Nuclear Renaissance Blossoms—Without the USA

The world is going nuclear while we're going nowhere. 

By From the October 2010 issue

This summer China surpassed the United States as the world's largest producer of energy. What was noteworthy, however, is not what China has accomplished over the past 10 years -- doubling its energy capacity -- but what it is planning for its future.

Under construction now in China are 23 nuclear reactors, many originally of American design. The Chinese are building four Westinghouse AP1000s -- a model our Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not even approved yet. On the drawing boards are at least 30 more projects. By 2020, China's nuclear complex will be more than half the size of the U.S.'s aging fleet of 104.

But that's just the beginning. In July the Chinese announced plans for a 50-square-mile "Nuclear City" in Haiyan, 70 miles south of Shanghai. The city, which now houses much of China's nuclear industry, will now add an educational center for training nuclear engineers and scientists, a center for the study of radiation safety, a research lab for radiation-based industry and agriculture, a manufacturing center for nuclear parts, and a marketing center to sell nuclear power to the rest of the world.

At this point, the world probably doesn't need much persuading. Outside America's borders, the long-awaited Nuclear Renaissance is now fully under way. There are currently 60 reactors under construction around the globe, with countries as diverse as Vietnam, Brazil, Turkey, and Jordan planning nuclear programs.

What is America's role in this? Not much, except perhaps for running after everyone shouting, "Hey, wait a minute, we invented this technology." On the basis of outdated treaties and outmoded concerns about nuclear proliferation, we are currently: a) telling South Korea it cannot reprocess its own spent fuel rods, and b) telling Jordan it cannot process its own uranium. Both countries are furious at America's buttinski ways and are politely telling us to get lost. After all, both countries have many other options to which to turn.

THEY CAN HARDLY be blamed. Of the half-dozen major players in nuclear construction now, General Electric is the only American company still on the field and it is running in last place. With hardly any customers, GE has tried to revive its fortunes by partnering with Hitachi. Rumors persist that it will eventually sell its nuclear division to the Japanese and quit the field altogether. "No GE CEO has ever made money at nuclear and I don't expect to, either," says CEO Jeff Immelt.

Remember Westinghouse, the other major player on the American stage in the 1970s and 1980s? It is now a Japanese company, bought by Toshiba from British Nuclear Fuels in 2007, mainly for the name and a few reactor designs. Toshiba has succeeded in marketing the Westinghouse AP1000 ("Advanced Passive 1000 Megawatts") to China, but the Chinese demanded the design specs and are probably going to be developing their own version in the near future.

France decided to go nuclear in the 1960s under Charles de Gaulle. ("We don't have oil but we have ideas!" was the rallying cry.) The country now gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear and has the cleanest air and the cheapest electricity in Europe. In addition, the French make $4 billion a year selling surplus power to Italy and Germany, both of which have closed reactors and now need electricity. Areva, the French nuclear giant, 80 percent owned by the French government, has won contracts in Finland, China, and India but now finds itself locked in brutal competition with newcomer South Korea.

Until the late 1990s, the Koreans bought reactors from Japan, building their fleet to 40 percent of its electricity. (Japan gets 33 percent and we get 20.) But Korea is a nation whose students score at the top in international math comparisons and have developed a passion for engineering and invention. So 10 years ago the Koreans took a design from Combustion Engineering, another American company, and fashioned it into the Korean Standardized Nuclear Plant, a 1,400-megawatt giant. Two years ago they entered the bidding to build 5,000 MW of nuclear power in the United Arab Emirates. Although original estimates put the project at $40 billion, the Koreans bid $20 billion and won the contract, astonishing the competition, Areva and Westinghouse. The Japanese have now assembled all their nuclear companies into a consortium for future bidding while France is undergoing a soul-searching as to whether Areva can continue to compete. Meanwhile, the Koreans are seeking new business in Jordan, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Where does America fit into this? "We didn't invent this technology, you did," says Jacques Besnainou, the genial CEO of Areva North America. "We're just continuing what you started." Besnainou's modesty may be becoming, but it barely describes the technological gap that has opened between the two countries. While America arm-wrestles with Harry Reid over the disposal of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel rods at Yucca Mountain, the French have perfected reprocessing -- a technology banned by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

In America, disposing of "nuclear waste" is regarded as a showstopper -- even though all our spent fuel from the last half-century would fit on a football field to a depth of ten feet. But separating the highly radioactive isotopes from the mildly radioactive non-fissionable uranium reduces the volume of dangerous material by 95 percent. And even the remaining residue contains many valuable fuel, industrial, and medical products. With complete reprocessing, the French are now able to store all their unrecyclable radioactive wastes from 50 years of producing 75 percent of their electricity beneath the floor of one room at La Hague.

