The Role of Nuclear Power in the Energy Mix
Nuclear power will clearly remain the centrepiece of the energy mix. The Fukushima accident cannot reasonably sign the death warrant for an industry that provides 14% of global electricity while emitting less CO2 during its life cycle. After all, one of its main advantages is that energy can play a key role in the fight against global warming. Today, about 435 reactors are in operation worldwide and there are another sixty under construction; a total of thirty countries are thinking about rolling out a civilian nuclear programme.
Although the initial investment for developing nuclear plants is still very high, nuclear power enjoys at least two major advantages. First, it assures greater energy independence to countries and operators that are only minimally dependent on fossil fuels. Second, the price of a kilowatt/hour produced by a nuclear power plant is both competitive with respect to other forms of electricity generation (see the report released by the Court of Auditors in early 2012) and stable, largely because of the relatively low cost of the raw material (uranium) as a share of the total cost of production (estimated today at about 5%). This means that the operator can keep control over the equipment’s productivity.
Fukushima has nevertheless raised fundamental questions for the future of nuclear power about the responsibility of the players involved. Safety is at the heart of the concerns of stakeholders in the sector. Nuclear development will continue, but it will be focused on relatively stable countries, with a capacity to enforce regulations and backed by a strong industrial culture.
In addition to constantly improving the safety of both new and existing reactors, engineers specialized in complex infrastructures are focusing their attention and innovation efforts on another objective – making greater progress in the life cycle management of nuclear power.
Although some decommissioning projects have already been completed or are underway, they can be optimized for the future, and will continue to pose a challenge when it comes to managing large-scale projects and maintaining the quality of the skills base.
At the same time, there is the burning issue of how to treat high-level, long-lifetime waste. The capacity to solve this under optimal conditions of safety and environmental protection could help to reinvigorate a sector that is more than ever convinced that, in the current state of energy needs and technological capabilities, nuclear energy will continue to provide a highly reliable solution for the future.
In the context of higher global demand for electricity, it is only through continuous investment in research and development and by drawing on high-level engineering skills that the nuclear industry will be able to build a new future.