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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.

The only other nuclear new-build project in the US - two partially-built AP1000 reactors in Georgia - is hanging on by a thread. Georgia's Public Service Commission is reviewing a proposal to proceed with the reactors despite the bankruptcy filing of the lead contractor (Westinghouse), lengthy delays (5.5 years behind schedule) and a doubling of the cost estimate (the original estimate was A$17.9 billion and the latest estimates range from A$32.5 - 38.4 billion for the two reactors).

No other reactors are under construction in the US and there is no likelihood of any construction starts in the foreseeable future. The US reactor fleet is one of the oldest in the world - 44 out of 99 reactors have been operating for 40 years or more - so decline is certain. Six reactors have been shut down in the US over the past five years and many others are on the chopping block.

Indicative of their desperation, some nuclear advocates in the US (and to a lesser extent the UK) are openly acknowledging the contribution of nuclear power (and the civil nuclear fuel cycle) to the production of nuclear weapons and using that as an argument to sharply increase the massive subsidies the nuclear power industry already receives. That's a sharp reversal from their usual furious denial of any connections between the 'peaceful atom' and the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Global downturn

Elsewhere, the nuclear industry is in deep malaise and has suffered any number of set-backs this year. Pro-nuclear lobby groups are warning about nuclear power's "rapidly accelerating crisis", a "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West", and noting that "the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies".

The French nuclear industry is in its "worst situation ever" according to former EDF director Gérard Magnin. The only reactor under construction in France is six years behind schedule, the estimated cost has escalated from A$5 billion to A$16 billion, and the regulator recently announced that the pressure vessel head of the reactor will need to be replaced by 2024 following a long-running quality-control scandal. The two French nuclear utilities face crippling debts (A$56.5 billion in the case of EDF) and astronomical costs (up to A$151 billion to upgrade ageing reactors, for example), and survive only because of repeated government bailouts.

In South Africa, a High Court judgement on April 26 ruled that much of the country's nuclear new-build program is without legal foundation. There is little likelihood that the program will be revived given that it is shrouded in corruption scandals and President Jacob Zuma will leave office in 2019 (if he isn't ousted earlier).

Public support for South Korea's nuclear power program has been in free-fall in recent years, in part due to a corruption scandal. Incoming President Moon Jae-in said on June 19 that his government will halt plans to build new nuclear power plants and will not extend the lifespan of existing plants beyond 40 years.

In June, Taiwan's Cabinet reiterated the government's resolve to phase out nuclear power by 2025.

In the UK, nuclear industry lobbyist Tim Yeo says the compounding problems facing the industry "add up to something of a crisis for the UK's nuclear new-build programme." The estimated cost of the only two reactors under construction was recently increased to A$46.2 billion (A$23.1 billion each) and they are eight years behind schedule.

India's nuclear industry keeps promising the world and delivering very little - nuclear capacity is 6.2 GW and nuclear power accounted for 3.4% of the country's electricity generation last year.

In Japan, Fukushima clean-up and compensation cost estimates have doubled and doubled again and now stand at A$245 billion. Only five reactors are operating in Japan, compared to 54 before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

In Russia, Rosatom's deputy general director Vyacheslav Pershukov said in June that the world market for new nuclear power plants is shrinking, and the possibilities for building new large reactors abroad are almost exhausted. He said Rosatom expects to be able to find customers for new reactors until 2020-2025 but "it will be hard to continue."

In Switzerland, voters supported a May 21 referendum on a package of energy policy measures including a ban on new nuclear power reactors. Thus Switzerland has opted for a gradual nuclear phase-out and all reactors will probably be closed by the early 2030s, if not earlier (while all of Germany's reactors will be closed by the end of 2022 and all of Belgium's will be closed by the end of 2025).

Globally, the industry's biggest problem is the ageing of the current fleet of reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that just to maintain current capacity of 392 GW, about 320 new reactors (320 GW) would have to be built by 2050 to replace retired reactors. That's 10 new reactors each year. A nuclear 'renaissance' has supposedly been underway over the past decade yet on average only five reactors have come online each year.

Comparison with renewables

The IAEA has released the 2017 edition of its International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power report series. It states that the share of nuclear power in total global electricity generation has decreased for 10 years in a row, to under 11% in 2015, yet "this still corresponds to nearly a third of the world's low carbon electricity production." In other words, renewables (24.5%) generate more than twice as much electricity as nuclear power (10.5%) and the gap is growing rapidly.

Five years from now, renewables will likely be generating three times as much electricity as nuclear reactors. The International Energy Agency (IEA - not to be confused with the IAEA) recently released a five-year global forecast for renewables, predicting capacity growth of 43% (920 GW) by 2022. The latest forecast is a "significant upwards revision" from last year's forecast, the IEA states, largely driven by expected solar power growth in China and India.

The IEA forecasts that the share of renewables in global power generation will reach 30% in 2022, up from 24% in 2016. By 2022, nuclear's share will be around 10% and renewables will be out-generating nuclear by a factor of three. Non-hydro renewable electricity generation has grown eight-fold over the past decade and will probably surpass nuclear by 2022, or shortly thereafter, then leave nuclear power in its wake as renewables expand and the ageing nuclear fleet atrophies.

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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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