01 June 2011

Nuclear Power Moves East

Nuclear power generation is being phased out and new plants delayed or cancelled in several western countries, even as new plants are planned and built in the East.

The Decline of Nuclear in the West

Photo of Philippsburg nuclear power station in Germany
Kernkraftwerk Philippsburg
The recent decision by the German government to plan for the closure of  Germany's remaining operating nuclear power generation facilities by 2022 (see BBC article) is the latest in a European trend. Switzerland had previously announced that it would build no new nuclear power plants, but that its existing plants would be allowed to run for their currently planned lives (Reuters story).  Plans to build nuclear plants in Italy have been put on hold (see Guardian article). [Update 14 June 2011--Italians voted overwhelmingly in a referendum not to construct any nuclear plants for the foreseeable future--See Guardian story.]

In the United States it is economically infeasible to build new nuclear power plants, although some are in various stages of planning and permitting and one is under construction (for which ground was broken in 1973). The recent decline in the price of natural gas has been a major factor, making natural-gas-fired plants much more financially attractive than nuclear ones. Public concerns about nuclear power also make it difficult, costly, and time consuming to get permits for construction. And without substantial government loan guarantees, liability limits, and other subsidies (more difficult in this deficit-cutting age?) no plants can be built in the U.S.

The attitude in Japan toward nuclear power generation is becoming more similar to that in the West, only perhaps more so. In the '70s Japan faced a situation like that of France (high engineering skills but few domestic sources of energy) and made a similar commitment to nuclear generation. Nuclear accounts for 70% of Japan's power generation (before the Fukushima-related shutdowns). (In France it is close to 80%.) The revelations of sloppy management at TEPCO and cozy regulation by the government, plus first-hand experience of the consequences of that management and policy style, may turn Japanese voters against continued unquestioning support for nuclear power generation. [Continuing saga: see updates below.]

France remains committed to nuclear power generation, but it already has more plants than it needs for domestic consumption. Some are shut down on week ends for lack of demand (according to this article). In most places nuclear provides base-load power, with plants running continuously at optimum efficiency and peak demand above that baseline satisfied by other energy sources such as natural gas. But France has built so much nuclear capacity that it exceeds base demand. France exports a lot of electricity (it is the nation's fourth largest export product).

The Rise of Nuclear in the East

Both China and India have plans to greatly increase the generation of electricity from nuclear power.

Although China has called for a review of nuclear plant safety in the light of Fukushima, it remains committed to substantial expansion of nuclear power generation capacity (See Huffington Post item from AP). China plans to increase the fraction of its electricity it gets from nuclear power from about 1% to roughly 6% by 2020. This will require building new capacity greater than that of France today. (Wikipedia article)

All of China's nuclear power program and the operation of its nuclear plants is in the hands of state-owned "central enterprises". The extreme amount of capacity China is building over the next decade will require very rapid expansion of its nuclear engineering industry, with potential for corruption and corner-cutting. Since China has demonstrated that it cannot even build schools that withstand expected seismic risks, one might be concerned about the long-term safety of its nuclear power generation facilities. On the other hand, China will develop a major nuclear power engineering industry with potential to play a major role world wide.

India has plans to substantially increase its nuclear generation capacity, from about 4.8 GW installed capacity to 20 GW or more by 2020 (compared to China's plan for 70-80 GW). Prime Minister Singh has recently said that India will continue with its nuclear expansion (Hindustan Times article).

Other Mideast and Asian nations are developing nuclear electric power generation facilities. These include Iran, of course, as well as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. (See this paper.)

The Role of Government

Much of the decline in the attractiveness of nuclear power generation in Europe is due to the undeniable political cost of supporting it, at least outside France. Germany's abrupt turnaround from extending the lives of its old nuclear plants to shutting them completely can be credited to the success of Green political parties winning local elections on the issue. Voters in Germany don't like nuclear and can be expected to punish parties that back it. The same trend is seen in several other European countries.

It is also notable that wherever private companies are expected to provide the investment and take the financial risk of building and operating nuclear power plants, such plants are not being built. The business costs of problems at nuclear plants is the primary reason that nuclear power generation will grow only where government effectively absorbs those risks.

In France the main operator of the nation's nuclear plants is EDF, majority owned by the French state. The state, and the taxpayer, explicitly accept most of the financial risk of building and operating nuclear power plants in France. So far the French taxpayer seems to accept this arrangement. Elsewhere in the West voters are turning against backing such programs.

