to power which is "too cheap to meter" is just as absurd. But of course, this isn't about facts.

I get it. We as a society think nuclear reactors are really cool. So do I. But they're an absurd way to generate power.

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By Myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted April 05, 2011 at 13:55:03 in reply to Comment 61876

Shorter version due to comment lost 500 error...

CANDUs are expensive due mostly to Ontario Hydro being certifiably bat-sh!+ insane (the organization and the "lifers") based entirely on my working at an Ontario Hydro daughter company for a few years. The secondary problem is the cost of acquisition on the heavy water used as the moderator.

LWR and BWR (US-Style) reactors are expensive primarily due to the pressure vessel.

In the 1950s and 60s, many different reactor types were tried and one that works (quite well actually) is the Liquid Flourine Thorium Reactor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten-salt_reactor#Comparison_to_ordinary_light_water_reactors) and Canada has a whole lot of thorium.

The best part is that the "waste" from the Thorium Fuel Cycle is FUEL for our existing reactors.

That's just damn cool.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 13:07:32 in reply to Comment 61876

I get it. We as a society think nuclear reactors are really cool. So do I. But they're an absurd way to generate power.

I think, unindustrial most people don't think about nuclear power until there is an accident ...Then the unwashed masses begin thinking again... Hope fully for our sake we will think about before building anymore nukes ... The real problem with nukes is to do with the future .. and the mothballing of nuclear reactors when they die ...

The best part is the NIMBY stance against wind power..

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted April 05, 2011 at 14:57:18

Q. Are Candu reactors any safer than other designs, especially the Japanese design? Thanks for any thoughts on this.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 05, 2011 at 16:41:27 in reply to Comment 61880

That depends on the risk. According to some, they're much less likely to suffer a serious meltdown than a light-water reactor. This seems to me to be more of a question of the technicalities involved in the term "meltdown" than a real guarantee of safety. There was a very serious incident back in the fifties in Chalk River with a NRX model (precursor to the CANDU), and it played out much like Fukushima (minus the earthquake/tsunami) - hydrogen explosions, coolant leaks, etc.

The biggest risk people associate with CANDU reactors is that they're very good for covertly enriching weapons-grade material. They can be refuelled without being shut down and run on plutonium fuel, both of which make them good choices for a weapons program. This association isn't helped by the fact that AECL exports reactors primarily to shady second-world nations with nuclear aspirations like India, China or Pakistan. India's first bomb was created with materials enriched in an NRX reactor, bought from Canada and thoroughly subsidized by our taxpayers.

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By dsahota (registered) | Posted April 06, 2011 at 18:31:47 in reply to Comment 61883

Referring to India, China and Pakistan as "shady second-world nations" is quite derogatory and is indicative of a colonial attitude towards the non-western world. India is the world's largest democracy and China the world's second largest economy (by GDP), you may want to consider that before continuing to paint over a third of the world's population as "shady."

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 06, 2011 at 22:12:47 in reply to Comment 61913

Except that AECL isn't dealing with the people of these nations, they're dealing with their governments (and in the case of India, several decades ago). And the evidence shows that all three of these nations did in fact seek (and have all since obtained) nuclear weapons. They're all known for being fantastically corrupt and taking terms Neo-Colonialism to whole new levels. The other two nations prominently mentioned in AECL's dealings at the time are South Korea and Argentina, both of which also fit this description, especially then.

There are a lot of leftists out there willing to play apologist for the Chinese, Indian and Pakistani governments. I'm not one of them.

I'm not saying we should go to war with these nations, nor that we should embargo them or cease giving aid. A higher standard needs to apply when we're handing out technology which can be used to develop nuclear weapons. Once a state has them, it's very hard to get them back.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 16:26:00

I'm sure that if either design were properly maintained for their life expectancy, the likeliness of a serious accident would be similar. Lets not forget that the Japanese BWR type at Fukushima is over it's life expectancy, and some serious maintenance problems are beinging to be leaked from TEPCO.

I don't think it's proper to broadly say "the CANDU design is safer"

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By NadePaulKuciGravMcKi (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 17:07:19

Fukushima Internal Emitters

An ill wind comes arising
Across the cities of the plain
There's no swimming in the heavy water
No singing in the acid rain

Absalom Absalom Absalom

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 20:08:12

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted April 06, 2011 at 11:36:43 in reply to Comment 61889


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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 05, 2011 at 21:55:27 in reply to Comment 61889

Long and informative, or short and insulting? Hmmm, tough decision.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted April 06, 2011 at 16:48:56

¡Jose del Fission Sonriente!


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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted April 07, 2011 at 02:33:56

I think it is amazing that the darn things withstood a 9.1 Magnitude earthquake, and then a 30 foot Tsunami without spilling the entirety of their radioactive guts all over the place.

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By Ezaki Glico (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 08:41:16 in reply to Comment 61923

And cats have resilient design features, but it's better to stop them falling off high-rises.


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By Ezaki Glico (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 16:37:05

Ontario's Energy Minister says there has been a "minor increase" in radiation levels in some parts of the province following the collapse of a Japanese nuclear plant.

Brad Duguid confirmed the detection of elevated radiation levels to CTV Toronto's Paul Bliss, emphasizing that there was no danger to human health.

"It is not anywhere close to something that would be of any impact in terms of human health. It is not something that Ontario residents need to be overly concerned about," Duguid said on Tuesday.


Oddly enough....

Apr 12 2011

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By Thomas (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2011 at 06:09:32

Yes, it was designed to withstand a large earthquake and a large (though perhaps not this large) tsunami.
But look at the pictures. What side is all the damage on?

The tsunami passed over two 6 m high breakwaters, then a sea wall then had to climb a 10 m embankment. It did so and swamped the area having lost a significant portion of its energy. Most subsequent physical damage is a result of the explosions resulting from the design flaws (generators and pumps in the basement) and bad practices (overloading cooling pools) by the operator.

The tsunami did not put the pumps and generators here.
The tsunami did not overload the storage tank.
The tsunami didnt build the bloodything by the coast.
The tsunmai did not operate it beyond its design life.
The tsunami caused this disaster in the same sense as the trigger on a gun kills.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2011 at 09:07:16 in reply to Comment 62397

The tsunami caused this disaster in the same sense as the trigger on a gun kills.

Bravo anonymous Thomas! Sensing the tsunami was a trigger may truly enlighten us, now that the Gulf spill is a distant memory and no longer frightens us.

The good news is IT will only require a minimum of 6-9 months, "stopping radiation leaks and stabilizing damaged reactors."

The way I see IT, the Japanese now have a real monster to deal with and of course, Hollywood is perfectly poised to play on our real fears with their fabricated distraction fantasies. Go ahead and preview what is to come for doomed humanity. Nothing prophetic here really.

Then again, this ain't Hollywood, this is the Raise the Hammer bored where we hack apps for our sci-fi communicators and re-learn how to look both ways before crossing the road.

Crisis, what crisis?

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