In my prior articles I’ve pointed out, that the nuclear energy industry faces major challenges in the future, something that I’ve been saying long before Fukushima. Chief among these problems, is that the costs of new nuclear build (see my prior covering of this matter here) have ballooned dramatically and the nuclear industry have clearly been “found out” by the markets. The Olkiluoto plant, the flagship project of the (please don’t laugh) Nuclear Renaissance, is stuck in the doldrums and significantly over budget .
To make matters worse, coming up fast on nuclear’s inside lane is the renewables industry, who stand poised to over take nuclear in the future (and we will wave politely as we go past J). Some 80 GW’s of renewables were added in 2009, roughly double the fastest ever achieved build rate of nuclear (in the 70’s). While the costs of nuclear have spiralled out of control, the costs of renewable have fallen dramatically over the last few decades. While the nuclear industry remains wedded to a concept based on large corporations which can only survive (in a rapidly contracting) bubble of state funding, by contrast the renewables industry consists, by and large, of lots of small to medium sized businesses, most of whom function in the real world of market capitalism.
The image of you’re renewable company boss as a dope smoking, sandal wearing hippy (on a rusty bicycle) is a thing of the past. These days he’s likely to be wearing an expensive suit and show up to meetings driving a car (and if he really wants to fit the stereo-type it will be a Toyota Prius or a Lexus Hybrid). While still somewhat dependant on subsidies, many in the renewable industry look forward to the day when this will not be necessary, due to falling costs for them and rising costs for their competitors (including nuclear energy).
If present trends continue, i.e renewable costs keep falling, nuclear costs stay high and/or continue to rise, then a slow down of nuclear building worldwide is a real possibility. If the nuclear industry continues its current polices, i.e basically ignoring economic reality, sooner or later the laws of economic gravity will reassert themselves. This will mean a lot of cancelled plants and some rather expensive holes in the ground.
In my previous article I discussed the likely situation in France (i.e that the rapidly escalating costs of nuclear reactor building and decommissioning will eventually push the French exchequer to the brink of bankruptcy, or beyond). Using a similar approach lets now take a look at other countries around the world, both what should happen and what’s likely to happen. We can then judge as to what chance there is of this fabled nuclear renaissance. Will it happen or not? or indeed will it turn into a nuclear nightmare for countries who find themselves caught in a trap of spiralling decommissioning costs.
The history of the UK nuclear industry, is neatly summarised here, but I’ll give you an even shorter and more abrupt summary – the UK nuclear industry formed themselves into three camps, one advocating gas cooled reactors, another plumbing for PWR’s and the real head cases joined the Fast Reactor gang. These three groups essentially fought a war of annihilation against each other over several decades, effectively in the end (in the 1980’s), backstabbing each other all at once. The end result was like something out of that final scene in Reservoir Dogs (except in this case Nice guy Eddie shot himself….in the foot!). Then “the” Thatcher showed up and sacked everyone. She also destroyed much of Britain’s manufacturing industry (far more of it in fact that Herman Goring could ever have dreamed of knocking out). As a result the UK no longer has the industrial means to build nuclear power stations; at least without substantial help from abroad (the last UK nuclear power station, Sizewell B, was largely an American build affair). Furthermore the loss of this industry also eliminated the bulk of what nuclear power was supposed to do for Britain – generate baseload electricity for heavy industry.
The UK has some of the best renewable resources in Europe, if anyone can make renewables work it’s the Brits. This applies most particularly up in Scotland. The Highlands have a multitude of different locations for wind energy sites, both onshore and off, there’s the option of Wave energy, Tidal energy, you’re practically tripping over hydro plants in the highlands too (important as they can be used to balance out the peaks and troughs of wind energy). Contrary to what you might think the UK does get quite a bit of sunlight, even in winter time and there’s even some geothermal potential down in Cornwall.
And if for some reason a shortfall between renewables output and UK energy demand occurs, they still have vast coal reserves and quite a bit of gas to rely on, including some shale gas deposits. Carbon Capture and Storage is a bit of a dubious concept in the rest of Europe, basically where do you put the CO2 underground without running the risk of it leaking back out again? But the UK has the ideal repository, old disused gas fields off the North Sea.
