While nuclear energy continues to play a role in political discussion and decision-making circles, the financial realities indicate it is a dying industry with no meaningful role in the future energy mix. Too costly, too slow to build, and too inefficient in an energy market heading away from the big grid system and toward distributed electricity generation, nuclear power simply offers too many serious drawbacks to remain viable.
When French government-owned EDF announced in late January that it would again delay a decision on whether or not to invest in Britain’s proposed Hinkley C nuclear power plant, another nail slammed noisily into the nuclear power coffin.
EDF, and its compatriot Areva, once basked in the spotlight of a coming nuclear “renaissance,” a future to be powered by Areva’s new European Pressurized Reactor (EPR). Touted as “revolutionary,” the EPR was to be “a reactor with an unparalleled level of security, extremely resistant to both internal and external risks.” Instead, Areva is bankrupt and reduced to junk bond status while the EPR represents one of the most abject failures in nuclear history.
The two European EPR construction sites – in France and Finland – are mired in cost-overruns and delays. These problems have been compounded at the Flamanville site in France by the discovery of serious technical flaws in the reactor pressure vessel, the key to containment. The same forge was used for Areva’s two EPRs under construction in Taishan, China. A decision to dismantle and reforge the pressure vessels at Flamanville and Taishan could deal a financial deathblow to both projects. Flamanville is already five years late and costs there have trebled.
In Finland at the Olkiluoto EPR site, now 10 years behind and double the original cost, EDF has balked at taking over Areva’s dire financial liabilities, particularly given the on-going legal squabbling between Areva and the project’s Finish owner, TVO.
Hinkley C, which is slated for two EPRs, perfectly exemplifies why nuclear power is no longer – and arguably never was – practical as a sound financial energy choice. Despite receiving one of the most lavish incentives possible from the UK government – a guaranteed rate of £92.50 for every unit of electricity, more than double the current market price – EDF still may walk away.
This has led the UK Parliament’s National Audit Office to describe the Hinkley project as almost “undeliverable”. How much financing, then, is enough?
“Nuclear power construction requires huge money,” says Hiroaki Nakanishi, chief of Hitachi whose UK subsidiary Horizon, is displaying growing misgivings about its plan to build a reactor at Wylfa in Wales. “Hinkley Point [raises questions] about what are the real solutions for setting up financial support,” Nakanishi told the Daily Telegraph.
With corporations balking, there was a justifiable air of desperation among the nuclear promoters who gathered in Paris last December during the COP21 climate talks, in what was likely their last ditch attempt at relevance in the global climate change debate.
Former NASA chief, James Hansen, once the climate change oracle, has transmogrified into a nuclear evangelist, hawking so-called “new” nuclear reactor designs. After the nuclear shutout in Paris, Hansen trashed the talks as “a fraud” and “a fake,” but the tantrum reeked of sour grapes. Despite the full court press in Paris, nuclear was swept aside by its own last gasp economics and its undeniable impracticalities, which Hansen, Bill Gates and other billionaire boosters consistently fail to address.
All eyes instead were on renewable energy. The year 2015 saw unprecedented progress during which 64GW of wind and 57GW of solar PV was commissioned, an increase of nearly 30% over 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.1 Bloomberg noted that dollar investment in renewables globally soared to nearly six times the 2004 total and a new record of one third of a trillion dollars.
These numbers are supported by the empirical data found in the independent World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR),2 produced annually and whose 2015 edition concluded: “There now seems to be general recognition that the falling production costs of renewable energy technologies, particularly solar photovoltaics (PV), coupled with the expected falling costs of electricity storage, will accelerate the transformation of the power sector.”3
Indeed, it is the agility of renewable energy that is contributing to the poor economic outlook for nuclear power, as the 2015 WNISR points out. Large, centralised power stations that rely on baseload, such as nuclear and coal, “that cannot rapidly react to the resultant changing prices and/or demand will increasingly have to continue to generate when they are no longer needed or when they are operating at a loss. As solar or wind power have no fuel costs, they are able to produce power at lower cost and therefore will enter the market, unless obstructed, whenever they are able to generate,” the WNISR states.4
Such “obstruction” has been rampant in the UK with renewables now “on a cliff edge,” according to analyst, Paul Dorfman, founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group. The real danger of Hinkley is not that it will one day be built, which seems unlikely, but that it is stifling renewable energy development in the UK. As Dorfman explained it: “Because the government will be contractually obliged to provide on-going State Aid for the incredibly long 35-year Hinkley contract, there will simply be very little money left over for renewables.”
