Pro-nuclear perspectives on the nuclear industry crisis ‒ 'an unusually grim outlook'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#838
4622
21/02/2017
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor
Article

The nuclear industry and its supporters have responded in varying ways to the crises facing nuclear utilities and the industry's broader problems. Some opt for head-in-the-sand delusion and denial. Others are extremely pessimistic about the industry's future. Others are more optimistic, painting a picture of serious but surmountable problems.

In broad terms, there is agreement that nuclear industries in the US, Japan and the EU ‒ in particular their nuclear export industries ‒ are in deep trouble. A February 2017 EnergyPostWeekly article says "the EU, the US and Japan are busy committing nuclear suicide."1 Michael Shellenberger, from the Breakthrough Institute and sundry other pro-nuclear lobby groups, notes that: "Nations are unlikely to buy nuclear from nations like the US, France and Japan that are closing (or not opening) their nuclear power plants."2

The Japanese government's plan to establish a major nuclear export industry is greatly weakened by Toshiba's demise. Hitachi isn't in nearly the same mess, but it has taken a hit on a failed laser enrichment venture and may struggle to fund projects such as the plan for two reactors at Wylfa in Anglesey, Wales.

Westinghouse, Toshiba's US-based subsidiary, hoped to build dozens of AP1000 reactors around the world but its prospects are greatly weakened by the disastrous AP1000 projects in Georgia and South Carolina.

French EPR reactors have been worse than AP1000s, with multi-year delays and multi-billion dollar overruns in both France and Finland. Bloomberg noted in April 2015 that Areva's EPR export ambitions are now in "tatters".3 That point still holds, and now Areva itself is in tatters.

Shellenberger said: "From now on, there are only three major players in the global nuclear power plant market: Korea, China and Russia. The US, the EU and Japan are just out of the game. France could get back in, but they are not competitive today."4

That's good news for the nuclear industries in South Korea, China and Russia. But they might end up squabbling over scraps ‒ there were just three reactor construction starts last year. South Korean companies have failed to win a single contract since the contract to build four reactors in the UAE.4 Likewise, China has made no inroads into export markets other than projects in Pakistan and Argentina.4

Russia's Rosatom has countless non-binding agreements to supply reactors ‒ and loan funding ‒ mostly in developing countries. But Russia can't afford the loan funding and most of the potential customer countries can't afford to pay the capital costs for reactors. Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd says it is "highly unlikely that Russia will succeed in carrying out even half of the projects in which it claims to be closely involved".5

Pro-nuclear responses

There has been more than the usual amount of head-in-the-sand delusion and denial from the nuclear lobby in recent weeks. First prize for alternative facts goes to the Breakthrough Institute. Last year was "another record year" for nuclear power, according to the Institute's Jessica Lovering, with 10 reactors coming online around the world.6 But as many reactors came online in 2015, and 10 or more reactors came online in 20 years between 1967 and 1990.7 There will be many "exciting new additions" to the global reactor fleet in 2017, according to Lovering, and the UAE will be the first country to join the nuclear power club since China in 1991 (in fact the most recent newcomer countries were Romania in 1996 and Iran in 2011). Lovering has nothing to say about the crises facing nuclear utilities, or the aging of the global nuclear fleet and the hundreds of exciting reactor shutdowns expected over the next quarter-century, or any of the other problems facing the industry.

The Breakthrough Institute also offers alternative facts to its own alternative facts, with this cataclysmic assessment by Michael Shellenberger:8

"Nuclear energy is, simply, in a rapidly accelerating crisis:

  • Demand for nuclear energy globally is low, and the new reactors being built may not keep up with the closure of nuclear plants around the world. Half of all U.S. nuclear plants are at risk of closure over the next 13 years.
  • Japan has only opened two of its 42 shuttered nuclear reactors, six years after Fukushima. Most experts estimated it would have two-thirds open by now. The reason is simple: low public acceptance.
  • While some still see India as a sure-thing for nuclear, the nation has not resolved key obstacles to building new plants, and is likely to add just 16 GW of nuclear by 2030, not the 63 GW that was anticipated.
  • Vietnam had worked patiently for 20 years to build public support for a major nuclear build-out before abruptly scrapping those plans in response to rising public fears and costs last year. Vietnam now intends to build coal plants.
  • Last month Entergy, a major nuclear operator, announced it was getting out of the nuclear generation business in states where electricity has been de-regulated, including New York where it operates the highly lucrative Indian Point."

And more cataclysm from Shellenberger in another article on the "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West":9

"The looming insolvency of Toshiba has set off a chain reaction of events that threatens the existence of nuclear power in the West:

  • Britain's plan to build six new nuclear plants ‒ based on four different plant designs ‒ in order to phase out coal by 2025 is now up in the air.
  • Britain's turmoil creates uncertainty for the French and Chinese nuclear industries ‒ as well as for another Japanese company, Hitachi ‒ that had won contracts to build other British plants.
  • In response to Toshiba's failings, one of India's leading nuclear policy experts is calling for the government to scrap existing plans with Areva, Westinghouse and Russia's Rosatom, and "Make Nuclear Indian Again" by scaling up the country's indigenous design.
  • On Wednesday [Feb.15] Mitsubishi's CEO told the Financial Times that the company is not considering a merger with Toshiba. The reason? Toshiba's nuclear design "is a totally different technology" from Mitsubishi's. 
  • A proposal by Southern Company to build a third nuclear plant based on Toshiba's Westinghouse AP1000 design in Georgia is increasingly unlikely."

Also at the ultra-gloomy end of the spectrum is this assessment by pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman in a February 5 post:10

"A sense of panic is emerging globally as Toshiba, troubled by extensive losses and fake financial reports, heads toward a complete exit from the commercial nuclear energy industry. The two countries that will be hardest hit by the expected actions will be the UK and India. Unlike the situation following the Fukushima crisis, in which the Japanese government in effect nationalized TEPCO, no bailout of Toshiba is expected to come to its rescue. ...

"After nine years of writing about the global nuclear industry, these developments make for an unusually grim outlook. It's a very big rock hitting the pond. Toshiba's self-inflicted wounds will result in long lasting challenges to the future of the global nuclear energy industry.

"Worse, it comes on top of the French government having to restructure and recapitalize Areva, its state-owned nuclear power corporation, so that it can complete two 1650 MW EPR reactors that are under construction in Europe and to begin work on the Hinkley project the UK. ...

"The risks that Westinghouse faces even if the reactor division is able to establish itself as an independent vendor to EPC [Engineering, Procurement, and Construction] firms and investors include keeping its work force intact during what could be a lengthy transition. Layoffs and cost cutting could reduce the core competencies of the firm and its ability to meet the service needs of existing customers much less be a vendor of nuclear technologies for new projects."

Will Davis, a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, doesn't downplay the nuclear industry's problems but he sees them as surmountable teething problems, a "start-from-scratch scenario" for countries and companies that have largely lost the necessary expertise and infrastructure to build nuclear plants over the past generation.11

Davis notes that Toshiba will probably end its venture into nuclear power plant design and construction, that Toshiba/Westinghouse AP1000 projects in the US are "not going according to plan", that AREVA's construction of EPR plants in Finland and in France "is also not going well", and that "AREVA has collapsed, and a bailout is in progress" while "Toshiba is approaching that possibility."11

Davis offers this explanation for the troubled AP1000 and EPR projects:11

"All are FOAK or First Of A Kind Plants. Both the AP1000 and the EPR are overall new nuclear power plant designs which supposedly incorporate some previous experience and some new design features (such as modular unit construction, for example) meant to mitigate previously experienced delays in construction. Any "first ever" project ‒ even one intended to simplify things ‒ is likely to run into unforeseen delays and complications, which then should be translated as "lessons learned" to the later projects of the exact same design to fully achieve efficiencies. The first of either of these types of plants has not even been finished even though they've been under construction for years, so that what exactly the sum total of lessons learned is, is not yet even fully perceived.

"All are FOAG or First Of A Generation. By this I mean that both the AP1000 and the EPR are intended to be "Gen-III+" plants, in which certain design features, additions, or improvements deeply reduce the chances of a core damage accident when compared with previous light water reactors. This factor's full impact is not yet known or perhaps even fully analyzed, but it becomes quite significant when one realizes that the plain Gen-III plants being built by South Korea and by China are not experiencing any construction delays. It will only be after the Gen-III+ projects are completed that a full assessment can be made as to whether or not this particular point is a factor, but for historians it's already clear that this is a comparison that needs to be monitored, fully analyzed and recorded.

"All are being built by nations which have a multi-decade gap in the process of designing and constructing nuclear power plants. It only takes a generation to lose the base to successfully construct nuclear power plants, as was plainly put by Framatome in the 1970's (this was AREVA's predecessor) when it implored the French government to order a nuclear plant a year "or else lose the whole nuclear enterprise." This did not occur, and the enterprise was lost. By "enterprise" I mean the institutional knowledge gained from years of constant nuclear plant building, which really is a "design-construct-learn-design-construct-learn" process that requires constant work. The loss of institutional knowledge, industrial capability and construction capability is keenly felt now in both nations' projects. It should be noted that decades of continuous work have been going on in China and South Korea, and their projects are running vastly better than the US and French projects.

"The factors above are quite enough by themselves to lead any new nuclear project into distress if they're present, and as we see all of the US construction is in trouble to some degree as are the EPR projects. ... Finally it should be pointed out that none of this indicates that large, gigawatt-class light water reactor nuclear power plants are "dead." In fact, it points out that nations which think nuclear is important should make moves to never halt fully the construction of nuclear power stations. The Chinese, and South Koreans are, once again, delivering on time ‒ so it IS possible with large light water plants. The important thing is to realize that the skills and industry required will evaporate quickly once the last light goes out ‒ and wishing to return and turn the light back on, one will find the whole building missing. It almost is a start-from-scratch scenario."

Solutions

Many of the proposals from the nuclear industry and its supporters involve sacrificing safety in order to reduce costs. Such proposals include weakening safety regulations; abandoning Generation 3/3+ reactors in favour of Generation 2 reactor types (or redefining Generation 2 reactor types as Generation 3/3+); and overturning the established scientific position that even the smallest doses of ionizing radiation can cause morbidity and mortality.

How to convince the public to accept reduced nuclear safety standards? In a word: spin. The game-plan is to sell reduced safety standards dressed up in euphemisms like 'improving social acceptance' or overcoming the 'paradigm of fear'. Shellenberger, for example, wants "higher social acceptance" but he also wants weakened safety regulations such as the repeal of a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission rule designed to strengthen reactors against aircraft strikes.8 He squares the circle between higher social acceptance and weakened safety regulations with spin and sophistry, claiming (without evidence) that the NRC's Aircraft Impact Rule "would not improve safety" and claiming (without evidence) that the NRC "caved in to demands" from anti-nuclear groups to establish the rule.

Shellenberger rails against the "$500 million annual [anti-nuclear] lobby that does everything it can to deliberately make nuclear expensive."9 He argues that nuclear power "almost never harms anybody" so "it's simply not clear that making [nuclear] plants any safer is actually possible".9 So nuclear critics were wrong to call for strengthened regulation, and strengthened earthquake and tsunami protections, before the Fukushima disaster? Shellenberger claims that the "overwhelming amount of harm caused by accidents are due to fear and panic, not radiation exposure."9

The weak skills base is widely acknowledged to be a problem. Vast numbers of staff, skilled across a range of disciplines, need to be trained and employed if the nuclear power industry is to move ahead (or even survive). But utilities and companies are firing, not hiring, and making a perilous situation much worse ... possibly irretrievable. As we've seen over the past decade, a weak skills base leads to reactor project delays and cost overruns, and that in turn leads one after another country to abandon plans for new reactors.

Many of the proposals from nuclear advocates involve massive government / taxpayer subsidies to prop up ailing nuclear companies and reactor projects. Some advocate capitalism in its pure form (socializing losses and privatizing profits) with socialism (nationalization of troubled companies and direct government investment in nuclear projects) as a back-up plan.

A contrary view was expressed by Neil Collins in the Financial Times: "It's telling that after 60 years of mostly successful operation, commercial viability still eludes the nuclear power industry. ... Appealing for fresh state aid looks like a desperate last throw of the nuclear dice. If an industry cannot finance its own projects after half a century of development, it may be time to try another industry."12

References:

1. Karel Beckman, 10 Feb 2017, 'The OECD's nuclear suicide', http://energypostweekly.eu/february-10-2017-watch/#section_1

2. Michael Shellenberger, 13 Feb 2017, 'Why its Big Bet on Westinghouse Nuclear is Bankrupting Toshiba', www.environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/2/13/why-its-big-bet-on-west...

3. Carol Matlack, 17 April 2015, 'Areva Is Costing France Plenty', www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-16/france-s-areva-falters-in-rea...

4. Kana Inagaki, Leo Lewis and Ed Crooks, 15 Feb 2017, 'Downfall of Toshiba, a nuclear industry titan', www.ft.com/content/416a2c9c-f2d3-11e6-8758-6876151821a6
5. Steve Kidd, 6 Oct 2014, "The world nuclear industry – is it in terminal decline?", www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionthe-world-nuclear-industry-is-it-in-t...

6. Jessica Lovering, 7 Feb 2017, 'Another Record Year for Nuclear Power', http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/another-record-year-for-nucl...

7. www.iaea.org/pris/

8. Michael Shellenberger, 13 Feb 2017, 'Why its Big Bet on Westinghouse Nuclear is Bankrupting Toshiba', www.environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/2/13/why-its-big-bet-on-west...

9. Michael Shellenberger, 17 Feb 2017, 'Nuclear Industry Must Change ‒ Or Die', www.environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/2/16/nuclear-must-change-or-die

10. Dan Yurman, 5 Feb 2016, 'Toshiba's Nuclear Projects Falling Like a Row of Dominos', http://neutronbytes.com/2017/02/05/toshibas-nuclear-projects-falling-lik...

11. Will Davis, 5 Feb 2017, 'New Large Light Water Construction, USA and France', http://atomicpowerreview.blogspot.com.au/2017/02/new-large-light-water-c...

12. Neil Collins, 17 Feb 2017, 'Dash for gas ‒ and move on from nuclear power folly', www.ft.com/content/2a2d94a8-f461-11e6-95ee-f14e55513608