Nuclear and hydro the core of sustainability

05 December 2012

The most sustainable national power systems in the world combine nuclear with hydro for mass low-carbon generation, a World Energy Council study shows.

WEC's Energy Sustainability index compared 90 countries in terms of the so-called trilemma that every government faces in setting its energy policy: balancing the needs for energy supply to be reliable, socially equitable and environmentally acceptable.

Ten countries were highlighted as achieving the best solutions and therefore having the most sustainable national systems. These were: Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark, Japan, France and Austria. All of them use low-carbon sources for a large portion of their electricity.

For this report, WEC said it decided not to include the nuclear shutdowns and ongoing policy uncertainty in Japan that came as repercussions of last year's Fukushima accident, implying that the share of electricity previously supplied by nuclear still counted in its considerations of that country.

On that basis, six of the top ten are able to use large hydro for over 30% of their power (Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, New Zealand and Austria), while five use nuclear to that extent: Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Japan and France. The top three countries - Sweden, Switzerland and Canada - use large amounts of both nuclear and hydro, while Austria is 68% powered by hydro; France 75% by nuclear, complimented by 15% hydro; and Denmark 29% by wind with its exports complimented by nuclear imports that mean 10% of power comes from nuclear plants in Sweden.

"Get real"

The executive chair of the report, Joan MacNaughton, said that while using a larger share of low-carbon sources would help a country's sustainability score, "What distinguishes these countries from the others is that they have more effective and coherent policies."

Pierre Gadonneix, the chair of WEC, said, "What makes the difference is how they set their final goals, how they balance market economics and public policies, and how they design the smartest policies in order to promote efficiency and to optimise costs, resources and investments for the long term."

"If we are to have any chance of delivering sustainable energy for all and meeting the +2°C goal, we need to get real."

Noting that it takes cooperation from government and industry to achieve a good energy system, Mark Robson of consultants Oliver Wyman that compiled the report said "businesses must be assured that the economics of their investments won't be destroyed by changes in energy policy. This policy risk is a key factor holding back energy invesments today."

Roadmap upside-down?

Self-declared environmental leader Germany just missed out on a place in WEC's top ten dropping one place to 11th and facing criticism for "weak" environmental performance due to high carbon intensity, particularly in its electricity sector. In 2009 it called nuclear energy a 'bridge technology' that could to bide time for other low-carbon sources to mature, encouraging utilities to invest in upgrades to older plants. This policy was abruptly reversed in 2011 when eight older reactors were shut overnight to satisfy public opinion after the Fukushima accident. The impact on German utilites has been huge, counting thousands of job losses, a multi-billion euro lawsuit against the government and their withdrawal from overseas nuclear investment due to the impact on their balance sheets.

Also in 2011, policymakers in Switzerland decided to stop using nuclear power by 2034, forcing utilities to scrap plans for new reactors. Swiss leaders, however, are yet to devise a way to replace nuclear's 40% contribution when it is not possible to increase hydro and while gas and wind are both unpopular with voters.

While Japan remained among the leaders noted by this report, it was considered without the ramifications of the Fukushima nuclear accident. These include the prolonged shutdown of 48 of 50 operational reactors and a corresponding huge increase in fossil fuel imports with associated carbon emissions. Policy, too, is in flux, with the cabinet relegating much-vaunted strategy to end the use of nuclear by 2040 to the status of a 'reference document'. The country will hold a general election in in the middle of this month and the incoming administration will have to balance the public's desire to use less nuclear energy with the country's economic needs.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News