Nuclear energy — is it too dangerous?

Despite the endless rhetoric about a ‘nuclear renaissance’, there are fewer power reactors today than there were a decade ago, writes Jim Green. The one country with a really big nuclear build program is China, but no one expects it to meet its targets. And with over 200 reactor shut-downs due by 2040, the industry will have to run very hard indeed just to stay put.

Ten new power reactors began supplying electricity last year (eight of them in China), and eight reactors were permanently shut down.

Nuclear power’s 20-year pattern of stagnation continues. In 1995 there were 434 ‘operable’ reactors – operating plus temporarily shut down reactors. In 2005 there were 441, and now there are 439.

Thus there are fewer reactors today than there were a decade ago. Moreover the 439 figure includes 41 reactors in Japan that have been shut down for several years, and not all of them will be restarted.

The nuclear power industry’s malaise was all too evident at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris in December. Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted:

“It was entirely predictable that the nuclear industry achieved precisely nothing at the recent Paris COP21 talks and in the subsequent international agreement. …

“Analysis of the submissions of the 196 governments that signed up to the Paris agreement, demonstrating their own individual schemes on how to reduce national carbon emissions, show that nearly all of them exclude nuclear power.

“The future is likely to repeat the experience of 2015 when 10 new reactors came into operation worldwide but 8 shut down. So as things stand, the industry is essentially running to stand still.”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, only seven out of 196 countriesmentioned nuclear power in their climate change mitigation plans prepared for the COP21 conference: China, India, Japan, Argentina, Turkey, Jordan and Niger.

Now it’s getting nasty

A striking feature of the debates around the COP21 conference was the vitriol directed at the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. Tim Judson from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service noted:

“The industry’s rhetoric is getting increasingly desperate and personal. The industry rolled out a new front group called ‘Nuclear for Climate’, which handed out thousands of copies of a book attacking anti-nuclear activists and blaming us for the climate crisis.

“Needless to say, their efforts to intimidate activists are backfiring. In fact, they have given us a clear sign of how close we are to winning.

“Greenpeace International’s Kumi Naidoo reminded activists in a speech in December – in which he broadened the call for divestment to include nuclear, as well as fossil fuels – of the famous adage attributed to Gandhi about the path to victory: ‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. And then you win.'”

Perhaps the five stages of grief are relevant as nuclear lobbyists confront the reality that the nuclear renaissance didn’t eventuate and isn’t likely to. Denial and anger are very much in evidence, along with some bargaining (‘we need all low carbon power sources’), depression and, in time, acceptance.

China’s great leap forward

With 30 operable reactors, 24 under construction, and many more in the pipeline, Chinaremains the only country with significant nuclear expansion plans. China is unlikely to meet any of its targets – 58 GW by 2020, 110 GW by 2030 and up to 250 GW by 2050 – but growth will be significant nonetheless.

Growth could however be derailed by a serious accident, which is all the more likelybecause of China’s inadequate nuclear safety standards, inadequate regulation, lack of transparency, repression of whistleblowers, world’s worst insurance and liability arrangements, security risks, and widespread corruption.

There are fears, for example, that China may press ahead with its twin-EPR project at Taishan despite fears over the metallurgy of its reactor vessels and heads. Similar components supplied to the EPR at Flamanville in France have been found to have areas of excessive carbon leading to brittleness and possible failure in use. The French project is now on hold and may never be completed.

Over the next 10-20 years, global nuclear capacity may increase marginally, with strong growth in China more than masking patterns of stagnation and decline elsewhere. Beyond that, the aging of the global fleet of power reactors will be sharply felt: the International Energy Agency anticipates almost 200 permanent shut-downs by 2040.

Steve Kidd notes that the industry is running to stand still, and it will have to run faster to stand still as the annual number of shut-downs increases.

Growth elsewhere?

India is the only other country where there is a possibility of significant nuclear growth in the nearish-future. But nuclear growth in India has been modest – six reactor start-ups over the past decade – and may remain so.

In early 2015, India claimed to have resolved one of the major obstacles to foreign investment by announcing measures to circumvent a liability law which does not completely absolve suppliers of responsibility for accidents.

But those claims were met with scepticism and a capital strike by most foreign suppliers is still in effect. Strong public opposition – and the Indian state’s brutal response to that opposition – will also continue to slow nuclear expansion.