As former Japan Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, recently asked a UK Parliamentary briefing organised by Nuclear Free Local Authorities, why “take the decision to go with nuclear power and risk the survival of a nation?” Given that 14 countries are still building new nuclear plants – and Japan is beginning restarts – the arguments against nuclear power bear repeating.
Nuclear power is too slow. From design concept to electricity generation can take decades and most timeframes are wildly under-estimated leading to massive cost-overruns. The record holder is the US. Watts-Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee, which may come on line this year but will have taken more than 43 years to reach completion. Climate change cannot wait for such a lumbering pace. Nuclear plants take at least twice if not three times as long from concept to electricity generation as wind, solar and geothermal. Furthermore, a handful or even a few score of new nuclear plants will not make a meaningful dent in greenhouse gas reduction.
Nuclear power is too expensive. Nuclear projects are massively expensive – the two-reactor Hinkley project is currently estimated at $37.9 billion – with often unpredictable costs that tend to balloon over time. These extreme costs make new nuclear plants unacceptable to investors and utility companies even when the deal gets sweetened with subsidies. In the US, Constellation Energy was awarded a $7.5 billion federal loan guarantee to build a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland. Yet Constellation abandoned the project (another EPR fatality) because they were unwilling to gamble an 11% interest investment on the economically dubious venture.
Nuclear power is too dangerous. Kan was Japan’s prime minister when the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant first began on March 11, 2011. When advisors showed him a map of the “worst case scenario,” he realised he was facing the potential evacuation of 50 million people, including all of Tokyo. That would have been the unthinkable outcome had the Fukushima meltdowns ignited nuclear waste in onsite storage ponds and cascaded into a radiological disaster for the region’s ten reactors and 11 spent fuel pools. Luck averted such a catastrophe, but Kan, who now opposes nuclear energy, realised the risks were just too great. “As a state, our very survival would have been questioned,” he said. Even still, more than 100,000 evacuees forced to flee the Fukushima nuclear disaster still languish in misery and dislocation in Japan.
The nuclear waste problem is unsolved. Nuclear power plants produce some of the deadliest waste on earth – long-lasting radioactive isotopes that have nowhere safe or permanent to go. This waste, some of which is dangerous for millennia, sits at nuclear reactor sites in the irradiated fuel pools or poorly protected casks vulnerable to leakage or sabotage. Yet we continue to generate more deadly waste without a scientifically viable plan for its permanent stewardship. No country in the world has yet opened a high-level radioactive waste repository nor found a geologically and ethically perfect site.
Nuclear power plants routinely release radiation. Releases of radioactive gases and liquids into the environment are a routine part of nuclear power plant operation and not without significant health consequences. An analysis of multiple European studies by Dr. Ian Fairlie and Dr. Alfred Körblein found “a highly statistically significant 37% increase in childhood leukemias within 5 km of almost all nuclear power plants in the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland.”5
“New” reactors are nuclear wolves in sheep’s clothing. There is nothing really “new” about any of the proposed reactor designs currently being touted – whether “small modular” or “fast”. They are ideas recycled from the previously discarded and failed models of the 1950s and ‘60s. Fast reactors have a lamentable history of fires and inefficiency, while SMRs promise to be uneconomical due to their reduced size. As Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) points out, “a 1,100 MWe plant would cost only about three times as much to build as a 180 MWe version, but would generate six times the power, so the capital cost per kilowatt would be twice as great for the smaller plant.”6 Unsurprisingly, there remain no buyers for “Generation IV” or Small Modular reactors.
