France: Vive Les Nukes
Steve Kroft On How France Is Becoming The Model For Nuclear Energy Generation
(CBS) With power demands rising and concerns over global warming increasing, what the world needs now is an efficient means of producing large amounts of carbon free energy. One of the few available options is nuclear, a technology whose time seemed to come and go and may now be coming again.
For the first time in decades, new nuclear plants are being built, and not just in Iran and North Korea. With zero green house gas emissions, the U.S. government, public utilities and even some environmental groups are taking a second look at nuclear power.
And as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, one of the first the places they are looking is to France, where it has been a resounding success and the attitude is "Vive Les Nukes."
When much of the world spurned nuclear power, 30 years ago, the French, being French, decided to go their own way and embrace it. Paris, the "City of Light," is lit by nuclear energy, which powers just about everything else in France: its homes, its factories, even its high speed railroads.
Nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity comes from 58 nuclear power plants, crammed into a country the size of Texas. Pierre Gadonniex, the head "Electricite de France," the country’s national utility says it all began with a French obsession for energy independence.
"In France, we have nearly no coal. We have no oil. So clearly, nuclear appeared to be the best way," Gadonniex explains. "And 30 years later, it appears to be a very smart decision."
Because nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases, France has the cleanest air in the industrialized world, and because the price of oil is now around $60 a barrel, it has the lowest electric bills in Europe. In fact, France has so much cheap electricity, it exports it to its European neighbors. French nuclear plants supply power to parts of Germany, Italy and help light the city of London.
"It is a very competitive way of producing electricity when oil prices are beyond, I would say, around $40 a barrel," Gadonniex tells Kroft.
And the rest of the world has taken notice. Nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, are either building or planning to build new nuclear plants, and some of that business will go to AREVA, the French government monopoly that controls every step of its nuclear industry from uranium mining to plant design construction to radioactive waste disposal.
Deep in the wine country of Burgundy, in a massive factory, AREVA is building the first European reactors since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Bertrande Durrande, the Executive Vice President for Manufacturing, tells Kroft the business is "definitely growing."
Besides the new reactors it is building for France and Finland, Durrande says, AREVA is bidding on a project to build four new nuclear reactors in China.
Asked how many plants he thinks might be built in the next 20 years, Durrande says, "A minimum of 20. Which is quite a change when you compare it to the past."
And some of them will almost certainly be in the United States, which hasn't built a new nuclear plant since the 1970's. With energy prices and global temperatures near their reported highs, and the possibility that greenhouse gases will be regulated, the Bush administration is pushing a nuclear revival.
In many respects, the nuclear industry in the United States has disappeared. Over 100 plants were cancelled in the 1970's.
Kroft talked to Clay Sell, the Deputy Secretary of Energy and the administration's point man on nuclear power. With world energy demand expected to rise 50 percent over the next 25 years, he says it is the only practical option for producing huge amounts of electricity with no carbon emissions.
"No serious person can look at the challenge of greenhouse gases and climate change and not come to the conclusion that nuclear power has to play a significant and growing role in meeting that challenge worldwide," Sell says.
Asked how much interest there is right now in building new plants, Sell says, "There is a tremendous amount of interest. Two years ago there was exactly zero plants on the drawing boards here in the United States. Today, there are about 15 companies talking about building over 30 commercial nuclear power reactors. Now, all of those won't get built. But we think there's a significant chance that many of them will be built."
But so far, no one has signed up to actually build one, an undertaking that requires a huge investment of capital and a certain amount of faith. In the 1980's and 90's political opposition, regulatory delays, cost overruns, and a drop in electricity demand forced utilities to pull the plug on dozens of projects, and the industry has a long memory.
"I recall one story, a man who is a CEO today of one of our leading companies," Sell says, "And he described the pain associated with beginning what he thought would be a billion-dollar plant in the 1970's, and bringing it online as a $9 billion plant 20 years later. And he made the point to me that that is not a lesson that'll quickly be forgotten in the industry."
(CBS) To try and assuage those concerns the government is offering utilities financial incentives, risk insurance and a streamlined regulatory system, which has borrowed a page from the French by pre-approving four basic reactor designs from which the utilities can choose, knocking years off the process. And some of those new plants could be built on existing sites where reactors are already licensed and operating.
But apart from economics, there is the issue of public acceptance. The Chernobyl disaster, and one barely averted at Three Mile Island nearly 30 years ago when a reactor core suffered a partial meltdown, severely damaged the industry's reputation.
"Forget technology for the moment," Kroft says. "Forget energy. Forget greenhouse gases. A lot of the problems of this industry have been political. I mean, people are afraid of them. Fair statement?"
"It is a fair statement," Sell acknowledges. "There is some level of concern. But what we found out and what we have seen is the more educated the public is, the more they understand the technology, the more comfortable and the more accepting they are."
Americans, he says, tend to forget that there are 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States, that have produced 20 percent of the nation's electricity without major incident in the 28 years since Three Mile Island.
