Is the nuclear power industry in its death throes? Even some nuclear enthusiasts believe so. Because with the exception of China, most nations are moving away from nuclear
This year will go down with 1979 (Three Mile Island), 1986 (Chernobyl) and 2011 (Fukushima) as one of the nuclear industry's worst ever ‒ and there's still another six months to go. Two of the industry's worst-ever years have been in the past decade. There will be many more bad years ahead as the trickle of closures of ageing reactors becomes a flood ‒ the International Energy Agency expects almost 200 reactor closures between 2014 and 2040. The likelihood of reactor start-ups matching closures over that time period has become vanishingly small.
In January, the World Nuclear Association anticipated 18 power reactor start-ups this year. The projection has been revised down to 14 and even that seems more than a stretch. There has only been one reactor start-up in the first half of the year according to the IAEA's Power Reactor Information System, and two permanent reactor closures.
Pro-nuclear journalist Fred Pearce wrote on May 15: "Is the nuclear power industry in its death throes? Even some nuclear enthusiasts believe so. With the exception of China, most nations are moving away from nuclear ‒ existing power plants across the United States are being shut early; new reactor designs are falling foul of regulators, and public support remains in free fall. Now come the bankruptcies. ... The industry is in crisis. It looks ever more like a 20th century industrial dinosaur, unloved by investors, the public, and policymakers alike. The crisis could prove terminal."
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".
USA: The most dramatic story this year has been the bankruptcy filing of US nuclear giant Westinghouse on March 29. Westinghouse's parent company Toshiba states that there is "substantial doubt" about Toshiba's "ability to continue as a going concern". These nuclear industry giants have been brought to their knees by cost overruns ‒ estimated at US$13 billion ‒ building four AP1000 power reactors in the U.S.
The nuclear debate in the US is firmly centred on attempts to extend the lifespan of ageing, uneconomic reactors with state bailouts. Financial bailouts by state governments in New York and Illinois are propping up ageing reactors, but a proposed bailout in Ohio is meeting stiff opposition. The fate of Westinghouse and its partially-built AP1000 reactors are much discussed, but there is no further discussion about new reactors ‒ other than to note that they won't happen.
Six reactors have been shut down over the past five years in the US, and another handful will likely close in the next five years. So how far and fast will nuclear fall? Exelon ‒ the leading nuclear power plant operator in the US ‒ claims that "economic and policy challenges threaten to close about half of America's reactors" in the next two decades. According to pro-nuclear lobby group 'Environmental Progress', almost one-quarter of US reactors are at high risk of closure by 2030, and almost three-quarters are at medium to high risk. In May, the US Energy Information Administration released an analysis projecting nuclear's share of the nation's electricity generating capacity will drop from 20 percent to 11 percent by 2050.
There are different views about how far and fast nuclear will fall in the US ‒ but fall it will. And there is no dispute that many plants are losing money. More than half of the country's reactors are losing money, racking up losses totalling about US$2.9 billion a year according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And a separate Bloomberg report found that expanding state aid to money-losing reactors across the eastern US may leave consumers on the hook for as much as US$3.9 billion a year in higher power bills.
Japan: Fukushima clean-up and compensation cost estimates have doubled and doubled again and now stand at US$191 billion (€167 billion). An analysis by the Japan Institute for Economic Research estimates that the total costs for decommissioning, decontamination and compensation could be far higher at US$443‒620 billion (€389‒544 billion).
Only five reactors are operating in Japan as of July 2017, compared to 54 before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. The prospects for new reactors are bleak. Japan has given up on its Monju fast breeder reactor ‒ successive governments wasted US$10.6 billion (€9.3 billion) on Monju and decommissioning will cost another US$2.7 billion (€2.3 billion).
As mentioned, Toshiba is facing an existential crisis due to the crippling debts of its subsidiary Westinghouse. Toshiba announced on May 15 that it expects to report a consolidated net loss of US$8.4 billion (€7.4 billion) for the 2016‒2017 financial year which ended March 31.
Hitachi is backing away from its plan to build two Advanced Boiling Water Reactors in Wylfa, Wales. Hitachi recently said that if it cannot attract partners to invest in the project before construction is due to start in 2019, the project will be suspended.
