Poll: Not many viable options to nuclear power

Nine out of 10 top Czech managers say the government should continue to build more nuclear power plants despite events in Japan

Based on responses from 152 top managers in the Czech business community foto: © ČESKÁ POZICEČeská pozice

Based on responses from 152 top managers in the Czech business community

Recently there has been talk of a “nuclear renaissance” as people look for ways to make higher volumes of electricity without emitting more CO2. The Czech Republic is among the countries planning to build new reactors. The optimistic view of nuclear energy hit a snag when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Japan March 11, damaging the cooling systems in the Fukushima nuclear power plant located in the center of the country. The resulting radiation leaks have put nuclear safety back under scrutiny.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS)  has stated that the country will not give up nuclear power in light of events in Japan, nor does he see any reason to consider closing down or limiting the functioning of the country’s Temelín nuclear power plant in South Bohemia. “We expect that construction of two additional reactors at Temelín will be completed,” he said. Currently, two reactors operate at Temelín; the new two reactors would at least double current output. The country also has four older reactors in Dukovany, Vysočina region.

In 2008, the Pačes Commission recommended the further development of Czech nuclear power production, and the current center-right coalition government led by the ODS has said it supports the recommendations.

According to 91.5 percent of top managers who responded to Czech Position’s Voice of the Elite poll, the Czech government should not alter its plans to build nuclear reactors in the country, even in light of the catastrophe unfolding at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

The following three respondents underscored the findings:

“A similar catastrophe to that taking place in Japan is not a threat in our region. However, the power of voices fearful of nuclear energy is growing, and this will lead to further limitations and tighter regulation of nuclear power stations. Should this go as far as inhibiting [the use of this power source], it would be wise to speed up the expansion of Temelín,” the first respondent said.‘From a short-term perspective, there is no alternative to nuclear power.’

“From a short-term perspective, there is no alternative to nuclear power.We will likely now see a global wave of mass investment into the development of alternative electrical energy sources, but as long as we don’t see a breakthrough in storage technology, such sources will only remain a supplement to the overall energy balance sheet of a given country. Smart grids that would solve the disparities between immediate demand and available supply at any given time are mere nonsensical ravings,” the second respondent began.

“It therefore follows that in the next 20 to 50 years, power supplies will not be able to circumvent traditional sources. In the context of the Czech Republic, these [include] nuclear energy. Perhaps developments in nanotechnology will soon increase the capacity of batteries, supercapacitors and other such ways to store electricity, but one cannot depend on that taking place,” the second concluded.

The third respondent put it thus: “It is still too early for definitive conclusions. Further, the cause of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe remains a mere hypothetical one for the Czech Republic. Should the Czech Republic be hit by a similarly strong earthquake and ensuing tsunami, not only we, but all of Europe will have far greater problems than potential accidents at our nuclear power plants.”‘It appears that Czech voters have a different sense of their safety than do, for example, those in Germany or Austria.’

The following top manager had a differing view: “Nuclear power is not safe. You may well be able to find hundreds of ‘experts’ who claim that the opposite is true, but concrete examples around the world tell a different story. But it is a matter of political will, which depends on the reactions of voters. And it appears that Czech voters have a different sense of their safety than do, for example, those in Germany or Austria.”

A further three respondents from the “no” camp expressed support for nuclear power:

“The Japanese tragedy is certainly lamentable, but the hysteria of German Chancellor Angela Merkel [who shut down seven reactors] and other politicians regarding the future of nuclear energy is laughable and entirely populist. It is crucial to learn from the Japanese tragedy and to seek to better secure nuclear power plants,” the first said.

‘We have to derive our electricity from something, as we won’t get it by doing nothing.’

“We have to derive our electricity from something, as we won’t get it by doing nothing. There aren’t that many options. First, one can build natural gas-powered electricity plants. But this would increase our dependence on Russia — a dependence that we have actually being trying to decrease. Second, we could slowly contaminate our landscapes by producing more electricity from coal, of which there is not enough, even for heating stations. Even exceeding our limits won’t help us for long,” this respondent said, outlining options.

‘We have to derive our electricity from something, as we won’t get it by doing nothing.’