India has just signed an ‘preliminary agreement’ with EDF to build a massive six-reactor EPR project at Jaitapur, 360km south of Mumbai. But given the still-unresolved liability issues and the EPR’s disastrous construction record to date, it’s hard imagine any but the most cautious of progress taking place.

Meanwhile renewables are surging ahead. One part of the Jaitapur deal that is likely to move ahead fast is 142MW of wind power in Gujarat that EDF is to develop with its Indian partner, SITAC.

And in mid-January 2016, the latest auction of solar energy capacity in India achieved a new record low price of 4.34 rupees / kWh (US$0.064; €0.059). Energy minister Piyush Goyal said: “Through transparent auctions with a ready provision of land, transmission and the like, solar tariffs have come down below thermal power cost.”

Russia has 35 operating reactors and eight under construction (including two very low power floating reactors). Only six reactors have started up over the past 20 years, and only four over the past decade. The pattern of slow growth will continue.

As for Russia’s ambitious nuclear export program, Steve Kidd noted in October 2014 that it “is reasonable to suggest that it is highly unlikely that Russia will succeed in carrying out even half of the projects in which it claims to be closely involved”.

South Korea has 25 operable reactors and three under construction. Six reactors have started up over the past decade. Along with China, India and Russia, South Korea is supposedly one of the four countries driving the ‘nuclear renaissance’. But the best the industry can hope for in South Korea is slow growth.

South Africa plans 9.6 GW of new nuclear capacity to add to the two Koeberg reactors. But the nuclear program is more theatre than reality. Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman states:

“South Africa’s plans to build 9.6 GW of nuclear power will continue to be embroiled in political controversy and be hobbled by a lack of realistic financial plans to pay for the reactors.

“Claims by both Rosatom and Chinese state nuclear firms that they have won the business are not credible. Even if written down on paper, these claims of contracts cannot be guaranteed in the long term due to the political twists and turns by South African President Jacob Zuma.

“Most recently, he burned through three finance ministers over differences about whether the country could afford the cost of the reactors said to be at as much as US$100 billion including upgrades to the electrical grid. Additionally, Zuma is distracted by political and personal scandals.”

Brazil’s nuclear industry provided some theatre in 2015 with the arrest of Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, the former CEO of Brazil’s nuclear power utility Eletronuclear, for allegedly accepting bribes to fix the bidding process for the Angra 3 reactor under construction 100 km from Rio de Janeiro. Fourteen other people were also charged as a result of the federal police’s ‘Operation Radioactivity’.

“The arrest is a tragedy for the industry,” said former Eletrobras’ chief executive Luiz Pinguelli Rosa. “The industry was already in crisis, but now the corruption concerns are bound to delay Angra 3 further and cause costs to rise even more.”

Newcomer countries: The World Nuclear Association claims that “over 45 countries are actively considering embarking upon nuclear power programmes.” Balderdash. Only two ‘newcomer’ countries are actually building reactors – Belarus and the United Arab Emirates. Other countries might join the nuclear club but newcomers will be few and far between.

Moreover, some countries are phasing out nuclear power. Countries with nuclear phase-out policies include Germany, Belgium, Taiwan, and Switzerland. Other countries – e.g. Sweden – may phase out nuclear power partly as a result of deliberate government policy and partly because of natural attrition: aging reactors are being shut down without replacement.

Stagnation and decline

Patterns of stagnation or slow decline in North America and western Europe can safely be predicted. In 2014, the European Commission forecast that EU nuclear generating capacity of 131 GW in 2010 will decline to 97 GW in 2025.

The European Commission forecasts that nuclear’s share of EU electricity generation will decline from 27% in 2010 to 21% in 2050, while the share from renewables will increase from 21% to 51.6%, and fossil fuels’ share will decline from 52% to 27%.

The most important nuclear power story of 2015 was legislation enacted in the French Parliament in July that will reduce nuclear’s share of electricity generation from 75% to 50% by ‘around’ 2025, and caps nuclear capacity at the current level of 63.2 GW.

The legislation also establishes a target of 32% of electricity generation from renewables by 2030, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 20% reduction in overall energy consumption by 2030.

In April 2015, a report by ADEME, a French government agency under the Ministries of Ecology and Research, shows that 100% renewable electricity supply by 2050 in France is feasible and affordable.

French EPR reactor projects in France and Finland are three times over budget and many years behind schedule. As already noted, in April 2015 it was revealed that EDF’s Flamanville EPR under construction in France has a weak pressure vessel and head, and that the same problem may afflict China’s twin-EPR project with EDF at Taishan.

