Not so fast – Fukushima’s limited impact on the global nuclear industry
Except for a political panic attack in Germany, most other nations have the “full steam ahead” sign out for their new reactor projects
There’s been a lot of overblown rhetoric about the so-called “death” of the global nuclear renaissance. Anti-nuclear groups have trumpeted that the crisis at Fukushima in Japan is the silver stake that has finally been driven into the heart of the nuclear monster. Frankly, that’s a lot of wishful thinking.
The stark reality of energy security in the 21st century is the nuclear reactors are needed to put the world on a path toward lower carbon emissions and to supply more electricity to raise standards of living that improve the human condition.
What about Germany?
Shortly after the extent of the damage to reactors at Fukushima became apparent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she was reversing her policy of keeping the nation’s oldest reactors open beyond 2020. A deal put in place by her predecessor called for the eventually closure of all 17 reactors.
Looking at the issue of energy security, and especially the unhappy prospect of being more dependent on Russian natural gas, in September 2009 Merkel swung for the fences and bet her election chances on keeping the reactors open. Her conservative coalition won by a slim margin. The German Social Democrats and German Green Party vowed a political comeback and they have started to make their influence felt in regional elections.
Even so Merkel’s panicky retreat from her decision to keep the reactors open is tempered by the fact that the closure of the seven oldest units is positioned as a “safety review,” and not a permanent action. Anti-nuclear forces in Germany want all 17 reactors closed immediately and permanently, but business groups that represent the export driven manufacturing sector of Germany’s economy have called such actions “irresponsible” and a form of “energy suicide.”
Last November Russian premier Vladmir Putin asked German business groups whether they planned to invest in Siberian firewood for energy since they don’t like nuclear reactors or the prospect of being reliant on Russian natural gas.
Merkel may find that keeping the lights and the factory assembly lines humming, a key jobs issue, may be persuasive when the next national election comes around. The delusional vision of solar energy and wind power being positioned as a substitute for the reactors can only lead to one outcome. It is a situation worse that the situation that South Africa finds itself in with brownouts, an inability to raise electricity rates for new generating capacity due to social welfare spending, and overall politically intractable gridlock.
Italy’s pause to refresh
Until recently Italy’s reversal of its 1988 ban on new nuclear reactors held out the long-term promise of relief from some of Europe’s highest fossil fueled electrical power. Plans to build up to five reactors were being vigorously pursued by the incumbent government.
However, the economic minister driving the process ran afoul of his own greed and he was removed from office for involvement in a completely unrelated real estate scandal. Worse, the current prime minister is embroiled in a sex scandal.
Efforts to establish a strategy to select sites, and to create the necessary nuclear regulatory organization, have been suspended as the government. A new government and a new economic development minister may re-start the long process. Italy’s economic cannot sustain the current high prices it pays for power.
An early effort to buy 12% of the output of a new French reactor is still going forward. Once the benefits of that deal are seen, it may be an incentive to pursue full scale development of domestic projects.
India rejects protests at Jaitapur
The Indian government will continue with its commitment to build 20 Gwe of new nuclear powered electricity generation capacity over the next decade. A key project is at the Jaitapur site where two and possibly as many as six Areva 1,600 MW reactors will be built. Local protests over land compensation have created an impression the project might be stopped, but the government is not backing down.
The government’s response is to create an independent oversight body for the project and also to strengthen the national nuclear regulatory agency. Construction of the 10 GWe facility will begin later this year.
The government held a meeting attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and decided to go ahead with the nuclear power plant. “The government is satisfied with the safety aspects of the Jaitapur nuclear plant,” V Narayanswamy, a minister in the prime minister’s office, told the BBC.
The government also decided to increase the compensation already paid to villagers whose land has been acquired for the plant, and step up talks with them to assure them of the safety of the plant.
India is developing is own 700 MW indigenous reactor design which is expects to eventually make a major contribution to the nation’s electrical grid. In the meantime, India is rely on Russian and French reactor technology. The Russians have two reactors nearing completion and four more that are underway. As many as 18 Russian 1,000 MW and 1,200 MW VVER reactors may be built over the next 20 years.
U.S. firms are locked out of India’s nuclear market because of a strict supplier liability law that is based on the historical political legacy of the Bohpal disaster. Strenuous efforts by U.S. diplomats to change the law have not had any success, and that failure was an embarrassment for President Obama when he visited India in November 2010.
China’s demand for uranium will make the market
The biggest commitment to nuclear energy globally is in China. The country will build at least 40 GWe of new reactors by 2020. Of that amount, 4 Gwe will be built by Westinghouse, 3 GWe by Areva, and 2 GWe by Russia. The vast bulk of new construction, over 30 GWe, will be a new indigenous design for a 1,000 MW reactor that China may also position for export. It will be based on aggressive technology transfer agreements the country imposed on its vendors.
To fuel these reactors, China will have to import 60% of its demand for uranium. Also, the long-term view on energy security has prompted China to begin investing in construction of a $15 billion spent fuel reprocessing plant based on Areva’s technology.
Other nations also in the mix
- Turkey has one 4.8 Gwe multi-reactor site under construction on its Mediterranean coast, is negotiating for a vendor for a similar project on the Black Sea, and has announced plans for a third site near the Bulgarian border.
- The United Arab Emirates is proceeding with construction of four 1,400 MW reactors supplied by South Korea.
- Sweden has stuck by its reversal of its prior moratorium on new reactors and will now replace the units supplying 9 GWe of power to the country as needed.
Beads or Blackberries
These commitments to building new nuclear reactors are a signal that anti-nuclear sentiments are just so much wishful thinking. Worse, the strongest voices from the anti-nuclear sector also contain a desire to “go off the grid” and return to some kind of pre-industrial and pastoral village lifestyle. Irrational fear of nuclear energy is linked in part to the larger than life nature of industrial infrastructure. They want to go back to trading beads rather than Blackberry messenger IDs.
It is clear that developing nations such as China, India, and Turkey have no use for these visions. Yet, to be successful, they and the G20 group of nations must educate their citizens to think coherently about science and engineering issues. Otherwise, they will cede the ground to media celebrities who seek attention for its own sake and not for the benefit of current or future generations.
Photo by gc85.