I should note however that the jury still out on CCS, both in terms of its economics and carbon capture capabilities. There is an urgent need to do some feasibility study’s using large power stations. Also we mustn’t neglect the downstream greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels. Coal has quite significant downstream gas emissions due to the leakage of methane gas from coal mines. Recently a report from Cornell university (article’s here and here, the actual report here) suggest natural gas isn’t as clean as we think. And that Shale gas could well be worse than coal, as far as pollution in general and greenhouse gas emissions are concerned (even if we implement CCS). So obviously if CCS is to be embarked on in the UK there would be a firm need to firstly establish its feasibility and get the necessary R& D off the ground pronto. As well as a need to hold the fossil fuel industries feet to the fire to make sure they comply with all necessary regulations. And we’d need to accept gas and coal as, at best, a temporary crutch while we get renewable up to speed.
Baring a failure to get renewables and CCS going fast enough, then there maybe a case for nuclear, but only a fairly limited one. The lack of heavy industry means Britain’s grid, especially a future one with lots of windfarms on it, is a bad fit for nuclear energy. Basically the stuff on the grid now is mostly domestic energy use (read kettles, Nintendo DS’s, Plasma TV’s, Air-con units, etc.) rather than big heavy industrial kit (that’s usually on more or less all the time). This domestic grid has a demand that varies considerably during the day, depending on what people are doing, and indeed what’s on Coronation Street or Eastenders (they have someone in the UK grid control room watching the end of the episodes and making a split decision on whether to fire up a hydro plant or two depending on how the episode pans out and when it ends). Nuclear reactors unfortunately like to be on all the time, they can supply some of this base load yes, but only at the expense of cheaper renewable options. The bulk of the shortfall will have to be made up by more variable and flexible energy sources.
The biggest source of energy use in the UK is for heat generation (home heating and industrial applications, roughly 45% of total UK final energy use involved heat generation), which is mostly supplied by fossil fuel fired boilers. Electricity generation, where the intermittency of some renewable sources becomes an issue, accounts for between 9-15% of total UK energy use. The quickest, cheapest and easiest way to make a big cut in carbon emissions, would be to replace as much of these heat loads as possible with CHP (which is proven technology). These CHP units (ranging in size from home boiler units right the way up to power station scale units) would supply the bulk of baseload power with a small number of large thermal power stations (with CCS) and hydroelectric being utilised to fill in the gap and even out the peaks and troughs between variable demand (i.e domestic electricity consumption) and variable supply (from renewables). Energy storage options of various forms (pumped, battery, hydrogen production) would then increasingly figure, eventually replacing the thermal power stations as the renewable penetration on the grid increases. Thus the only role for nuclear in the UK would be to temporarily occupy a relatively narrow wedge of baseload power, between the maximum baseload demand and the minimum summer output of the CHP units. And Tri-generation would allow the CHP units to cool as well as heat, meaning they could also be used to meet much of the summer cooling load as well, further denting the need for nuclear. And stricter energy conservation measures could easily eliminate even this need altogether.
Of course, it’s also likely that the slightly higher costs of CHP (and a lack of government initiative and forward thinking) will scupper this roll out, as well as limit renewables up take. In which case we’ll let the markets decide, and they’ll, as always, slide down to the lowest common denominator, i.e large gas and coal fired power stations (without CCS) and probably as much wind as they can squeeze on the grid.
Indeed the only really compelling case for nuclear power in the UK, is that so many of the very nuttiest of its global cheerleaders are all Brits. This is why you have, I suspect, such a strong anti-wind movement here in the UK, many of whom are nuclear energy cheerleaders. They just can’t believe that anything can be better than their little sweetheart and nothing anyone says will change that view. They have in fact gone out of their way to sabotage many other indigenous energy projects in the past all in order to clear the path for nuclear. In essence having fought each other to a standstill, they’re attitude seems to be that if they can’t have their nuclear beauty on the grid, they much rather prefer there was no grid at all (a behaviour against the Renewables industry I refer to as “the jilted lover defence”). Hence why you often see nuclear industry supporters talking with glee about the prospects of the lights going out (ignoring the fact they’re meddling would be largely to blame if the lights did go out and as it takes so long to build nuclear plants it would be a silly idea to build them as a solution to a short term energy crisis…indeed I suspect if the lights did go out and we were midway through building any nuclear stations, these projects would be promptly abandoned in favour of fossil fuel plants and renewables).