A January 2016 update to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report discusses the miserable state of the French nuclear industry:

“The French state-controlled AREVA, having announced an outlook of a further ‘heavy loss’ in 2015, was downgraded by credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s to B+ (“highly speculative”). On 29 December 2015, the company plunged to a new historic low on the stock market (€5.30 compared to €72.50 eight years ago).

“On 7 December 2015, Euronext ejected the French heavy weight Électricité de France (EDF), largest nuclear utility in the world and “pillar of the Paris Stock Exchange”, from France’s key stock market index, known as CAC40. One day later, EDF shares lost another four percent of their value, which led to a new low, a drop of over 85 percent from its 2007 level. …

“The French nuclear industry’s international competitors are not doing much better. AREVA’s Russian counterpart Atomenergoprom as well as the Japanese controlled Toshiba-Westinghouse were both downgraded to ‘junk’ (‘speculative’) by credit-rating agencies during the year.”

Next door in Belgium, ageing reactors at Doel and Tihange – shut down a year ago because of serious safety concerns over numerous leaks and, at Tihange, 16,000 reactor vessel cracks – are scheduled to start up shortly, triggering serious concern across Europe. An Avaaz petition to be delivered to Belgium by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks on Monday has already attracted almost 500,000 signatures.

In the United States, utilities announced two more reactor shut-downs in 2015: the FitzPatrick reactor in New York will be shut down in 2016, and the Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts will be closed between 2017 and 2019.

Five reactors are under construction but a greater number have been shut down recently or will be shut down in the next few years. The last reactor start-up was in 1996. In August 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency released its final Clean Power Plan, which failed to give the nuclear industry the subsidies and handouts it was seeking.

A decade ago, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was flooded with applications for US$127 billion (€117b) worth of reactor projects. Now, obituaries for the US nuclear power renaissance are increasingly common.

The situation is broadly similar in the United Kingdom – the nuclear power industry there is scrambling just to stand still. It should be clear by the end of this year whether the extraordinarily expensive Hinkley C EPR project will go ahead. But the signs are not good for the project’s backers: EDF was due to make its ‘final investment decision’ this week, but flunked out owing to its inability to raise the necessary £18 billion.

According to the World Nuclear Association, most of the UK’s reactors are to be retired by 2023. If other projects prove to be as expensive and difficult as Hinkley C, it’s unlikely that new nuclear capacity will match retirements.

In Japan, only two of the country’s 43 operable reactors are actually operating. Perhaps half to two-thirds of the reactors will eventually restart. Five reactors were permanently shut down in 2015, and the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have been written off.

Before the Fukushima disaster, Tokyo planned to add another 15-20 reactors to the fleet of 55, giving a total of 70-75 reactors. Thus, Japan’s nuclear power industry will be at most half the size it might have been if not for the Fukushima disaster.

Generation IV reactors to the rescue?

Rhetoric about ‘super safe’, ‘best thing since sliced bread’ Generation IV reactors will likely continue unabated. That said, critical reports released by the US and French governments last year may signal a slow shift away from Generation IV reactor rhetoric.

The report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) – a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health – states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”

IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: “At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors … “

The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July 2015 on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:

“While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges … Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels …

“Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs.

“It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant.”

Even SMR boosters are struggling to put a positive spin on the situation. Launching a Nuclear Energy Insider report on SMRs, lead author Kerr Jeferies said: “From the outside it will seem that SMR development has hit a brick wall, but to lump the sector’s difficulties together with the death of the so-called nuclear renaissance would be missing the point.”

According to a US think tank, 48 companies in north America, backed by more than US$1.6 billion (€1.5b) in private capital, are developing plans for advanced nuclear reactors. But even if all that capital was invested in a single R&D project, it would not suffice to commercialise a new reactor type.

The UK government also sees a big future for SMRs and has even promised to spend £250 million on “nuclear innovation and Small Modular Reactors”. But it will face two big problems. First, the money won’t go far. And second, nuclear power is already being outcompeted by wind and solar, which are getting cheaper all the time.

Dan Yurman notes in his review of nuclear developments in 2015: “Efforts by start-up type firms to build advanced reactors will continue to generate a lot of media hype, but questions are abundant as to whether this activity will result in prototypes.

“For venture capital firms that have invested in advanced designs, cashing out may mean licensing a design to an established reactor vendor rather than building a first-of-a-kind unit.”