From declining support for nuclear in Europe, to rapidly expanding investment in renewables in China, the future for nuclear has never looked worse.
It was like a fanfare: The lobby organ World Nuclear News announced that “American safety regulators gave the go-ahead today for the construction of two new nuclear power reactors” in Vogtle, Georgia. The news went around the world. This was on 9 February 2012. The fact that the head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted against his four colleagues as he “could not support issuing this license as if Fukushima had not happened” caused far less of a stir. Nevertheless this development is certainly a historical moment. Since 1973 there has been no order in the United States for a nuclear power plant that has actually been built. In fact more orders have been cancelled than carried out.
Fukushima – a Mere Incident?
Just two months after the event which has gone down in history as 311 (three-eleven like 911) Hans Blix, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared: “Fukushima is a bump in the road…” – nothing more than a stumbling block on the path of nuclear development. This astounding utterance is fatally reminiscent of that comment of Morris Rosen, then head of the IAEA’s nuclear safety department under Blix, who, on the 28 August 1986, four months after Tschernobyl powerfully expressed his firm conviction as a nuclear fanatic in “Le Monde” saying: “Even if an accident of this kind occurred every year, I would consider nuclear power an attractive source of energy”.
It now seems little wonder that recently in January 2012 an “IAEA team of experts” only took one week to confirm the quality of their “nuclear stress tests” to the Japanese authorities – at their suggestion and as a supposed milestone for stranded reactors to resume operation. Nevertheless, as of the end of March 2012, only one of the 54 Japanese reactors is generating power. And by early May 2012 the remaining reactor has to be disconnected from the grid for refuelling and inspections.
My last trip to Tokyo, Yokohama and Fukushima in January 2012 brought home to me just how traumatised the population is by the three-fold—earthquake–tsunami–nuclear—catastrophe. The government under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appears resolute in returning as many reactors as possible to the grid in the shortest time possible with the blessing of the IAEA playing an important part in the process. The civil society—three quarters of which, according to surveys, are in favour of a nuclear phase-out—is equally determined to fight tooth and nail against any return to operation. At a press conference in September 2011, Noda personally pledged to respect the opinion of the local communities. A fierce battle has broken out. The country is divided.
With a Mega Event on 14-15 January 2012 in Yokohama, nuclear critics made an impressive demonstration of how they can now mobilise support in all sectors of society. Over a period of two days a total of 11,500 experts, artists, environmentalists, farmers, representatives of city, prefecture, country and European Parliament (including delegations from 30 countries) gathered in the undoubtedly largest international nuclear phase-out conference in history.
The Catastrophe Has Reinforced the Tendency Towards a Nuclear Phase-Out in Several Countries
In an Italian referendum, 94% spoke out against President Berlusconi’s planned return to nuclear energy. In France the political party consensus of the major parties has been broken. While the conservative, (still) President Nicolas Sarkozy rushes from one nuclear site to the next in order to affirm his total support for nuclear energy, thereby demonstratively distancing himself from his socialist rival François Hollande who is far ahead in the polls, three quarters of the French population now support the phase-out according to various surveys. While Hollande still dithers in his plan to reduce the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power from 75% to 50% by 2025 – a sensation in nuclear dependent France – his party leader Martine Aubry and her deputy Harlem Désir are quite simply calling for a phase-out. The forthcoming presidential elections on 6 May 2012 are turning into nuclear elections.
In the meantime, French nuclear companies are faring very badly. The shares in EDF (Electricité de France), the state-owned energy giant and largest nuclear operator in the world, have lost 80% of their value since 2007, hardly any better than the dramatic crash of their Japanese counterpart TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), which it must be remembered is having to cope with a certain event in Fukushima. As a result of unfinished ventures in Italy and the USA, EDF has had to absorb losses of a billion Euros and a billion dollars. Industry partner AREVA, the largest nuclear group in the world and also four fifths owned by the French state, has lost as much as 75% of its share value since 2007. Worse still, AREVA made a loss of 2.4 billion Euros in 2011. One week after the disastrous result became apparent in December 2011, Standard & Poor’s down-rated AREVA’s credit rating to BBB-, just one notch above the status of speculative junk bonds. However, AREVA’s rating in the SACP category (stand alone credit profile) – the evaluation of its company performance without factoring in governmental support which is estimated as extremely high – is firmly in the junk area, just above the “highly speculative” level. Who will be willing to lend this company any money for investment and at what interest rate?