The UK nuclear cheerleaders are also those most likely to overstate the potential impact of climate change. Let’s be clear, even the likely scenarios predicted by the IPCC are frightening enough reasons to act. But some of the UK nuclear cheerleader, notably the so-called “environmentalist” Lovelock (whose Gaia theory is I would note, little more than a piece of pseudoscience), have engaged in a campaign of distributing what I can only call “disaster porn” . However, my view, is that is “hard sell” approach is having the opposite effect, as its merely serving to convince many people that climate change is just one big huge con, and is thus making having a reasoned debate about climate issues very difficult.
Of course in order for the UK nuclear cheerleaders dream to come true, and it will at least in part probably happen now anyway, it will be to rely on the French to build these power stations (as opposed to British build Wave energy generators or anything like that…British jobs…for French workers?), at least until the French go bankrupt anyway (see pervious post), then Britain’s stuck with the mess and probably some very expensive half finished power stations. There is a chance sense will prevail as the Lib-dems don’t seem inclined to play along with this whole nuclear game, and seem determined to take the industry at its word “you don’t want subsidies, good! Cos you’re getting sod all!”. However, I suspect the Tory’s and Labour will figure out a way to slip them a few bob from time to time. The UK taxpayer will also, naturally, get stuck with the bill for clean up.
In all probability I suspect the announcement of about 6 to 8 or so new power stations in the UK, but I expect only 2 at most to be finished before the French Ponzi scheme runs its course. The remaining 4-5 will be abandoned at the planning stage or at various stages of completion.
– Project cancellation: On this point of cancelled plants, a brief aside here; there is this unfortunate double-glazing salesman-esque view among nuclear supporters that if we can just get our foot in the door and make a sale for a large order of reactors now, well surely the government (or banks) won’t abandon these projects mid-way through construction? Won’t they? http://clonemaster.homestead.com/files/cancel.htm
This link above is a list of 70 abandoned nuclear reactors in the US alone, mostly cancelled in the post TMI and Chernobyl era. While most were cancelled on the drawing board before ground was broken (although that was not a cost free decision when you consider the 1,000’s of man hours put into site survey’s, design, environmental impact, land purchase costs, etc.) many of these were cancelled part way through construction. Some were literally a few screw turns away from going online (see Shoreham ). Yes, the powers-that-be were quite happy to flush hundreds of millions of dollars (what would be billions in today’s money) down the toilet, once it became obvious that the economics of nuclear no longer added up and public support was no longer forth coming. Don’t anyone doubt for one minute that this can’t happen again.
Like the UK, the US has renewable resources a-plenty, and little real need for nuclear energy. Indeed it has every incentive to shun nuclear energy, as it has little Uranium of its own and, prior to the Tenure of Bush (jnr), they led the world in renewables technology. While Thatcher was busy turning the UK into a call centre, Reagan was busy turning the US into a giant Wal-Mart outlet for China. Hence, the heavy industrial baseload nuclear was meant to supply is no longer there anymore (only about 9-12% of the USA’s energy needs are electricity and only a small proportion of that is the critical baseload). And, as with the UK, if renewables can’t close the gap the US has plenty of fossil fuels, including vast deposits of Shale Gas not to mention Tar sands oil in their friendly (colony) to the north (that being Canada). The majority of Americans are also not nearly as concerned as those in Europeans about pollution and climate change, etc. Of course the US is also one of the countries due to take a heavy hit from climate change, the mid-west especially , but Americans have never been known for their strengths at long term planning.
Of course America’s reluctance to embrace renewable energy, which seems more driven by a “real men don’t use solar panels” mentality than anything else, does open a possible case for nuclear in the US. Unfortunately, the economics don’t add up, as this article here points out and the previous article I referenced regarding Calvert Cliffs. To me the Citigroup report (here) was clearly a shot across the bow of the US nuclear industry along the lines of “fool us once, shame on you, fool us twice shame on us”. The only way the financial services industry is going near nuclear power again with anything less than a 50ft barge pole is if the get a signed confession out of the US government guaranteeing that it will bail them out if and when everything goes pear shaped. Which raises the question, is Congress willing to do what the French do and sign a never ending line of blank cheques for the nuclear industry?
