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Bailing out on nuclear

When I was interviewing nuclear physics academics in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi incident I generally finished by asking two questions: ‘should these events have an impact on the building of new power plants in Europe?’; and ‘Are they likely to have an impact on them?

The answer to the former was invariably no (although generally these are people with vested interests it has to be said), while the answers to the former started with ‘erm, well…..’ meandering to something inconclusive.

They knew that they could argue until they were blue in face about the creaking old design of the Japanese reactor coupled with the extreme unlikelihood of  similar seismic activity in Europe – but once the issue became political though, the science wouldn’t matter.

More than six months on from those events in Japan and we are perhaps starting to see definite answers to that second question.

This week Switzerland followed Germany’s lead in phasing out nuclear power as the Senate approved a measure to shut down the country’s five reactors by 2034. There were some slightly unfair comments in our editorial office speculating that Swiss engineers may have found a way of harnessing perpetual energy from the country’s famous clocks. But its assertion – along with Germany’s – that it can provide most of its energy from renewable sources does seem, at best, ambitious.

More than six months on, the impact of Fukushima on the global appetite for nuclear energy is beginning to become clear

More than six months on, the impact of Fukushima on the global appetite for nuclear energy is beginning to become clear

Meanwhile, in Italy the public recently went to the polls in large numbers to overwhelmingly reject a referendum on the building of new nuclear power stations. Perhaps understandably there has also been public dissent in Japan itself about nuclear power. But the size and apparent growing body of protest in a country not generally known for it, has surprised politicians there. This culminated on Sept 19th with a rally of some 60,000 anti-nuclear protesters in Tokyo.

And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) six developing countries interested in developing a civil nuclear programme have notified it that they have abandoned their plans.

irrespective of Fukushima, new nuclear build was never going to be plain sailing from a technical or financial standpoint

It’s not only politicians and their subjects getting nervous though. Once a world leader in nuclear technology, German engineering giant Siemens last month announced it was completely pulling out of the sector and in particular its joint venture with Rosatom of Russia to make nuclear generating equipment.

Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), the UK’s second-biggest energy generator, also threw in the towel and said it would devote itself to producing more electricity from renewables.

It announced it would sell its 25% stake in NuGeneration Ltd – the consortium planning to build a new plant at Sellafield in Cumbria – to partners Iberdrola and GDF Suez.

In a statement the company said: ‘We have always adopted a cautious approach to the financial and other issues associated with nuclear power development. NuGen will have to make a multi-billion pound investment decision around 2015, but even getting to the point of that decision will absorb, from now on, significant financial and management resource.’

Indeed, it has to be acknowledged that, irrespective of Fukushima, new nuclear build was never going to be plain sailing from a technical or financial standpoint.

Just ask EDF, the French state-controlled utility which is currently building the first new nuclear plant in that country for 15 years with subsequent plans to build Britain’s first two plants for a generation.

Work started on the plant at Flamanville (France) in 2006, which uses the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design, the same type that will be adopted at Hinkley Point and Sizewell should they go ahead.

At the time EDF estimated that each plant would cost €3.3 billion (£2.6bn) and take five years to complete. Earlier this year it admitted the timetable had slipped somewhat revising its projection to a completion date of 2016 and a cost of €6bn (£5.2bn).

There have been problems behind the scenes too, with France’s nuclear watchdog the ASN recently writing to EDF to highlight a series of ‘gaps and weaknesses’ in work being carried out. Complaints centred around safety conditions for workers (there have been a number of fatalities) and aspects of the reactor design.

Nevertheless, EDF’s UK subsidiary said it ‘remains absolutely committed to nuclear power,’ adding that lessons will be learned from the experience at Flamanville.

It is due to announce this autumn a new date for the start-up of its UK plant (originally set for 2018) following regulatory delays and a review of reactor designs in the wake of Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the Horizon Nuclear Power joint venture between RWE and E.ON plans to invest around £15bn in around 6 gigawatts of new nuclear in the UK by 2025, but the group has yet to take its final investment decision or select the reactor technology.

Of course the UK Government’s energy market reform white paper released in July was supposed to be a boon to nuclear with contracts for difference (CfDs) – guaranteeing low-carbon energy generators a fixed, higher-than-market-value price for their electricity.

Despite this, utilities may simply not have the money or the inclination in the current environment to borrow the huge sums required for projects with such large construction risks.

So what now for new nuclear? Countries that were interested in investing such as Spain, Sweden, India and Finland are now looking to extend the life of their current reactors. But there are limits to what can be achieved with these modifications and the decision

There’s no reason to believe that new nuclear in the UK will be stopped in its tracks, but the road is likely to be a long and difficult one and the debate about alternatives sources of energy more vigorous.

As a closing comment it’s also perhaps worth noting the recent find in northwest England of some 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. While not without safety concerns itself, it will be signifantly cheaper to pursue this resource in the short-term than new nuclear.

