NY Times OP ED asks if nuclear power has a future?
An interesting question is posed by a guest opinion piece published in the New York Times on October 10. Stephanie Cooke, a respected nuclear industry analyst and book author, asks whether there is a future for nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima era.
Ms. Cooke, who is an editor at Energy Intelligence, a trade press agency, surprises a casual reader by starting off with a Halloween type scare tactic of saying the Fukushima crisis is a “fearful reminder” of what can go wrong.
Anyone who knows anything about probabilistic risk assessment knows that accidents are likely to happen again. There will be more natural disasters in the future that will significantly affect nuclear power plants. The earthquake in Virginia last August took Dominion’s North Anna station offline and the NRC has not indicated when or if it will allow a restart.
Much of the damage to F-D was caused by the tsunami because safety related infrastructure was on the seaward side of the plants and the seawall was inadequate. TEPCO was told years ago to build a higher seawall and ignored the advice. The downfall of TEPCO will be hubris not accidents.
Ms. Cooke notes that Germany, Switzerland, and Italy have all abandoned their nuclear energy programs because of the Fukushima accident. She leaves behind in this sweeping generalization important nuances that make the picture she’d like us to see less compelling and more complex.
For instance, the World Nuclear Association has labeled Chancellor Merkel’s move to renewables as “delusional.” Switzerland’s legislative body hedged its bets in voting to end nuclear energy at least two decades from now.
I have serious objections to Cooke’s views. I emailed them to her earlier this week. She has not responded with even an acknowledgement. I am writing this blog post without the benefit of her input and instead rely on the OP ED as published for my comments.
As it turns out Ms. Cooke’s views place her in camp populated by people like Amory Lovins, Helen Caldicott, and Frank von Hippel, as all of them praise her book In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.
Booklist refers to it as “adopting a skeptical perspective.” That said following on my comments on the New York Times article.
Germany out Czechs in
While Germany is apparently committing energy suicide, the Czech Republic is getting ready to build at least two or three new reactors at Temelin and two more elsewhere. State owned Czech utility CEZ just reshuffled its executive leadership to do this with the objective of selling electricity to Germany. My bet is the Russians will win a good part of the business since they are current sourcing Czech vendors for parts to build two new reactors in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s new build
Vietnam will build up to eight new rectors with vendors from Russia and Japan to produce electricity to create high value aluminum products from the huge bauxite mines in the central highlands and to attract more high tech manufacturing like the $1 billion Intel chip plant that was completed last year.
Japan will re-start all its reactors
Japan is likely to eventually restart most if not all of its current fleet of reactors for two reasons. First, the country needs the electricity to produce high value manufactured products for export to pay for food imports. Japan is less than 50% self-sufficient on food. Second, it can’t afford long-term to compete with China for fossil fuel imports. See also the New York Times Shunning Nuclear Plants at Home, Japan Pursues Building The Overseas
India & China slower pace
The World Nuclear Association estimates for new reactors may indeed be over-optimistic mostly because both India and China will build fewer reactors in the near term than they current claim to have planned for construction. India will run into internal political headwinds. Areva will build two reactors Jaitapur, but may not build another four elsewhere soon. The Russians will likely complete four reactors at Koodankulam, but plans for another 12-18 units may take a while to mature.
There is a school of thought among India's non-aligned political opposition which says that no foreign vendors should be relied on to build the nations new nuclear reactors. Instead, India's 700 MW heavy water reactor should be the design of choice. The problem with that line of thinking is that it will set back India's shift from fossil to carbon emission free energy sources by decades.
India doesn't have the manufacturing capacity to build its own reactor designs. It has partnerships with firms like GE-Hitachi to build a nuclear components manufacturing plant, and plans elsewhere to build a large forgings facility, but it will take close to a decade for these plants to be in full production. In the meantime, importing reactors is the fastest path to nuclear energy. The only thing that really stands in India's way is its harsh supplier liability law which even domestic manufacturers think is a bad idea.
China will have problems with producing both the components and the skilled workers and engineers needed to build the plants. While the official estimate for 2030 is put at 80 GWe, time will tell whether they can meet that objective. China has completed its internal safety reviews and is approving new nuclear projects. See also the New York Times for Oct 10 China Marches on with Nuclear Energy, in Spite of Fukushima
Texas nuclear plans are toast
Texas has probably lost all three of its new nuclear projects. In addition to NRG pulling the plug, Exelon stopped its COL and opted for an ESP for Victoria county which could sit on a back burner for up to 20 years. Luminant is drowning in debt and would likely have to sell Comanche Peak to a new investor group to build the two new reactors planned for that site. Good luck convincing someone to put up the money with untried Mitsubishi reactors referenced in the COL.
Italy’s scandal plagued government
First, with regard to Italy, it isn’t clear the Italians were ever in the nuclear renaissance once Claudio Scajulo, the economic minister, got sacked for taking the bribe of a luxury apartment in Rome in return for government construction contracts. The next minister in charge of the program was an 82 year old retired doctor who pointedly said he didn’t want the job.
Then Prime Minister Berlusconi scheduled a referendum vote shortly after the March 11 Fukushima earthquake. The primary purpose was to absolve him of charges related to his personal conduct in office. The nuclear option was bundled in with two other measures. Italian voters rejected all three ballot items in a response largely seen as a protest vote against the prime minister's excesses and not specifically related to nuclear energy.
UK & UAE are bright spots
The UK will likely get at least 10-15 Gwe of new nuclear generating capacity built else the entire country will go broke paying fossil fuel rates.
Lastly, the UAE will break ground for the first of four new South Korean reactors this December (pending regulatory approval)
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So in the end Ms. Cooke’s negative musings about the future of nuclear energy, while mostly true in the broad sweep of things, appear to require significant clarification once a reader adopts a “skeptical attitude.”
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