As I pointed out in my previous post, the US government, like the French, are not adverse to running Federally funded jobs programs (such as their military industrial complex, NASA, Medicare/Medicaid, etc.) with both Republican and Democrat alike being equally eager to dip their nose into the Federal feedlot. However, both parties have their own fiscally conservative wings, which sort of have this mantra along the lines of “if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it”. And every once in a while someone listens to the Libertarians, not very often mind, Ron Paul’s sort of the closest thing to a Court Jester that Congress has (well until Michelle Bachmann came along), but every now and then some of his policies are taken seriously. So a Federal funded nuclear energy jobs program on the scale of the scheme (or scam) the French are running is out of the question.
Again, as in the UK, nuclear power in North America has its fair share of nutty cheerleaders. It is of course ironic that so many of the loudest supporters of nuclear power, both sides of the pond, are also right winger’s or libertarians who hate “central planning” and “big government” (say both again in a dark menacing voice)….yet remain in favour of a energy source that is integrally linked to the concept of central planning and big government! Go online and you’ll find plenty of bloggers (here’s a good example of such craziness) who’ll give out about “big government”, high taxes and subsides to this, that and the other one minute (and where’s Obama’s birth cert)….and then write another post calling for massive Federal subsidies to their favoured pet nuclear project! Go figure!
Indeed some don’t even stop with simply calling for the replacement of a couple of the LWR’s. Many call for a megalomaniac scale roll out of a variety of largely untested and unproven reactor concepts, the ridiculous LTFR (Kool-Aid powered reactor) seems to be the current flavour of the month, at rates and costs figures that would be physically impossible to achieve.
Of course, Libertarians having a thin grasp of basic economics and science is hardly news. There are many other nutty Kool-Aid drinkers within the libertarian movement who follow other Cargo Cult sciences. I bring this up as it demonstrates the logic (or lack there of) behind these individuals as far as the nuclear debate goes. For example, there’s some who want to build a Lunar Colony (privately without government help) and begin mining the moon. http://www.asi.org/
These proposals fall flat for three rather obvious reasons. Firstly, we have nothing close to the technological capability to build and support such a large lunar colony. Secondly, even if we did, it would never be remotely economical viable, as compared to just mining the same stuff here on Earth (or just encouraging recycling or use a more abundant alternative). Finally, any lunar colony (now or in the future) would inevitably be heavily dependant on “big government” financial, scientific and logistical support. Even private space launch firms will still need some form of government life support in order to function, nevermind the fact that the bulk of what we send into space (again now and in the future) will be on behalf of “big government”, i.e weather, spy and GPS sats, space probes, ISS cargo, civil servants (or Astronauts as they’re sometimes called), etc.
The situation as regards these Kool-Aid campaigns for nuclear power (such as LTFR’s) are much the same. If they ever do make it into Congress it will be championed by the very same “big government” wings of the two parties the libertarians (and Tea party) oppose, used as a political football, then quietly ditched in favour of LWR’s.
The Americans will build some new reactors, you can count on that. But only on a small scale, and most likely only in states that matter in subsequent elections. Or in the home state of whoever is running the House Committee on Energy at the time. They will probably build at most 10-12 new plants, only a fraction of the current inventory of 104 reactors. On an installed capacity basis this would represent betweenn 12% (using only AP1000’s) and 18% (using only ESBWR’s) of current US installed nuclear capacity. Of course, the US will continue to peddle they’re little nuclear energy pyramid scheme on any unsuspecting world leader who makes the mistake of taking a short cut through their part of town – if the Americans can get to him before the French of course!
