Special Report

Everywhere Except Here

A nuclear power renaissance is going on outside our borders, pioneered by companies that never were or are no longer American.

By 12.16.08

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The PowerGen Conference is a gathering of power generators from around the world sponsored by PennWell, the Oklahoma publishing empire. Its gathering in Orlando in early December was the largest ever, attended by 18,000 people. Energy is a hot topic these days.

Windmill companies abounded. Vesta, the Danish supplier, had several scale models on the exhibition floor and did a wraparound cover over free copies of the Wall Street Journal. "Denmark's pretty filled up with windmills but we're moving offshore," explained a Vesta salesman, standing beneath a 25-foot replica of the 450-foot structures. "The wind over the ocean is stronger with less variation."

But for all the contemporary appeal of wind, however, the underlying theme of the conference was how fast the revival of nuclear power is taking shape. "The nuclear renaissance isn't something in the far-off future," said J.M. Bernhard, Jr., CEO of the Shaw Group, in giving the keynote address. "It's already happening today. With greenhouse gases in the mix, we believe nuclear is where we need to go."

Nuclear is coming along so fast that PennWell split out a separate "Nuclear Power International" section with an eye to creating a stand-alone conference in the future. (Oil and renewables already have their own events.) The American nuclear industry -- such as it is -- was well represented in the exhibition booths. GE, the last man standing from the earlier nuclear era, now does most of its business in partnership with Hitachi. Newcomers such as Hyperion are blazing a trail by building miniature reactors (60 megawatt as opposed to the standard 1,000). But the horrible truth remains that, if there is a nuclear renaissance going on in the world, it is happening mostly outside our borders, pioneered by companies that never were or are no longer American.

The most entertaining keynote speaker, for example, was Jacques Besnainou, the puckish American director of Areva, the French nuclear giant. ("When I first came to this country, I spent two years living in New Jersey," began Besnainou in his heavy French accent. "Therefore as you see I have a very strong New Jersey accent.") Besnainou and Areva are on a roll of late, having announced the construction of a uranium enrichment plant in Idaho last May -- the first built here in twenty years -- and then announcing in October that it will build a manufacturing plant for nuclear components in partnership with Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News.

The French embrace of nuclear has left the Gauls paying the cheapest electrical rates in Europe, importing only half as much natural gas from Russia and Britain and Germany, and making money hand-over-fist by exporting kilowatts to Germany and Italy. When asked how Areva planned to finance the Newport News facility in the face of a worldwide credit crunch, Besnainou answered with one word: "Cash."

The lag in America's nuclear effort was reflected by a comment heard over and over from vendors of nuclear accessories. "We're doing a great business," said one after another. "But most of it is abroad."

HERE'S THE SCORECARD on what's going on the in the rest of the world:

Europe. Finland is building the first new reactor in Europe in twenty years, a 1,200-MW unit at Olkiluoto. The project has fallen two years behind schedule -- largely because Finnish environmental officials are taking three times as long as planned to approve blueprints -- but it undoubtedly opens the door for other projects. The French are now building an identical plant at Flammanville. Sweden, which is 50 percent nuclear and 40 percent hydro, has even lower carbon emissions than France and has all but abandoned a 1980 vow to shut down its reactors by 2010.

Germany agreed to shutter its nuclear component when Social Democrats were admitted to the ruling coalition in 2001. Two small reactors have been mothballed, but four more generating 4000 MW are scheduled for shutdown in 2009 and Germans are now awakening to the possibility of losing 30 percent of their generating capacity by 2020. Chancellor Angela Merkel has asked for reconsideration. Italy shut its four reactors after a referendum held shortly after Chernobyl but recently started suffering blackouts because of electrical shortages. In May Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced plans to revive reactor construction by 2013.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe was discovered to be surprisingly reliant on nuclear power. Safety upgrades -- little things like the containment structures Soviets scientists thought they didn't need -- sought to counteract the legacy of Chernobyl but Brussels bureaucrats weren't buying. They have demanded the former satellite nations abandon their nuclear reactors before entering the European Union. This has caused considerable hard feelings.

"Bulgaria used to export electricity to the rest of Eastern Europe," says Ognyan Minchev, Bulgarian director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Now we can't even provide ourselves." The Bulgarians closed four reactors in 2002 but are now building two new units at Belene. Atomstroyexport, the Russian nuclear conglomerate, did the design work while Areva and Siemens, the German giant, are providing the equipment.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are in a similar dilemma, facing a 2009 EU deadline to close the Ignalia reactor, which provides more than half their electricity. The Baltic republics have appealed the decision but to no avail. (These are the same EU bureaucrats who decided countries couldn't win Kyoto Protocol carbon credits by building nuclear reactors in other countries.) A larger Areva reactor is scheduled to replace Ignalia 2 by 2015.

Asia and the Middle East. Just as the world's tallest skyscrapers are now being built east of Suez, so the most intense nuclear activity is occurring there as well. The United Arab Emirates has hired the French to build two new reactors and Saudi Arabia wants to employ them both for electricity and desalinization. Iran's efforts to develop its own nuclear technology, of course, need no repeating.

Japan gets 30 percent of its electricity from 55 reactors and is now planning a 1300-MW mixed-oxide (MOX) facility at Ohma, which will burn uranium and plutonium from conventional reactors, drastically reducing the so-called problem of "nuclear waste." South Korea has 20 reactors providing 40 percent of its electricity and is now aiming at the level of France, with 11 new plants under construction. Taiwan has four reactors providing 20 percent of its electricity.

The big news, however, is in China, which has bought technology from Russia, France and Japan and is planning to open 21 reactors by 2014. China's nuclear push will mitigate its embrace of coal, which is already causing so much alarm among those concerned about global warming. Likewise, the recent signing of a technology agreement with the United States has stimulated India's nuclear effort. The country is now planning 18 to 20 new reactors over the next 15 years, some fueled by thorium, of which India has the world's largest supplies.

If the nuclear revival does take hold in the U.S., we are much more likely to be a buyer than a seller of the technology. Japan Steel Works is now the world's only supplier of the steel pressure vessels at the reactor core. The company is backed up four years and just spent $500 million to expand its annual output from four to six. Westinghouse, which once competed head-to-head with General Electric, is now a Japanese company, bought by Toshiba in 2006. Babcock & Wilcox, the other major American manufacturer, has dropped out of the field entirely.

So already a good number of the 28 new American reactors now on the drawing boards will be built by foreign companies. Such is the price we pay for surrendering to our fears on nuclear technology. As Besnainou said in his keynote remarks: "If the United States had gone forward with nuclear power twenty years ago, you would be in much better shape economically than you are today."

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