Readers' comments (15)

  • Although nuclear power has its detractors it must be noted that other "safer" forms of power generation have many fatalities attributed to them. One only has to follow recent events in the UK where coal miners have died trying to supply the raw material for our non nuclear generators.
    You also fail to note that although Germany has decided not to take the nuclear route, it will be buying a fair share of its power from France who have heavily invested in a nuclear programme.
    Another question not yet asked is "how will the general public react to the increasing progress made in fusion power generation and will it be tarred with the same brush as nuclear power when a viable reactor is anounced?"

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  • Are Thorium reactors a better bet?

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  • Much of the nonsense about countries abandoning nuclear is a mix of political posturing and a media stunt. Germany will pay dearly for what Merkel has done (a political stunt ) Germany will be reliant on France and Czech republic for its energy needs as most certainly the crazy reneables (wnd) will not make up the shortfall.
    At least the French have sense in running with their nuclear programme.

    Patrick L O’Brien M.Sc (NUI) FCIWEM (UK) CEnv (UK) CSci (UK) MIChemE (UK) MCIWM (UK)
    Senior International Environmental Consultant
    PM Environmental, Health & Safety
    Lough Mahon Technology Park
    Cork Ireland
    Email: / /
    T: +353 21 4358922 (Reception)
    F: +353 21 4358933
    Mobile No: + 353 87 837 9714

    Pat O'Brien Senior Environmental Consultant
    PM Group

    LoughMahon Technology Park, Blackrock, Cork, Ireland

    T +353 21 435 8922 F +353 21 435 8933 W

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  • I keep hearing how "renewables" are the answer to everything, but as someone in the renewables business I have to ask where on earth do these people think the "renewables" are going to come from? Do they realise that non-fossil fuels have a much lower calorific value that fossil fuels and so to replace those and nuclear they will need to find quantities that are simply not anywhere near available.

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  • So, is "£15bn" a British billion or a US billion?

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  • We mean a US billion (ie 1000,000,000) which is, increasingly, the internationally recognised standard. The " old" British billion (1000,000,000,000) is now the trillion. Anyway, back to nuclear power.....

  • It's such a shame to see the usual, uneducated, kneejerk reaction that comes after an event at Fukushima.

    If countries, and by that I mean the general populace (including politicians!) educated themselves a little better regarding nuclear power then this kind of carry-on wouldn't happen. Attitudes like this are a set back for our development as a species.

    The facts are there, people only have to read them... the incident at Fukushima has in reality, resulted in only a fraction of the damage that most people think it has. Even Chernobyl was, and continues to be, totally blown out of proportion. 50 of so people died as a direct result of the explosion and of acute radiation poisoning, however the total number of people affected by radiation induced cancer related illnesses is comparable with that of smoking related diseases and cancers. Unfortunately the media sensationalises everything... it has to I suppose.

    The big problem with nuclear energy is dealing with the disposal of the nuclear waste, this is what countries need to be funding - safe, and environmentally friendly ways of nuclear waste disposal.

    The world population is expected to grow by a further 2bn in the coming years, we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels and renewables, although great in theory, in practice they simply cannot feed this planets ever increasing desire for energy.

    Nuclear power is the future, whether we like it or not.

    Thorium reactors??... well, that old debate has been around the block before. Now that the Cold War is over and nuclear weapons are being scrapped, perhaps it's time again to have another look at the viability of Thorium.

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  • What a well written article.
    My personal belief is that generating electricity over 25 to 30 years is immoral if you then have to manage the waste over several thousand years. In the UK we are estimated to spend 70bn£ cleaning up the reactor currently being decommissioned, (at the public's expense). We did not ask for that.
    The UK should have a vote too, only we live in a corporacy so it will never happen.

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  • It has been stated that if we do not start to build nuclear reactors this year we will have regular power outages in 2012. Maybe. Perhaps the renewables may come up trumps but the industry will have to grow up fast and stop promising a solution when it only has a partial one. If we get outages has anyone bothered to contemplate the problems that will occur. We are constantly encouraged to be "Broadbanded" and there are a host of complaints about the current speed of the process and lack of availability. If we are being set up to live off the Internet and all its processes what will happen if the lights go out?? Where is your money at this very moment? It is in the ether being used in banking actions world wide. No electricity means no banking, means no money and no way to recoup any of it. I am ignoring the effects on food processing which will be as important but without money we will not be able to buy it anyway! The future is electronically based and we have to get enough generating power to cope. So, HOW???

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  • Sorry, I meant power outages in 12 years time - not in 2012

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  • Thorium based molten salt reactors are clean, proven and a lot less danger than conventional plutonium generators. Less dangers involved in the operational side of things if anything goes wrong but processing is a bit more complex. The gains are worth it 'on balance' though !!!

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