"And in fact, they have an outstanding record. There has never been a radiation-related death in the commercial nuclear sector in the United States, ever," Sell points out.
David Jhirad, the head of science and research for The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, acknowledges that the industry’s safety record has been pretty good.
Why are so many people afraid of it?
"When there's a small probability of a catastrophe people think about the catastrophe and not the small probability," Jhirad says.
"Then why have the French accepted it? And what is there about the two cultures that may influence that?" Kroft asks.
"The French love high technology. Whether it be nuclear power. Or supersonic airplanes. Or high-speed trains. They love that," Jhirad explains. "And they love, they accord huge respect and credibility to scientists and engineers. And scientists and engineers actually run these programs."
One of them is Anne Lauvergeon. She is an engineer, a onetime political aide to former French President Mitterrand and chairman of the nuclear giant AREVA, which dominates an industry that employs 150,000 people, and is a key exporter in the French economy. She may be the most powerful businesswoman in France, where everyone knows her as "Atomic Anne."
Asked what the safety record in France is, Lauvergeon tells Kroft, "The safety record in France is excellent. We have not known very important accidents. We are very, very careful."
"But one accident could change everything, right?" Kroft asks.
"Of course," Lauvergeon agrees. "One accident, one very serious accident could affect the nuclear industry as a whole."
"You must either be very good or very lucky," remarks.
"Maybe mix of both," she says. "You cannot bet on the luck. No luck in nuclear. Only work."
And right now she is working hard to convince the world that nuclear power can help solve some of the world’s environmental problems.
"One of the things the French tell us is that they consider nuclear power to be a green energy source. Accurate?" Kroft asks David Jhirad from The World Resources Institute.
"Accurate, except for one thing. Which is perhaps the Achilles' heel of nuclear power. It's certainly accurate that the plants emit no carbon dioxide," Jhirad says. "The one thing that needs to be solved is the issue of long term radioactive waste storage and management."
(CBS) For decades, Americans have stored their radioactive waste on-site at power plants, awaiting a permanent solution, the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada. It's years behind schedule, will cost $30 billion to open, and is already too small to hold all the waste. The French have taken another approach to the problem.
While the United States decided to store its nuclear waste, the French embraced the idea of reprocessing it. Instead of burying the spent fuel rods underground or underwater, they decided to build a massive plant on the coast of Normandy and recycle the used fuel and reuse it.
The high security facility stretches for two miles along the coast. All of France's spent nuclear fuel eventually ends up at the plant in pools of water.
After the fuel rods have cooled five years, the French recycle them to make new fuel. The process drastically reduces the amount of nuclear waste, but one of the by-products of this is high-grade plutonium that can be used for nuclear weapons.
"In our judgment, we have to recycle waste eventually. And recycling makes a lotta sense," Sell says.
"The big argument against reprocessing has been the fact that some high-grade plutonium that could be used in making a bomb could be stolen from the plant," Kroft remarks.
"And we're quite concerned about that as well. And that's why the president has pursued a policy that says we shall develop advanced recycling technologies that do not result in separated plutonium," Sell replies.
The United States is leading an international effort to develop the process, but large-scale, plutonium-free reprocessing is still decades off, and just one of a number of research projects the industry hopes will improve a still young technology.
"Five years ago, nuclear was dead. Now people are really buzzing about it," says MIT Professor Andrew Kadak, who is working on a new generation of nuclear technology, called the Pebble Bed reactor. Instead of conventional fuel rods, the uranium is contained in hundreds of thousands of graphite balls, which would make it safer than than conventional reactors.
"This type of reactor is very unique in the sense that there's no way to melt this down," Kadak explains. "The power inside each little pebble is so low that the temperatures here don't get high enough to reach the melting temperature of uranium, these reactors are exactly what people really wanna see, and that is no meltdowns."
For now the French are pushing an interim generation of nuclear reactors that are safer, simpler and more efficient than the ones that were built in the United States in the 1960's and 70's and they have partnered up with the American nuclear plant operator Constellation.
"It's difficult to fight against climate change. And at the same time to be against nuclear power because you have not a lot of ways to produce energy without CO2 emissions," says AREVA chief Anne Lauvergeon. "You have hydro, you have nuclear, you have wind and you have solar. But wind and solar are you know, temporary sources of energy. It works when you have wind, it works when you have sun. No sun, no wind, no energy. You don't want watch TV only when you have wind."
Wednesday, April 11
Interestingly, a discussion of nuclear power will not be on the agenda at this year's G8 summit -- or at least, as of several months ago there were no plans for such discussion. If the discussion is indeed tabled, one could speculate that the G8 nations pushing for cap-and-trade on carbon emissions don't want to hear a lecture from France about nuclear energy. But the Easter Sunday 60 Minutes segment on CBS delivered the lecture. The segment also discussed a technology that makes a nuclear plant meltdown impossible and looked at France's way of recycling nuclear plant waste. Medical researchers are always asking why the French live so long. Gee, maybe breathable air has something to do with it --
Posted by Pundita at 4/11/2007 08:26:00 AM