• A cautious resurgence for nuclear power?


    LAST Thursday, the Japanese government provoked a few predictable squawks of protest when it announced that Kyushu Electric had restarted a second nuclear reactor at its Sendai plant in the southern part of Japan; the utility had restarted the first one in August. By next month, if all goes well, the plant should be producing power normally from its two reactors, marking the end of a four-year moratorium on operating nuclear generators following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

    In Great Britain, negotiations to form a consortium to finance a 34-billion euro project to build two next-generation European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs) are likely to get a push towards a successful conclusion by year’s end with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to London this week. The planned facility—Britain’s first new nuclear plant in decades—would be built by a partnership between French utility EDF and one or both of China’s state-run firms China General Nuclear Corporation (CGN) or China National Nuclear Corporation.

    EDF and CGN already have a partnership to build a pair of EPRs at Taishan in China, and EDF is working on another at its plant at Flamanville in northwest France. France’s biggest nuclear company, Areva (the main developer of the EPR), and German do-it-all engineering giant Siemens are currently working on another EPR at Olkiluoto, Finland.

    Other countries, however, are continuing to retreat from nuclear energy; in Sweden it was announced last week that two of three reactors at one of its three nuclear plants would be mothballed by 2020. Two more reactors at another plant will also be shut; two at the third plant already were in 1999 and 2005. Prior to 1999, Sweden had a dozen commercial nuclear generators; within five years, it will have halved its reliance on nuclear power.

    Advocates of nuclear power can point to the planned or ongoing European projects, the aggressive pursuit of nuclear power in China, and Japan’s realization that it has no choice but to use its existing nuclear facilities as strong evidence that despite fears, nuclear energy is a smart choice. Opponents of nuclear energy, on the other hand, will always have the rather spectacular evidence of Chernobyl and Fukushima to support the notion that the risks of nuclear power are unacceptable, and are able to raise increasingly valid questions about the challenging economics of nuclear power in light of the rapid development of alternative sources of energy.

    All of this, of course, is going to lead to a rejuvenation of the seemingly interminable debate over the fate of the never-used Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Before we get into all that again, it might help to take a step back and clarify what nuclear power is and is not.

    Nuclear power is not, strictly speaking, “safe.” A nuclear power plant is a technically complex, sensitive system harvesting energy from a source that is inherently violently unstable. The reason nuclear power plants—in spite of big calamities like Fukushima or Chernobyl—are statistically very safe is because people are not idiots, and realize that handling something so ludicrously risky requires a great deal of technical expertise and regulation.

    Although nuclear advocates would howl at the oversimplification, nuclear power has the same risk profile as commercial aviation: Things are very unlikely to go wrong, but when they do, there is a high probability the results will be catastrophic. Because they usually are, the risk is magnified in the public’s perception, which ultimately slows down development of the technology and in turn increases the risk.

    All of which drives up the cost of nuclear power, particularly development and construction costs. Nuclear power, when it is operating properly (which it does, most of the time) is incredibly efficient; the two reactors being planned for England would be capable of producing about 1,360 MW each, and would provide about seven percent of the country’s electricity. But because it is very costly to operate—not to mention the huge up-front investment to be recovered—the economic advantages are modest; most renewable energy systems are still proportionally much higher in overall costs than nuclear power, conventional coal and gas plants are far less expensive, and will probably stay that way.

    The ‘next-generation’ EPR systems under construction now have all run into technical obstacles that have repeatedly delayed their projected completion dates and driven up costs; EDF in September pushed back the start-up of the Flamanville unit by a year (for the fourth time), and announced that project costs had been revised upward by 2.5 billion euros to 10.5 billion, a little more than triple the plant’s original estimate.

    What all this should mean to the decision over what to do with the BNPP is something that should be discussed, because regardless of the conclusion, just reaching a clear conclusion one way or another would be huge leap forward. I’ll suggest what I think that conclusion should be in the next column.



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    1. Sweden will mothball the nuclear power plants after utilizing and benefitting from them, and they have aged already.

    2. If the BNPP will be revived, as a PPP scheme to fill the already overflowing pockets of an oligarch, forget it!

    3. Asteroid Miner on

      Nuclear power is inherently stable now. Chernobyl was a Generation One reactor. Since then, we have learned how to make nuclear reactors inherently stable. Generation Two reactors, the oldest reactors now in use in the Western world, are inherently stable. Stability was engineered in.

      Ben Kritz: Please take an introductory nuclear power engineering course. There was a good one on coursera.org from the University of Pittsburgh. I don’t know if it is available now. The reactors built since Generation 2 started are nothing like the Generation 1 reactors that the Soviet Union built. Those Soviet reactors were never licensable in the US.

      Since Generation 2, reactors have continued to improve in safety. Generation 4 reactors are “walk-away safe.” That means that if all cooling fails and the operators do nothing, there will still not be a meltdown. Containment buildings are not required for Generation 4.

      All American nuclear power plants have Containment Buildings which protect the world outside from anything that can possibly happen in the core. American containment buildings are why Chernobyl cannot happen in the US. Containment buildings are pressure vessels, unlike the building the Chernobyl reactor was in. The walls, ceiling and floor are a minimum of 1 meter [about 39 inches] thick and HEAVILY reinforced with steel. There is so much steel reinforcing rod that when you look at one under construction, you wonder where there will be any room for concrete. The concrete itself is super-concrete, not the kind your driveway is made of.