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Friday, 18 March 2011
It's too soon to know the outcome of the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant. But watching the events in Japan has already had a profound impact on public perceptions world-wide in at least two ways.
Most obviously, it has deepened popular concerns about the safety of nuclear power. But it has also underlined how dependent modern life in even the richest countries in the world is on a continuous, reliable supply of electricity.
Across Europe, governments and publics were beginning to forget the trauma of another traumatic nuclear event that happened 25 years ago next month. The Chernobyl disaster triggered a prejudice against nuclear energy in most European countries, save France, that has only recently begun to dissipate. Across the Continent, government had reversed decisions to phase out nuclear power.
"The half-life of the Chernobyl in its impact on policy and public opinion seemed to have been passed," say Daniel Yergin, Washington-based energy specialist and chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Association.
"Europe was moving back to nuclear power, particularly for reasons of diversification, and very strongly driven by the low carbon agenda," he says.
That appears to have changed abruptly. The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel temporarily shut down seven old nuclear reactors, and said it hadn't decided whether to restart them in three months' time. Across Europe, life extensions of older plants and decisions to build new plants have been called into question.
The nuclear industry has fought back. Keith Parker, chief executive of the U.K. Nuclear Industry Association, noted that "the largest-ever recorded earthquake in Northern Europe is many thousand times smaller than the earthquake in Japan," adding that British plants didn't use the same technology as that which failed in Japan.
But, despite such efforts, analysts argue that, by a greater or lesser margin, nuclear energy appears destined in the medium to long term to take a smaller role in Europe's electricity generation mix than appeared likely a few weeks ago. In 2010, nuclear-power generation accounted for just over a quarter of Europe's power, a slightly higher proportion than both gas and coal. Oil and renewables, including hydro, accounted for just over a fifth.
The immediate impact of the German shutdown will be to bring old mothballed coal-fired power stations on stream, increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, analysts say. Perhaps Germany can pull in some electricity from its neighbors, like France, and its nuclear-power plants that produce more than three-quarters of its electricity.
But longer term, what? Despite a push to increase power generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind power, the wind doesn't blow all the time even in Northern Europe, and the sun is notoriously elusive. Renewables aren't cheap either, in part because they need other methods of power generation to back them up because they generate intermittently.
Despite improved technologies, coal is still a relatively dirty fuel, while switching to oil in a $100-a-barrel world doesn't seem appealing either. But there is a fuel that's plentiful, and becoming more so, emits significantly less carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated than coal, and where power stations can be built and online in a relatively short time: natural gas.
"Natural gas may end up having a much bigger role in power generation in Europe than people were expecting a couple of years ago," says Mr. Yergin.
That's partly because there is a lot of it about. The development of technology to extract so-called unconventional or shale gas out of sedimentary rock has resulted in a sharp increase in U.S. production of natural gas.
This has displaced liquefied natural gas from other parts of the world, including the Middle East, that would have gone to the U.S. but now has to find buyers in other parts of the world. World spot prices have, partly as a result, fallen sharply in recent years.
Europe is also looking to increase pipelined supplies of natural gas from the east, to diversify away from its current dependence on Russia.
And there's a joker in the pack: Europe's own, as yet untapped, supplies of unconventional gas. One industry insider says companies that have found such gas are not advertising it, but Mr. Yergin says his organization has done a study of 55 potential unconventional gas plays "that shows Europe has almost as much unconventional gas as North America."
Whether all of this would be exploitable on a more crowded land mass is another question. Nonetheless, all these developments should mean that European Union is likely to foresee a larger role for natural gas in its electricity generation plans than it has until now.
There is still a virtue in diversification, however. With nuclear-power stations in Japan closing down, at least some permanently, LNG supplies have been diverted to Japan for power generation there.
World prices are likely to move higher. That illustrates the risks of putting all Europe's power-generation eggs in one basket. It suggests that, even on a Continent now more averse to nuclear power, it will remain part of the energy mix for many years to come.
Posted by Editorial at 07:16