But the bulk of the USA’s future energy needs will come from Shale gas and Coal, with a bit of renewables here and there. I would note that contrary to what you’ve heard about Shale Gas, there just isn’t enough of it. At best I’ve estimated it can supply 7% of current US energy needs (I’ll explain that one in another day’s post, but my estimates are based DoE figures the link which suggest a maximum production rate from Shale gas of 79.6 mtoe….v’s a US primary energy consumption of 2,200 mote, i.e shale gas can only meet 3.6% of current US energy consumption!… so I’m assuming with 7% that the DoE is underestimating Shale gas potential by a factor of 2!). So Shale gas is great news if you’ve shares in a company involved in drilling for it (and a member of the good ol’boys network), or you’re a lawyer specialising in pollution and poisoning cases, but it’s not much use beyond that. Expect the Americans to figure this one out in about 20-30 years time, at which point with peak oil in full effect and them in the process of going bankrupt. Of course at this point the US will be unable to afford to commit to either renewables nor nuclear. They’ll just have to get used to walking everywhere 😉
Quite unusually, Germany is probably one of the few countries where a legitimate case for nuclear could be made. Their renewable resources are quite poor (compared to the British or French) and their population is quite large. Unlike the UK, they actually still make things in Germany, and hence have a heavy industrial base load electricity demand. I’m not entirely convinced that the Germans can close the gap without resorting to either nuclear or coal (and as mentioned even with CCS there is a risk of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the fact the Germans lack good locations to store greenhouse gases). However, Germany is one of the most rabidly anti-nuclear countries in the world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-nuclear_movement_in_Germany
As everywhere else, the Nuclear industry in Germany lied to the people during the cold war, and this has soured the relations between people and nuclear lobby to the point where not many Germans believe a word they say anymore (boy who cried wolf syndrome). The Germans took some fallout from Chernobyl. Also, during the cold war it was basically the policy of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, that if things kicked off, they would fight WW3 mostly in Germany, with tactical nuclear weapons eventually likely figuring, to the last living German. Consequently, it is very hard to see politically how the German nuclear industry can be revived now, especially after Fukushima.
Thus German is perhaps a warning to other nuclear industries; this is what will happen to you if you push the people too far. Even in situations where there is a genuine case for nuclear, people won’t want it anymore.
Post-Fukushima, it seems that the Japanese are going to undergo what alcoholics call a moment of clarity. Like a drunk after a hangover, they seem to be waking up with a pounding headache and wondering why the hell they drank so much of that Nuclear laced Kool-Aid, and why did they have to spend all that money on it. I suspect some nuclear building will continue, mostly thought this will be to replace older plants with new kit. Overall, I suspect that the amount of nuclear energy use in Japan will fall in the future. If they’ve any sense they’ll also cancel they’re various nuclear boondoggles like the Monju fast reactor and the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. As my little crystal ball gazing here suggests, a drop in overall nuclear use worldwide is now likely. Thus, the shortage of Uranium that prompted these facilities isn’t going to materialise (at least not for sometime) so they may as well save some cash. And it’s the cash issue that’s going to curb Japan’s nuclear enthusiasm. Japan , post-Tsunami, is basically broke. They cannot afford a large and expensive nuclear program anymore. They would be better off concentrating on their extensive renewables resources instead or energy conservation measures.
Again if one takes a logical approach, Russia has little to gain from nuclear energy. They have vast reserves of renewable energy potential within their country, easily enough to become a net energy exporter. The Kamchatka Peninsula has some of the best Geothermal potential on the planet, the Kola Bay and Gulf of Okhotsk have large tidal ranges, the great forests of Siberia have more biomass potential than you could shake a stick at, the might rivers of central Asia have great hydroelectric potential, the central planes of Russia (and Ukraine) are excellent sites for wind farms and the southern provinces by the Caspian and Black Seas have excellent solar energy potential. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_Russia
Unofortunately the “real men don’t use solar panels (or wind farms)” mentality exists even more so in Russia than in America. The Russian government is still run by petty bureaucrats who use they’re egos in preference to their brains. Many seem to think they’re still fighting a cold war (and btw guys, you lost!) with nuclear energy still forming a key part of their strategy. The vested interest of Russia’s many state sponsored industries makes France look like a libertarian paradise. Of course, chief among them are the Russian nuclear industry cheerleaders who, unlike their western colleagues, don’t even have to worry about such minor issues as to what a free press would make of their wacky ideas. This is why you occasionally hear ridiculous statements coming out from them about mining He-3 from the moon for Fusion reactors (which we don’t yet have) or plans to build vast fleets of Thorium-fluoride fuelled reactors.