WHILE THERE HAS BEEN much talk of a nuclear revival in this country, so far everything has happened only on paper. Twenty-six companies have submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a total of 34 reactors, but the glacial pace of review means little will get done in the next decade. On taking his seat as chairman of the commission in 2009, Gregory Jaczko, a former adviser to Harry Reid, said he hoped to get at least one license application out the door by the time his term ended in 2013. That may have been optimistic.

If a license is ever issued, construction under NRC oversight could easily take another five to eight years. Even David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists and perhaps the foremost anti-nuclear voice in the country, says he is frustrated by the Commission's inertia. "The NRC can take up to five years to make up its mind whether or not to do something," says Lochbaum. "Companies and vendors can't operate with that kind of regulatory uncertainty. The result is that costs go up and safety goes down."

Yet the blame does not lie solely with the NRC. To a loud and vocal portion of the population, nuclear technology is still the devil's work, while only a few mandates and government subsidies stand between us and a world powered by wind and sunshine. In mid-July Jaczko braved a trip to Brattleboro, Vermont, where he broke bread with nearly 100 anti-nuclear crusaders trying to shut down Vermont Yankee, the 660-megawatt reactor that supplies one-third of the Green Mountain State's electricity. The crowd was the usual collection of pony-tailed men in business suits, eager young lawyers from the Naderite Public Interest Research Group, and well-heeled, gray-haired women who can't imagine why anyone would ever fool with nuclear power. Their verdict was unanimous: "Shut it down this afternoon!" Jaczko, of course, was accused of giving the nuclear industry a free pass and "not listening to the people."

Faced with these pressures, the NRC responds by regulating the industry into the ground. Only one new reactor -- the Vogtle Plant in Georgia -- has received permission to begin site preparation for construction. Last July the NRC informed the utility, Southern Electric, that the dirt it was using to grade the site was inadequate. Southern was forced to go further abroad and spend more money on better dirt. Two weeks later the NRC shut down the project entirely when it discovered that a subcontractor had only asked prospective employees about drug and alcohol in interviews but failed to secure statements in writing. Work halted for three weeks.

It is easy to see where this is going. If the NRC ever issues a construction license, the builder will be second-guessed on every rivet until the project is years behind schedule and $5 billion over budget. That will prove, once again, that nuclear is "too expensive to be built in this country." Meanwhile, China and Japan are building their reactors in less than four years for $5 billion. To the swift goes the race.

SIX MONTHS AGO, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu electrified the industry by suggesting in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the U.S. might find a niche in building small modular reactors -- something about the size of a gazebo -- that can be buried in the ground and power a town of 20,000 while running for 20 years without refueling. Both Babcock & Wilcox and a California company named Hyperion have designs. Moving in this direction could break the logjam at the NRC and offer utilities bite-sized projects that would not require them to risk their entire net worth.

Yet Hyperion already enquired about a license application at the NRC in 2006 and was told to go away -- the Commission didn't have time for such small potatoes. (License applicants must pay the entire cost of the process, which means an investment of tens of millions.) Meanwhile, the dream that the U.S. might regain some technological lead is already fading. Toshiba has a mini-reactor it has been trying for years to sell to Galena, Alaska, an isolated village entirely dependent on diesel imports. The Russians are outfitting small reactors on barges and floating them into Siberian coastal villages. Then three months after Chu's op-ed, the Koreans announced they would also enter the field with their own mini-reactor. The idea that American companies, lumbering along under supervision of the NRC, can compete in this vigorous international market is already evaporating.

So the world is going nuclear without our help.

This will be the first time since the days of the American Revolution that the U.S. has not led a technological revolution. Railroads, central electricity, the automobile, the airplane, the Internet -- all propelled us to the forefront of international competition while securing our economic dominance. Now we are lagging far behind in what will certainly be the prime energy source of the 21st century. The consequences may not show up in our economy for another two to three decades. When they do, however, they will be significant. 

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.