Where do we go from here?

3 November 2002

The four-yearly European Nuclear Conference took place on 7-9 October in Lille, France. The success of the industry's most ambitious meeting is closely linked to the future of the European Nuclear Society.

All the ingredients for the biggest, most wide-ranging meeting the nuclear industry has ever seen were in place. Foratom had devised and organised the European Energy Event, which aimed to open a "wide-ranging debate on nuclear in the context of energy consumption, sustainable development, security of supply, safety and deregulation"; there were several tracks of Scientific Seminars, intended to serve technical staff and the scientific community; in parallel with these seminars, the Technical Conference consisted of papers on cost reduction over the whole cycle - from new build to decommissioning; and, as well as all the presentations, around 140 companies and other organisations were showcased in the ENC 2002 industrial exhibition.

Ideally, the ENC meeting should bring together researchers, utilities, vendors and service companies from around the world. The programme was designed to cater for everyone involved in the nuclear industry, but the downside of such an approach is that there is no clear point of focus. ENC 2002 had something for everyone in the industry, but it risked not offering each delegate enough to justify the E1500 admission (E1400 for non-ENS members).

Too much on the menu

In his closing remarks, Hans Forsstroem of the European Commission noted that such a wide programme could put people off attending. Reflecting on the apparent philosophy of the meeting, he said: "It's time to rethink the mixing of different areas." He acknowledged that it was a good idea to get people from different fields under the same roof, but he was doubtful that it worked in practice. "Perhaps people working in waste disposal are not interested in meeting operators," he added.

Forsstroem pointed out that attendance was low in the Scientific Seminars, but was encouraged by the relatively young age of the presenters, and their high level of knowledge.

On the other hand, the European Energy Event - which did not demand such a degree of specialised knowledge - was quite well attended. Had this event not taken place, it is likely that the overall turnout of ENC 2002 would have been low enough to instantly rule out the possibility of any further meetings. The Energy Event saw well over double the number of delegates than any other part of the meeting. Clearly a large number of people were prepared to pay E650 (admission fee to the European Energy Event only) for less than six hours of debate on the role and feasibility of nuclear.

Preaching to the converted

Of course, the conditions were not conducive to a balanced debate - the majority of the speakers and audience members were not exactly enemies of nuclear power. But the Energy Event did highlight and tackle some issues that simply won't go away, no matter how hard the industry tries to ignore them.

What a waste

Radwaste is still considered as the main bugbear of the nuclear industry and therein lies the key to changing public opinion. No other industry is plagued by such a problem for so long a period of time, according to Roger Higman, speaking on behalf of the British section of the NGO Friends of the Earth. "This is why we do not consider nuclear as part of sustainable energy solutions," he said, and warned the industry: "Don't underestimate this problem."

Areva executive board chairman Anne Lauvergeon pointed out that the volume of radwaste is "very small" and she praised the Finnish model of 50 reversible years before definitive storage. (It should be noted that this is also the case with Yucca Mountain - by law, the facility cannot be closed for at least 50 years after the last placement.)

It was no shock to learn that all the nuclear industry representatives said nuclear should not be a priori excluded from the discussion. "There are not many solutions, but even less if you ban some sources," Lauvergeon said. "It's a very bad way to tackle the issues," she added.

Faced with citizens who believe that managing radioactive waste is tantamount to its disposal, the nuclear industry may be well advised to do more than singing the same old song, repeating that solutions do exist, such as long-term storage. Lauvergeon revealed that Areva is currently studying what mental picture the general public has of nuclear waste. She reckons this waste is way down on the list of major public concerns, but people still regard it as a corrosive substance likely to resurface subsequent to "underground storage". Areva is planning to devise a suitable answer to the issue of how citizens perceive the waste problem, after having tried to understand their perception of radwaste.

Gert Maichel, head of RWE, said sites have been pinpointed and now all that remains to put the solutions into practice is to address the ideological opposition. He distinguished between technical solutions to the problem - which exist; and political solutions - which are quite a bit more problematic.