Thorium-fueled reactors are not the answer. Thorium does not represent the better nuclear mousetrap as some are eager to claim. As a UCS fact sheet explains, “Thorium cannot be used by itself to sustain a nuclear chain reaction: it must be used together with a fissile material such as enriched uranium, uranium-233, or plutonium. Nuclear reactors fueled with thorium and uranium do not provide any clear overall advantages over reactors fueled with uranium alone.”7
Fusion is an illusion. Fusion, which has long been the elusive dream of physicists, rests in an indefinite state of “still decades away,” and is even more exorbitantly expensive than traditional fission. The biggest fusion project, known as ITER, is only a 500 mw precursor to an eventual fusion power plant; would not itself generate electricity; and is already running to $14 billion and counting. Even if fusion is achieved at some later date, it will be an expensive and high-tech energy source entirely inappropriate to the developing countries that will be most in need of fast, cheap, distributed electricity.
Nuclear power discriminates against the most vulnerable. Environmental racism abounds in the nuclear sector, particularly at the front and back ends of the uranium fuel chain. Uranium mining is invariably carried out by indigenous people on their land. Once the mines close, corporations abandon these communities, leaving behind contaminated lands and water supplies and epidemics of mining-related illnesses. Governments and industry typically also target disadvantaged communities for the dumping of reactor waste.
Nuclear can’t be adequately insured. Insurance companies won’t touch nuclear power plants. In the US, under the Price-Anderson Act, industry liability coverage is capped at $12 billion per accident. In the UK, it’s an even more ludicrous $200 million per accident. The costs of the 1986 Chernobyl, Ukraine nuclear disaster are estimated in excess of $400 billion and the still climbing costs of the Fukushima nuclear disaster at $150 billion. This leaves a daunting and potentially debilitating financial burden for taxpayers in any country experiencing a catastrophic nuclear event.
Nuclear power is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons. The flawed Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty “rewards” signatory countries that promise not to build nuclear weapons with “the inalienable right” to develop nuclear power. This simply provides the technology, materials and expertise for potential nuclear weapons development and, especially in the case of the Middle East and South Asia, puts nuclear materials into a highly insecure – and often black – marketplace.
In the US, there is continued political interest as well as government funding for new nuclear reactor research projects. But this federal support is largely a meatless bone thrown to a dying industry to placate lobbyists and laboratories that have lost their raison d’être.
As Dorfman told the UK parliamentary briefing, “the next industrial revolution will be renewable energy.” In 2011, the World Wildlife Fund and Ecofys released a study that mapped out how the entire planet could be run solely on renewable energy by 2050.8 Germany, for one, is taking that opportunity seriously.
Reports of the death of nuclear energy are no longer exaggerated. The only real debate left is which nail will be the last one to be hammered into the industry’s ever flimsier coffin.
About the Author
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a non-governmental environmental advocacy group based just outside Washington, DC. A British-born former journalist, she is a frequent writer and commentator for progressive and alternative media outlets on climate change, the detriments of nuclear energy, the preferable renewable energy alternatives and the nuclear power-nuclear weapons connection.
1. Clean energy defies fossil fuel price crash to attract record $329bn global investment in 2015. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, January 14, 2016. http://about.bnef.com/press-releases/clean-energy-defies-fossil-fuel-price-crash-to-attract-record-329bn-global-investment-in-2015/
2. World Nuclear Industry Status Report. http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/-2015-.html
3. 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report. http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/WNISR-2015-browse-online.html
5. Childhood Leukemias Near Nuclear Power Stations. Dr. Ian Fairlie, July 25, 2014. http://www.ianfairlie.org/news/childhood-leukemias-near-nuclear-power-stations-new-article/
6. Small Isn’t Always Beautiful. Safety, Security, and Cost Concerns about Small Modular Reactors. Dr. Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists, September 2013. http://www.ucsusa.or/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/small-isnt-always-beautiful.pdf
7. Union of Concerned Scientists Statement on Thorium-fueled Reactors. http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/thorium-reactors-statement.pdf
8. The Energy Report. 100% Renewable Energy by 2050. WWF and Ecofys. 2011 http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/climate_carbon_energy/energy_solutions/renewable_energy/ sustainable_energy_report/