The government of the Peoples Republic of China has no such problem. Because China's nuclear power industry is state owned, the concerns about financial risks associated with nuclear power do not exist. Therefore the drive to preserve the firm and its assets by avoiding or managing those risks is also absent. (On the other hand, some Chinese managers and regulators who have been convicted of harming the public have been executed, a fate western managers don't have to worry about.)

All of India's nuclear power operations are owned by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, a government-owned public sector undertaking. Thus the taxpayers of India, rather than any private investors, take the financial risks related to problems with nuclear power generation. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010 provides limits on the liability exposure of plant operators and the government, which are lower than those in many other countries (some details here). The Act tries to shift some of the liability to suppliers of nuclear technology, such as the makers of nuclear reactors. It is unclear that reactor manufacturers will be willing to accept this liability.

It is my contention that nuclear power will never be as safe as it can be (which is pretty safe) unless those who build and operate nuclear plants have to accept the financial liability for anything that goes wrong. The fact that the government is accepting, and in effect limiting, that liability in India and China may partly explain the continuing construction of nuclear plants in the East.

Impact of Fukushima

After the disaster at Fukushima I (see Wikipedia article), all nuclear authorities were quick to assert that all plants under their jurisdiction were earthquake proof and that a similar problem couldn't happen to them (see previous post). (Of course the Japanese authorities said the same up until 11 March 2011.) Nonetheless they have all promised or initiated reviews of the design and operation of their plants in light of the experiences at Fukushima.

The greatest impact of Fukushima may be on policies toward storage of spent fuel. The loss of coolant to spent fuel storage pools at Fukushima has been a major part of the disaster. Such storage pools are not within containment structures like the reactors themselves. Nearly every nuclear plant in the world has spent fuel rod storage on site, and significant investments may be required to be sure such storage is safe even in the case of possible problems at the plants, including earthquakes, sabotage, operator error, power loss, backup power loss, etc..

Although the Fukushima disaster has, paradoxically, demonstrated that even cataclysm at a nuclear plant presents little threat to workers and the public, compared to coal, it has made people around the world less willing to accept the risks and worries associated with nuclear power generation.

And of course the horrendous cost to the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and to the Japanese taxpayer and electricity customer, has caught the attention of all involved in the nuclear power industry. TEPCO may survive, being judged too important to fail by the Japanese government (the holders of its debt have considerable political clout), but its investors and maybe even its bondholders may be forced to take a haircut. (See previous posts here and here.)

The Future of Nuclear

Until Chinese and Indian voters begin to respond to environmental concerns more like German ones, nuclear power generation will expand in the East. And in India and China people have much more immediate environmental concerns, such as clean water, sewage treatment, heavy air pollution, particulates and the like, which have been taken care of (to a degree) in the West. Perhaps squeamishness about nuclear power generation is a luxury they will come to share in time.

On the other hand, attitudes toward nuclear power could change in the West, if no new disasters like Fukushima occur for many years and the environmental and health costs of coal-fired power generation become more widely appreciated.

Update 2012-05-13 1630UTC: Nice chart of where nuclear plants are under construction or planned here. It says Russia is building and planning more than India. Of course this chart shows Japan building 3 and planning 10 more, so it may be a little out of date.

Update 2012-09-14 1615UTC: Japanese government announces policy to phase out nuclear by building no new plants and limiting the lifetime of existing plants, leading to zero nuclear generation by 2030s. See Reuters item. Decisions still have to be made on restarting existing plants, and this will remain a political issues for Japan.
Further Update 2012-09-19 1530UTC: Japanese Cabinet refuses to endorse nuclear phaseout. See Guardian item.

Photo by Lothar Neumann, Gernsbach, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. China has dialed back their nuclear goal by 10 GWs. They now plan to build no new reactors inland.

    People can speculate about what China, India, and other Asian countries will build, but consider what may play out.

    It will take a decade or so to build new reactors.

    Wind-electricity is already around 5 cents per KWh. In ten years solar is likely to be close to 5 cents. We've got multiple utility scale storage solutions that should store electricity for a couple of cents per kWh. If grids can be powered for 60%-70% of the time with 5 cent power and the rest of the time with 7 cent stored power does it make any sense to build 12 - 20 cent nuclear?

    I can see one last round of nuclear construction. Those new builds will replace reactors being shut down on a global level. Likely no new starts after five years from now. Economics will end nuclear.