The Russians are also even less concerned about the consequences of climate change than anyone else (indeed until this year’s heat wave many Russians assumed global warming might actually benefit them). And of course the nation’s foreign and domestic policy is dominated by a vast fossil fuel lobby. It is thus very difficult to envisage any change of direction from Russia in the future.
This means that Russia will almost certainly continue to operate nuclear reactors into the future. Unfortunately the Russians don’t have a terribly good safety record. It’s difficult to believe but they still have 11 of the Chernobyl style RMBK’s in operation. While they are slowly replacing them, they aren’t doing so nearly fast enough. The successor to the RMBK, is the venerable VVER series of reactors. These are at least a little closer to western standards of safety, but unfortunately certainly not equal to modern western designs. For example it has just 2 independent cooling loops against the 4 the EPR utilise. It lack the Gadolinium rods and boron injection system that new Gen III+ western PWR’s use. The concrete containment dome of the VVER is also not built to the same exacting standards. However, compared to the alternative (i.e the inherently flawed RMBK or the various other silly boondoggles the Russian nuclear industry would like to build, like liquid metal reactors) it’s a compromise I’m willing to accept. Until either an accident or a lack of cash stops them, I don’t see the Russians curtailing their current nuclear plans, job’s for the boys, too much vested interest, national pride, over inflated ego’s, etc., will all prevent any curtailment. On the bright side, they could do worse, so we should count ourselves lucky!
Of course, when I say “could do worse” I’m referring to Russian military nuclear program. If the civilian nuclear industry has a “bad” safety record, the military one is “abysmal”. The infamous Kyshtym Disaster vies with Chernobyl and Fukushima for the title of “worst nuclear accident ever”. This was but one of many incidents at the same Mayak reprocessing plant. In another incident they dumped so much nuclear waste into nearby Lake Karachay that it became one of the most polluted spots in human history. At one point, radiation levels got so high a couple of minutes exposure time on its shores would deliver a lethal dose of radiation. Eventually it started to dry out and radioactive dust from the lake bottom got blow out by the wind and began contamination across a wide area. Lead lined remote control bulldozers (similar to those used at Chernobyl) were brought into to clear up the mess. The lake has since been concreted over. In another incident (one of many) a worker earned himself a Darwin Award (in 1994) for trying to pour a solution of plutonium down a floor drain!
At least we can console ourselves that most of the more dangerous and ineptly managed of Russia’s nuclear facilities are far beyond the Ural mountains. Unfortunately, as Bellona (A Norwegian NGO) will tell you much of the Russian nuclear submarine fleet is either right at the West’s door step…..or rusting at the bottom of the world oceans! The US has lost but two Nuclear submarines, with faults related to the reactor likely having nothing to do with either sinking. The Soviets and Russians have lost 6 subs and suffered at least 8 meltdowns or serious leaks of radiation (that we know about) versus a total of 3 minor radiation related incidents for the US navy (a partial list of military nuclear accidents can be found here). Any hope that the West had, that Russia would adopt a more safety conscious attitude to its nuclear forces post-communism, were dashed by the loss of the Kursk (in 2000) and the sinking of the decommissioned November class sub K-159 (in 2003). While fortunately reactor problems did not play a huge role in either accident, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
It is then less than comforting to hear of Russia’s latest plan to deploy several of their nuclear reactors on what can be best described as barely seaworthy barges. They plan to float these out into the Artic Ocean to power various fossil fuel extraction projects. It is thus no surprise that Greenpeace and Bellona reacted with horror to this news, indeed I’ve even heard some criticism from pro-nuclear cheerleaders in the West about it (obviously anxious to avoid another Chernobyl-on-the-sea publicity train wreck). One could fill a book with the list of things that could go wrong here, not including the more obvious ones involving Vodka, Caviar and suicidal sailors!
Unfortunately it looks like the Russians will plough ahead with their nuclear plans regardless – until the next accident, which might either bankrupt them or generate enough opposition in the country to force a change in policy. On the plus side, the recent economic boom in the country means they can at least afford to clean up their nuclear mess, at least for the time being. Failing that they may have to resort to the old soviet tactic of trading space for safety, i.e abandon irradiated sections of the country. The real tragedy for Russia is that they will likely squander the country’s mineral wealth on a load of nuclear white elephants (not to mention the clean up bill) and have precious little with which to develop their renewable potential.