“Third, we could use alternative energy sources. But this will end up increasing the costs of electricity to such an extent that no one will want to use it and power plants will end up moving to other countries. Fourth, we could continue to build nuclear power plants — albeit, this will be made more expensive by increased safety measures. Yet, skyscrapers did not stop being built after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York [on Sept. 11, 2001],” this respondent concluded.

“The Czech government should not re-evaluate its goals and should continue to bet on nuclear energy. The events in Japan are certainly dramatic and saddening, but we cannot allow ourselves to panic as a result and end up completely changing our strategy, as has been the case in Germany. Nuclear power is the cheapest, cleanest and most effective and that will not change for a long time. The strictest rules should govern its production, but these should factor in our specific environment, climate and region,” the next respondent began.

“The likelihood of an earthquake as strong as magnitude 9.0, or a Japanese-style tsunami, is remote in our country. Even other countries cannot re-evaluate their current nuclear strategies at the drop of a hat. For example, in France, this would mean an 80 percent loss of total energy, which currently is created by nuclear power plants,”

According to the following respondent, the closure of all nuclear power stations could have a positive demographic outcome: “The government need not re-evaluate its plans because the situation in Europe is different than Japan. However, the emotional reactions of top European politicians suggest that the approach to nuclear power will change. And I do not consider the closure of all nuclear power plants as a singularly bad decision. The directed distribution of electrical energy, for example turning it off at night, could lead to a notable rejuvenation of the populace. With that, all European governments would be freed from dealing with the respective crises in their pension systems.”

The following “no” respondent provided a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of currently available energy sources:

The Czech government should not retreat from its plans to build further reactors in Temelín. An extraordinary natural catastrophe has again revealed that we are fallible and that even sophisticated projects can have cracks in their armor. And so long as they do not have them, they are not planning for all unforeseeable eventualities. Once again we have felt the power of the elements. But this is part of life, which apart from offering beauty also always has and always will contain risks, even if our society with its ever increasing tendencies towards infantile behavior refuses to admit this to itself.

Electricity consumption is growing not only in the Czech Republic, and that is why we will continue to need new high capacity power stations. And so far, we are unable to produce mass electricity free of risk. The most acceptable sources, as far as safety is concerned, is of the photovoltaic and wind varieties. But solar power is limited in its effectiveness, only working during daylight and it also takes up too much surface area, usually farmland, in relation to its respective generating abilities. In the case of wind, practicality and effectiveness may be one order higher, but it nonetheless still remains far lower than that of thermal and nuclear power plants. Wind power is also undermined by the impermanence of its output as well as the unwillingness of surrounding inhabitants to have wind farms scar their landscapes, and in the case of older turbines, also creating noise.   

The third option is hydroelectric power. But in this case, our small country has all but exhausted every viable location. One must also factor in the environmental impact as well as the risks associated with the building of large hydroelectric dams. Biomass represents yet another source of energy, usually of the plant variety, meaning wood chips, straw, grain and rapeseed. Burning grain represents a relatively new energy source. However, such use of food sources is reprehensible, and that is why they should not be used. Further, the frequent imperfect combustion of biomass also leads to the creation of many substances hazardous to human health.

Thermal power stations represent yet another source of electricity — their effectiveness has reached maximum levels and, currently, our country’s energy conception is unimaginable without them. But even they have a negative environmental impact with everyone, including the healthy, affected by their emissions.‘We must certainly learn lessons from the accidents at the Fukushima plant in Japan and seek to improve technical proficiency.’

Finally and deliberately left last, is nuclear power. There are both primary and secondary risks associated with nuclear power. The former relates to large or even small accidents during power production; the latter relates to the storage of spent fuel. However, neither of these concerns necessarily means that we should give up on nuclear energy. This is because of all the effective available energy sources nuclear power is the safest in terms of both possible risks and environmental impact.

So far, these impacts have been several orders of magnitude lower than in the cases of energy derived from fossil fuels. These have, due to various accidents as well as through the negative impact of simple continued usage, caused far more deaths.

We must certainly learn lessons from the accidents at the Fukushima plant in Japan and seek to improve technical proficiency factors during the planned expansion of our nuclear energy structure.Another option would be a society-wide agreement on dramatically lower electricity consumption. But when I see how each of us approaches the idea of austerity measures that might have a direct personal impact, I have to consider this option as a hitherto unrealizable utopia.