by Meredith Dault
March 16, 2011
As a Master’s student in Environmental Studies working within the department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Ivana Zelenika is drawn towards doing research with real-world implications. What she couldn’t have predicted was her research becoming immediately relevant in the wake of an international disaster. But when Japan was shaken by a devastating earthquake on March 11, 2011, that’s exactly what happened.
Zelenika and her supervisor, Dr. Joshua Pearce, recently collaborated on a paper which was published in the Journal of Energy Policy. The paper, entitled “Diverting indirect subsidies from the nuclear industry to the photovoltaic industry: energy and financial returns” set out to expose the system of insurance subsidies currently keeping the nuclear industry afloat. “No nuclear power plant could ever be built anywhere if the government didn’t give a loan guarantee that in case an accident should exceed the liability cap they will cover exceeding costs,” says Zelenika, explaining that the companies that produce nuclear power would be unable to insure themselves in the free market without government support.
In the event of nuclear meltdown, nuclear companies in Canada for example are currently only liable for $75 million dollars per reactor -- an amount that would barely make a dent if it actually came down to paying for damages (a bill before parliament wants to see that amount increased to $650 million). “If you think about it, if an industry cannot cover their own financial costs and has been receiving a lion's share of direct and indirect subsidies for over half a century then maybe it shouldn’t be existing, especially if alternatives are available” Zelenika-Zovka says bluntly.
So when the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan triggered trouble at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it seemed the perfect time to be asking questions about the sustainability of nuclear power. “You want your paper to be published to make an impact,” says Zelenika. “Unfortunately, when a tragedy like this happens, it’s a good time to start asking questions like whether we can have alternatives to this. Given what is happening in Japan, we can speculate that insurance premiums will go even higher for everyone. If the industry is not viable from financial and energy perspective, maybe it is time for us to diversify our portfolios.”
Over the course of their research, Zelenika (who was first author, providing the social and political background) and Dr. Pearce (with his more scientific background) decided to compare nuclear power to a more sustainable form of energy: photovoltaics or PV (the technology that converts solar energy into electricity). “We said ‘let’s compare power’ and let the energy speak for itself,” she explains.
The pair then set out to analyze what would happen if an equal indirect subsidy, such as a loan guarantee was diverted from nuclear power to photovoltaics, factoring in the phasing out (and not replacing) of reactors between now and the middle of the 21st century. “Starting in 2011 until mid-century, the cumulative energy output by the PV (panels) would start overtaking the nuclear energy,” Zelenika explains. “And even as the last nuclear power plant would be shut down (phased out), PV would continue to generate electricity.” She estimates that phasing out nuclear in favour of photovoltaics would mean that by the beginning of the 22nd century, “we would have an additional 48,600 Terawatts (TWh) of energy -- which in today’s energy prices would be worth $5.3 trillion dollars!”
Though the article has garnered Zelenika a fair bit of mainstream press, she doesn’t actual study nuclear energy as part of her thesis work. Instead, she is pursuing research in applied sustainability, and is looking at “appropriate technologies” (“technology that is geographically, economically and socially available for use around the world -- things like water purification technology, lighting solutions, low-flow toilets...the things that people take for granted!”). But as one of Dr. Pearce’s students, Zelenika is part of his Applied Sustainability Research Lab. The paper came out of a graduate level course on sustainability that Dr. Pearce taught last fall. “It was a class project that turned out to be so good, we decided to submit it,” she laughs.
Born and raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, Zelenika does describe an early interest in nuclear power. “I didn’t really live through the whole Chernobyl disaster,” she says, “but I remember when I was younger that people were talking about it, worrying about the effects of radiation. Bosnia-Herzegovina wasn’t immediately affected, but kilometre-wise, we’re still pretty close (to Ukraine). I remember viewing nuclear power in a not very positive way. And so when the opportunity came up to do this paper, I took it almost as a way of finding proof for myself, just to see whether my views there were right.”
To read the article visit the Science Direct website