Hitachi recently booked a massive loss on a failed investment in laser enrichment technology in the US. A 12 May 2017 statement said the company had posted an impairment loss on affiliated companies' common stock of US$1.66 billion (€1.46 billion) for the fiscal year ended 31 March 2017, and "the major factor" was Hitachi's exit from the laser enrichment project. Last year a commentator opined that "the way to make a small fortune in the uranium enrichment business in the U.S. is to start with a large one."
France: The French nuclear industry is in its "worst situation ever" according to former EDF director Gérard Magnin. France has 58 operable reactors and just one under construction.
Bloomberg noted in April 2015 that Areva's EPR export ambitions are "in tatters". Now Areva itself is in tatters and is in the process of a government-led restructure and another taxpayer-funded bailout. On March 1, Areva posted a €665 million net loss for 2016. Losses in the preceding five years exceeded €10 billion.
In February, EDF released its financial figures for 2016: earnings and income fell and EDF's debt remained steady at €37.4 billion. EDF plans to sell €10 billion of assets by 2020 to rein in its debt, and to sack up to 7,000 staff. The French government provided EDF with €3 billion in extra capital in 2016 and will contribute €3 billion towards a €4 billion capital raising this year. On March 8, shares in EDF hit an all-time low a day after the €4 billion capital raising was launched; the share price fell to €7.78, less than one-tenth of the high a decade ago.
EDF has set aside €23 billion to cover reactor decommissioning and waste management costs in France ‒ just less than half of the €54 billion that EDF estimates will be required. A recent report by the French National Assembly's Commission for Sustainable Development and Regional Development concluded that there is "obvious under-provisioning" and that decommissioning and waste management will take longer, be more challenging and cost much more than EDF anticipates.
In 2015, concerns about the integrity of some EPR pressure vessels were revealed, prompting investigations that are still ongoing. Last year, the scandal was magnified when the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) announced that Areva had informed it of "irregularities in components produced at its Creusot Forge plant." The problems concern documents attesting to the quality of parts manufactured at the site. At least 400 of the 10,000 quality documents reviewed by Areva contained anomalies. Work at the Creusot Forge foundry was suspended in the wake of the scandal and Areva is awaiting ASN approval to restart the foundry.
French Environment and Energy Minister Nicolas Hulot said on June 12 that the Government plans to close some nuclear reactors to reduce nuclear's share of the country's power mix. "We are going to close some nuclear reactors and it won't be just a symbolic move," he said.
India: Nuclear power accounts for just 3.4 percent of electricity supply in India and that figure will not rise significantly, if at all. In May, India's Cabinet approved a plan to build 10 indigenous pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR). That decision can be read as an acknowledgement that plans for six Westinghouse AP1000 reactors and six French EPR reactors are unlikely to eventuate.
The plan for 10 new PHWRs faces major challenges. Suvrat Raju and M.V. Ramana noted: "[N]uclear power will continue to be an expensive and relatively minor source of electricity for the foreseeable future. ... The announcement about building 10 PHWRs fits a pattern, often seen with the current government, where it trumpets a routine decision to bolster its "bold" credentials. Most of the plants that were recently approved have been in the pipeline for years. Nevertheless, there is good reason to be sceptical of these plans given that similar plans to build large numbers of reactors have failed to meet their targets, often falling far short."
South Africa: An extraordinary High Court judgement on April 26 ruled that much of South Africa's nuclear new-build program is without legal foundation. The High Court set aside the Ministerial determination that South Africa required 9.6 gigawatts (GW) of new nuclear capacity, and found that numerous bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements were unconstitutional and unlawful. President Jacob Zuma is trying to revive the nuclear program, but it will most likely be shelved when Zuma leaves office in 2019 (if he isn't removed earlier). Energy Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said on June 21 that South Africa will review its nuclear plans as part of its response to economic recession.
South Korea: South Korea's new 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. President Moon said: "We will completely re-examine the existing policies on nuclear power. We will scrap the nuclear-centred polices and move toward a nuclear-free era. We will eliminate all plans to build new nuclear plants."
Since the presidential election on May 9, the ageing Kori-1 reactor has been permanently shut down, work on two partially-built reactors (Shin Kori 5 and 6) has been suspended pending a review, and work on two planned reactors (Shin-Hanul 3 and 4) has been stopped.
