What's cheaper, safer and more reliable than nuclear energy?

March 17, 2016 16:17
The Fukushima disaster was a wake-up call about the risks of nuclar power. Yet, it has done little to dispel the myth that nuclear energy is cheap, safe and reliable.  Photo: Reuters

This year marks the fifth anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Even though five years have passed, the irreversible environmental damage from the nuclear fallout and the lasting effects of radioactivity continue to plague hundreds of thousands of people in the affected areas.

However, the painful lessons of Fukushima have done little to dispel the popular myth that nuclear energy is clean and cheap.

Most people are ignorant about the hidden cost of nuclear energy.

Disposing of nuclear waste is expensive, not to mention the huge environmental risk.

And many nuclear power projects around the world have overrun their budgets and are facing serious delays.

In the 1990s, the global energy industry predicted that third-generation nuclear power would be safer and more reliable and that it would dominate the world energy market.

Today there is not a single operational third-generation nuclear power plant in the world.

One example is the European Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), the poster child of third-generation nuclear power technology.

The first PWR was built in Finland in 2005 and was scheduled to come on stream in 2009.

The time table has now been pushed back to 2018. Its original construction cost of US$3.6 billion dollars has almost tripled.

A PWR in France built in 2007 and scheduled for completion in 2012 has similarly run into problems.

Construction cost has doubled and the project won't be ready until 2017.

To make things worse, the French authorities have warned the PWR project has significant safety risks due to construction defects.

In fact, the future of nuclear power is not as promising as many people think.

With the cost of natural gas and wind power falling, the United States is planning to shut down several nuclear power plants in the next few years.

The numbers show us that growth in renewable energy has outpaced that in nuclear power in the world energy market.

Wind and solar power increased by a whopping 88 billion kilowatts between 1997 and 2014 while nuclear energy grew just 15 billion kilowatts.

Despite that, some developing countries such as China, insist nuclear power is the ultimate solution to their soaring energy demand.

At present, China has 27 nuclear reactors in operation and 25 more are under construction.

These projects are carried out without public oversight or transparency, raising concern about their safety.

One such project in Taishan, Guangdong province, uses the same PWR technology the French have been warning about.

In the meantime, 80 percent of the output of Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant, just 50 kilometers off Hong Kong, goes to the local grid.

The government has not revealed the price of the new supply contract but sources said it is higher than previous agreement.

The Fukushima disaster was a wake-up call for the world nuclear energy industry.

This is our chance to make a more meaningful investment in renewable energy.

It's safer, more sustainable and could even be cheaper than nuclear power in the long run.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 11.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace