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Nuclear power's deepening crisis

By Jim Green - posted Monday, 16 October 2017


This year has been catastrophic for nuclear power and just when it seemed the situation couldn't get any worse for the industry, it did. There are clear signs of a nuclear slow-down in China, the only country with a large nuclear new-build program.

China's nuclear slow-down is addressed in the latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report and also in an August 2017 article by former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd. China's nuclear program "has continued to slow sharply", Kidd writes, with the most striking feature being the paucity of approvals for new reactors over the past 18 months. China Nuclear Engineering Corp., the country's leading nuclear construction firm, noted earlier this year that the "Chinese nuclear industry has stepped into a declining cycle" because the "State Council approved very few new-build projects in the past years".

Kidd continues: "Other signs of trouble are the uncertainties about the type of reactor to be utilised in the future, the position of the power market in China, the structure of the industry with its large state owned enterprises (SOEs), the degree of support from top state planners and public opposition to nuclear plans."

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Over-supply has worsened in some regions and there are questions about how many reactors are needed to satisfy power demand. Kidd writes: "[T]he slowing Chinese economy, the switch to less energy-intensive activities, and over-investment in power generation means that generation capacity outweighs grid capacity in some provinces and companies are fighting to export power from their plants."

Kidd estimates that China's nuclear capacity will be around 100 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, well below previous expectations. Forecasts of 200 GW by 2030, "not unusual only a few years ago, now seem very wide of the mark." And even the 100 GW estimate is stretching credulity - nuclear capacity will be around 50 GW in 2020 and a doubling of that capacity by 2030 won't happen if the current slow-down sets in.

Kidd states that nuclear power in China may become "a last resort, rather as it is throughout most of the world." The growth of wind and solar "dwarfs" new nuclear, he writes, and the hydro power program "is still enormous."

Chinese government agencies note that in the first half of 2017, renewables accounted for 70% of new capacity added (a sharp increase from the figure of 52% in calendar 2016), thermal sources (mainly coal) 28% and nuclear just 2%. Earlier this month, Beijing announced plans to stop or delay work on 95 GW of planned and under-construction coal-fired power plants, so the 70% renewables figure is set for a healthy boost.

Crisis in the US

The plan to build two AP1000 reactors in South Carolina ‒ abandoned in July after A$11.5 - 13.3 billion was spent on the partially-built reactors - is now the subject of multiple lawsuits and investigations including criminal probes. Westinghouse, the lead contractor, filed for bankruptcy protection in March. Westinghouse's parent company Toshiba is selling its most profitable business (memory chips) to stave off bankruptcy.

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The cost of the two reactors in South Carolina was estimated at A$12.4 billion in 2008 and the latest estimate - provided after the decision to abandon the project - was A$31.6 billion. Cost increases of that scale are the new norm for nuclear. Cost estimates for two French reactors under construction in France and Finland have tripled.

Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman discussed the implications of the decision to abandon the VC Summer project in South Carolina in a September 11 post:

It is the failure of one of the largest capital construction projects in the US Every time another newspaper headline appears about what went wrong at the VC Summer project, the dark implications of what it all means for the future of the nuclear energy industry get all the more foreboding. ... Now instead of looking forward to a triumph for completion of two massive nuclear reactors generating 2300 MW of CO2 emission free electricity, the nation will get endless political fallout, and lawsuits, which will dominate the complex contractual debris, left behind like storm damage from a hurricane, for years to come.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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