As for the public's cautious attitude to nuclear power, Maichel is confident that will change shortly, particularly when people are faced with the "first series of power cuts". He was adamant that the Greens' strategy will fail: "Let them do their 30% less CO2 and you'll see that Germany will not be able to compete." The problem is that when there is an abundance of electricity, people may make the wrong choices, such as in Belgium. As for the phase-out of nuclear power in that country, Maichel said in response to a question from a Belgian policy maker: "If you don't produce it, the French will produce it for you."

Long-term thinking

The biggest challenge to the nuclear industry and electricity producers (possibly with the exception of the renewables sector) is the lack of incentives for long-term investment. Operators bemoaned the short-term approach of policy-makers and the nature of electricity markets, which rules out investments that are too capital-intensive. They argue that security of supply is at risk without a long-term approach. To count on oil and particularly gas is to live in a dream world, for the fairly low prices and abundant supplies will not last.

Both Maichel and president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute Joe Colvin saw no obstacle to private financing, given the right conditions. They pointed out that in their countries (Germany and the USA) the oversupply of electricity rules out any major investment in generation, not only nuclear. When the level of supply is close to the level of demand then they predicted nuclear would not look so unattractive to investors.

Safety and deregulation

There were some aspects of the Energy Event that were less successful. The discussion on the effect of deregulation on safety, for example, did not bring up any contentious issues. The problem here, as in some other discussions, was that all members of the panel were in broad agreement with each other. Instances where competitive pressures have contributed to a lowering of safety, such as the recent problems at Davis-Besse in the US and Tepco in Japan, were only touched on.

This issue was tackled more thoroughly during the Technical Conference in the session on generation cost reduction. Most presenters emphasised that all the cost reduction measures had no impact on safety. In fact, the reverse was often the case. During the presentation given by Ami Rastas of TVO in Finland on the modernisation programme at Olkiluoto, he said that the severe core damage frequency was reduced fivefold.

In the paper that followed, presenter Lucas Mampaey of Electrabel (Belgium) was criticised by a member of the audience from the Forsmark plant for apparently overlooking the impact that Electrabel's restructuring programme had on safety. Mamapey pointed out that his presentation was on cost reduction, but that did not mean that safety was overlooked.

The emphasis throughout the Technical Conference was on cost reduction, and it was refreshing to see the industry focusing on the bottom line. The industry seems to be taking economics very seriously, as it has woken up to the fact that there is no future for nuclear if it is too expensive. Consultant Rory Quigley said that reducing costs was not difficult and criticised British Energy in particular for spending vast sums of money on consultants. "You can weigh a pig as many times as you like; you can measure a pig as many times as you like; but this won't make it fatter," he said. People in the industry think too much, but safe and cost-effective asset management isn't that complicated.

It was also in the Technical Conference that we were updated on the problems facing Tepco. In the context of the discussion on generation cost reduction, the Tepco situation demonstrated how uneconomic a poor safety culture is. Akira Omoto of Tepco said that the company does not know what the criteria for starting up the plants are, and old thermal plants have had to be restarted to make up for the shortfall. The fact that there was no safety significance in the shroud cracking is of no consequence from an economic point of view.

Consolidation of the industry

While the industry is still uncertain over what the future holds, there is still a question mark hanging over the future of ENC itself. While the organisers tried to do something different this time, it is not clear whether it paid off. The industry has seen much consolidation over the years, but at the same time, the number of meetings and industry societies has increased. Undoubtedly, ENC 2002 was a major event; but, as ENS president Andrej Stritar told NEI: "It would have been better if there were 500 more people."

A low turnout also impacts on the industrial exhibition. One exhibitor felt that his company's participation was a "total waste of time". Other exhibitors were more positive. For example, Helen Heiford of Microfiltrex said that, although they had fewer visitors to their stand than at the last meeting, they had more serious enquiries.

Nevertheless, saturation point has been reached on meetings. The time has come for consolidation of representative organisations, and perhaps fewer meetings.

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