The Chinese have also recently wandered into the nuclear arena, but it now seems to be that they are wavering. My feeling, based on various indicators coming out of the country, is that the Politburo is beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of nuclear energy.
China is not that concerned about climate change (of course they should be, like the Americans & Indians they are going to take a sizable hit from it, but there not!). They have plenty of coal and don’t mind killing a dozen or so workers a week to get it. If they ever do go all touchy feely at some point in the future, then they already lead the world in renewables production (see here and here) so it would make more sense to run off lots of renewable systems than slow and expensive nuclear plants. China has only limited reserves of Uranium. Also, Fukushima has let to grumblings across Asia about nuclear safety. The last thing the Chinese want to see happen is some environmental movement get going in the country, to protest about nuclear (as happened in so many other countries). As inevitably if such a movement gets wide spread support (and a nuclear accident in China could easily see to that), it could challenge the supremacy of the party. Red China has thus, nothing to gain and everything to loose from nuclear energy.
And even if, as I suspect is the case, the Chinese government sees nuclear as a national pride matter (my reactor is bigger than your reactor!), why have the French and the Americans in the country building reactors for them? The Chinese have consistently shown they can build anything faster and cheaper than any Western competitor. The only benefit of allowing these foreign companies into the country is so that the Chinese can pinch the blueprints off them.
I suspect therefore that post-Fukushima, we’ll see a slow stepping back from their former plans by the Chinese. This won’t take place immediately mind, the five year plan system means the real changes will take place in a few years time. Again, they’ll still keep building reactors, no doubt. However, this will be purely a national pride project, as well as a mechanism to ensure a steady stream of Plutonium to their nuclear arsenal. Of course, they’ll be building these reactors themselves from then on….which will bare a striking resemblance to a French or American design!
The two countries I’m genuinely worried about however, are India and Pakistan. Its bad enough that their both locked in a nuclear arms race with each other, and China, but also India is in a “my reactor/Buddha statue/submarines are bigger than yours are” contest with the Chinese.
Of all the countries that drank the nuclear Kool-Aid, the Indians drank of it the most. Indeed, they pretty much went back to the temple altar looking for a refill. The Indians have done everything you could possibly do wrong with a nuclear program. Until recently, their favoured reactor was the Candu (or Can-don’t) the world’s second most incompetently designed reactor after the Russian RMBK design. They went for reprocessing, MOX, Fast reactors and they even bought into the whole Thorium delusion. They also have ambitious plans to not only emulate the French but over take them in nuclear energy, the plan is to have 60,000 MW+ online within the next 30 years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_India
That said, in such a densely populated country as India it’s hard to envisage how else they will meet their energy requirements in future, without being heavily dependant on imports, unless they do build some nuclear reactors. But I wonder if they’ve thought through the long term implications. In short can they pay the decommissioning bill?
One down side of the Candu’s design is that because they rely on natural uranium, they generate much larger volumes of nuclear waste material than conventional LWR’s (on a mass basis about 2-3 times more). The same will likely apply for Thorium (due to its lower energy density). As I noted in my previous article it’s the final costs of nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning that will bite you in the end. I’m simply not convinced that if India sticks to its current nuclear plans that they can afford the costs of decommissioning on this scale. The economy of India is certainly growing, they have more billionaires than any other country, aside from America. India also has one of the world’s largest middle classes. But the vast majority of India’s population are extremely poor and likely to remain so for some time to come. Hence, they are, and will remain, a relatively poor country next to Western ones. Furthermore, climate change (and some is inevitably going to happen now anyway) is likely to hit India hard, which will of course have a number of negative economic and political consequences.
A serious nuclear accident in a poor, densely populated country like India would be no laughing matter. An accident in France would, worst case scenario, kill a few hundred to a thousand Europeans from radiation (over many decades) and render the whole question of whether Australian sparkling wine is Champagne or not, somewhat moot. A similar accident in India would likely kill tens of thousands of people, not through radiation poisoning, but starvation after their only source of sustenance (their land) was contaminated by fallout.