Taiwan: Taiwan's Cabinet reiterated on June 12 the government's resolve to phase out nuclear power. The government remains committed to the goal of decommissioning the three operational nuclear power plants as scheduled and making Taiwan nuclear-free by 2025, Cabinet spokesperson Hsu Kuo-yung said.
UK: Tim Yeo, a former Conservative politician and now a nuclear industry lobbyist with New Nuclear Watch Europe, said the compounding problems facing nuclear developers in the UK "add up to something of a crisis for the UK's nuclear new-build programme." The lobby group noted delays with the EPR reactor in Flamanville, France and the possibility that those delays would flow on to the two planned EPR reactors at Hinkley Point; the lack of investors for the proposed Advanced Boiling Water Reactors at Wylfa; the acknowledgement by the NuGen consortium that the plan for three AP1000 reactors at Moorside faces a "significant funding gap"; and the fact that the Hualong One technology which China General Nuclear Power Corporation hopes to deploy at Bradwell in Essex has yet to undergo its generic design assessment.
The only reactor project with any momentum in the UK is Hinkley Point, based on the French EPR reactor design. The head of one of Britain's top utilities said on June 19 that Hinkley Point is likely to be the only nuclear project to go ahead in the UK. Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive officer of SSE, an energy supplier and former investor in new nuclear plants, said: "The bottom line in nuclear is that it looks like only Hinkley Point will get built and Flamanville needs to go well for that to happen."
There is growing pressure for the obscenely expensive Hinkley Point project to be cancelled. The UK National Audit Office report released a damning report on June 23. The Audit Office said: "The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy's deal for Hinkley Point C has locked consumers into a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits ... Today's report finds that the Department has not sufficiently considered the costs and risks of its deal for consumers. ... Delays have pushed back the nuclear power plant's construction, and the expected cost of top-up payments under the Hinkley Point C's contract for difference has increased from £6 billion to £30 billion."
Writing in the Financial Times on May 26, Neil Collins said: "EDF, of course, is the contractor for that white elephant in the nuclear room, Hinkley Point. If this unproven design ever gets built and produces electricity, the UK consumer will be obliged to pay over twice the current market price for the output. ... The UK's energy market is in an unholy mess ... Scrapping Hinkley Point would not solve all of [the problems], but it would be a start."
And on it goes. Hinkley Point is one of the "great spending dinosaurs of the political dark ages" according to The Guardian. It is a "white elephant" according to an editorial in The Times.
EDF said on June 26 that it is conducting a "a full review of the costs and schedule of the Hinkley Point C project" and the results will be disclosed "soon". On July 3, EDF announced that the estimated cost has risen by €2.5 billion (to €23.2 billion, or €30.4 billion including finance costs). In 2007, EDF was boasting that Britons would be using electricity from Hinkley to cook their Christmas turkeys in December 2017. But in its latest announcement, EDF pushes back the 2025 start-up dates for the two Hinkley reactors by 9‒15 months.
Former Ecologist editor, Oliver Tickell and Ian Fairlie wrote an obituary for Britain's nuclear renaissance in The Ecologist on May 18. They concluded: "[T]he prospects for new nuclear power in the UK have never been gloomier. The only way new nuclear power stations will ever be built in the UK is with massive political and financial commitment from government. That commitment is clearly absent. So yes, this finally looks like the end of the UK's 'nuclear renaissance'."
Switzerland: Voters in Switzerland 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.
Germany will close its last reactor much sooner than Switzerland, in 2022.
Sweden: Unit 1 of the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden has been permanently shut down. It was to be shut down on June 29, but an abnormal event on June 17 led to an automatic shut down and the reactor will not be restarted. Unit 2 at the same plant was permanently shut down in 2015. Ringhals 1 and 2 are expected to be shut down in 2019‒2020, after which Sweden will have just six operating power reactors.
Russia: Rosatom deputy general director Vyacheslav Pershukov said in mid-June that the world market for the construction of 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."
China: With 36 power reactors and another 22 under construction, China is the only country with a significant nuclear expansion program. However nuclear growth could take a big hit in the event of economic downturn. And nuclear growth could be derailed by a serious accident, which is all the more likely because of China's inadequate nuclear safety standards, inadequate regulation, lack of transparency, repression of whistleblowers, world's worst insurance and liability arrangements, security risks, and widespread corruption.
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor, published 20 times a year, has been publishing deeply researched, often critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!