The hard winter days of recent weeks have not exactly proved a beacon for the brilliance of French energy strategists. Having virtually gloated in their prediction that Germany, as a result of its nuclear energy phase-out, would soon have to rely on French nuclear electricity, the captains of industry and government leaders have now had to grit their teeth and admit that France had to import massive amounts of electricity from Germany (as it has been the case for many years by the way). A third of French, extremely badly insulated flats depend on electric space heating. If the temperature drops by one degree centigrade, the capacity requirement suddenly increases by 2,300 MW. As a result the peak demand in those days rose to over 100,000 MW. The French were then more than happy for German coal and wind power stations to step in with several thousand megawatts.
And Then There’s China
China is the only country to be building nuclear power plants on a massive scale. 26 out of the 61 nuclear sites in the world are in China. Nuclear energy has only harnessed public opinion as a result of Fukushima, a Chinese NGO representative recently told me. He is too young to remember the one and a half million signatures collected within three months by Chinese citizens’ initiatives in the 1980s against the construction of the first imported nuclear plants in Daya Bay in the province of Guangdong.
The Chinese authorities were certainly deeply shocked by the Japanese disaster. Even though three new nuclear power plants have gone into operation in 2011, all new projects have been suspended for the time being. Contrary to all plans not one single construction site has been opened in 2011. There are signs of a series of measures and events that could considerably curb the further expansion of nuclear power in China. These include the limit on blocks per site, the questioning of the entire CPR1000 reactor series (the so-called second generation which now includes nearly all the plants that are in operation in the world), the call for costly, additional safety measures and an increasingly critical population. At the beginning of February 2012 in the eastern province of Anhui even the local authority protested in an official document against the construction of the Pengze nuclear power station. The greatest threat to the Chinese nuclear programme, however, comes from the competitors. The Chinese government is putting about five times what it is spending on nuclear energy into renewables. And it is cheaper and faster. For example, in 2011 alone, additional wind power stations were built with around 18,000 MW, more than ten times the newly commissioned nuclear power capacity. Wind turbines in China now represent a total of 63,000 MW, equivalent in capacity to the French nuclear fleet.
The Nuclear Industry Is Showing Obvious Signs of Aging
The idea that it is only the dramatic events in Japan that have upset the wondrous “renaissance” of nuclear energy is preposterous. As we have been pointing out for years with the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the nuclear industry has long since not even been able to replace facilities that are no longer operating as a result of their age or due to accidents.
The historical record of 444 reactors was reached as early as in 2002. In January 2012 it is statistically only 429 plants. This figure assumes that that all 10 Fukushima reactor units will not operate again. Although officially the Japanese government has so far definitely “retired” only four of the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s reactors, it is highly doubtful whether many other Japanese nuclear power stations will resume operating as well. For example, the three Onagawa reactors were much nearer the epicentre of the 311 earthquake than Fukushima. On the instructions of the former Prime Minister three Hamaoka reactors have been disconnected from the grid after new estimates raised the probability of the earthquake of the century to over 80 percent by 2030. The Tokai plant is just 100 km from Tokyo and is therefore regarded as particularly problematic. If we only add these seven reactors to the Fukushima ones that have been shut down, then there are fewer plants operating in the world than at the end of the 1980s. The highest number in the EU, 177 nuclear power stations, was reached as early as in 1989 and since then this has gone down by 44 to 133 units. The unrelenting gradual decline is turning ever more into a downhill slide.
This text first appeared in the Aargau Newspaper (Aargauer Zeitung) on the 3rd March 2012. It has been slightly modified and updated for the purpose of its publication on this page. You can find its first republication on the Heinrich Boell Stiftung website also.