In the event that the French can’t pay their debts from Nuclear energy (and their other jobs programs) the worse case scenario is that they end up having they’re economy run by the Germans and they loose the European Parliament to Brussels. The worst case scenario for India is its economy collapses trying to pay off its nuclear liabilities, which brings down the government itself. It cannot resort to the Russian tactic of abandoning vast amounts of it nuclear waste in the middle of the Siberian steppe, India is too densely populated for that. Given what India’s likely to be put through in the coming decades as a result of climate change, one can unfortunately see it likely that, unless the Indians do curb their nuclear enthusiasm soon, we could see some major problems here in the future with loose nuclear material, both leaching into the environment or ending up in the hands of terrorists.
And if India is a worry, Pakistan is even more so. While the Pakistanis haven’t pursued quite such an ambitious civil nuclear program as India, they do have a very large military nuclear program. And given that their economy isn’t growing by nearly as much, nor is it as large as India, one has to question how they are going to be able to afford the cost of nuclear clean up. If they’re banking on the west to pick up the tab, as we did for the Russians post-communism, think again – we’ll be too busy bailing out the French to care. Given the political situation in the country it is quite possible we could see a break down in controls in Pakistan and either a large scale realise or theft of nuclear material, in the not to distant future.
The Nuclear Renaissance that wasn’t
Overall, we have to conclude that any talk about a nuclear renaissance is a little premature. This is especially true in the wake of Fukushima. The investment bank UBS suggests that at least 20-30 nuclear reactors worldwide will probably now close as result of various “stress tests”, equivalent to nearly a decade’s worth of building capacity at current nuclear plant construction rates. All in all, the crippling high cost of reactor construction, the fact that many countries with active nuclear programs will soon have to start decommissioning plants and disposing of nuclear waste (diverting resources, manpower and government money to these tasks) not to mention the inevitable rise in public opposition to nuclear energy, will likely conspire to result in an overall drop in real terms of nuclear energy use over the next 20-40 years.
Where some countries will maintain the status quo, others will drastically reduce or eliminate nuclear power altogether. Some countries will inevitably ignore all logic and economics and carry on regardless….until they run into serious problems…or the next nuclear accident brings about a further wave of anti-nuclear crack downs, cuts and cost rises.
On the plus side this is good news, fewer reactors means less pressure on Uranium supplies, thus they will last for much longer. It also serves to eliminate the need to waste our time with MOX, Thorium, Fast Rectors or reprocessing….well aside from their current role, i.e job-4-the-boys, etc. The elimination of many of the world’s older stock of reactors should make the industry as a whole safer, doubly so if we do ditch the white elephants (MOX, fast reactors, etc.)! Less active plants means less nuclear waste will ultimately be generated globally. Although the existing problems we’ve built up is a cause for concern. And as noted, unless certain countries, specifically France, Japan, Russia and India curb their nuclear enthusiasm pretty soon they’ll be spending the next few decades and centuries battling a very large and expensive, toxic nuclear legacy.
I’ve been hearing talk of this “nuclear renaissance” since the 1990’s and I think it’s a not entirely accurate analogy to make about the future shape of the nuclear industry, i.e downsized substantially and carrying on with failed policy’s that should have been abandoned along time ago. By contrast the actual Renaissance in Europe was a time not when old ideas were renewed but very much a time when new ideas (based on knowledge acquired from the Muslim world) were developed and expanded on….so its not an entirely accurate description of events as they are likely to unfold.
I can think of some more appropriate analogies thought. Ever since the death of their saviour/prophet almost every major religion, from Christianity to Scientology, has developed a lunatic fringe movement who believe in a second coming of said saviour/prophet/drug-fuelled con man. Of course he never does arrive, but they’ll happily take any excuse they can formulate as a “sign” of his impending return. So perhaps the “Nuclear second third coming” would be a more appropriate choice of words.
Or there’s the “nuclear primary school arts project”. You know that awful scribble that the wee-uns did in arts class when they were young. The parents put it up on the kitchen fridge where it eventually comes to serve as an embarrassment to one and all, especially to its now more mature artist. So, instead of being thrown out, it gets consigned to the tea chest in the basement, and is dragged around with all the other junk every time you move house. These would seem much more appropriate analogies to the future state of the nuclear industry!