It was one year ago that a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan and its eastern Fukushima province and buried whatever hopes there might have been for a worldwide Nuclear Renaissance.
The Achilles’ heel of nuclear, of course, is that despite its stellar safety record and statistical standing as the least dangerous way of generating electricity, there is always the specter of that one huge accident that will take a devastating toll and leave some large portion of the earth uninhabitable. Six coal miners a day die in accidents in China. Thirteen people die every year trying to service windmills by landing on the 45-story structures in helicopters. So far there have been no casualties at Fukushima. But the 12-mile zone still remains evacuated and mobs in Japan, India, Germany, and sometimes the United States are calling for nuclear power to be abandoned altogether.
So how does the scorecard stand a year later and what are the possibilities of continuing the slow but steady revival of nuclear?
The epicenter of the accident still remains fairly traumatized. Japan got 33 percent of its electric power from nuclear and was one of the most advanced countries in developing the technology. But it may be a long time before it embraces nuclear again. All but one of Tokyo Electric Power’s reactors are now shut down and half are unlikely to reopen. The resulting shortage of electricity has hurt manufacturing and led to the nation’s first trade deficit in 31 years.
So far there have been no deaths or illnesses from radiation, although two older workers did die of heat stroke during the accident. Of the 31,000 people who have been evacuated, many have suffered from depression and a few have committed suicide. Radiation levels in the region are now about twice normal background. People in various parts of the world live with background 1,000 times as high, but extremely strict standards prevent Fukushima evacuees from returning to their homes.
Strong anti-nuclear movements have become politically powerful and several leading newspapers are keeping up a constant drumbeat of alarm. It is unlikely that Japan will be building any more reactors in the near future. Government officials have indicated, however, that Japanese industries will continue to sell their excellent nuclear products abroad. Westinghouse, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi are all world-leading manufacturers.
Premier Angela Merkel, herself a physicist, was stricken with remorse during the Fukushima accident and vowed to close all of Germany’s reactors in the next decade. In the year previous, she had revived Germany’s program by renegotiating a 2000 agreement to phase out all reactors by 2020. Now Germany has embarked on an ambitious, government-subsidized effort to switch to renewable energy. The results so far have been unpromising. This winter the output of Germany’s 2.5 GW of solar collectors has been operating at less than 5 percent cent capacity and the country has survived only by importing nuclear electricity from France and the Czech Republic. At one point it had to ask Austria to fire up an old oil-burning plant. Siemens, the country’s largest manufacturer, has complained the transition will cost $2 trillion and RWE and E.ON, the two largest energy companies, are laying off 14,000 workers because of slumping profits. What Germany’s effort is likely to prove is that powering an industrial country with wind and sunshine is a mirage.
China has shrugged off Fukushima and is proceeding with plans to expand nuclear at all due speed. The Chinese are constructing the world’s first four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, the first scheduled to go online in 2013. The AP1000’s “passive” design employs natural convection currents instead of electric pumps to circulate cooling water and will be able to avoid a Fukushima-type emergency.
Altogether China has 27 reactors under construction, with dozens more in the planning stage. All are being built on time and on budget. Last year Anne Lauvergeon, former CEO of France’s Areva, complained that the Chinese were building Areva’s EPR faster and cheaper than the French can do it themselves. Seventeen of the new reactors are the CPR-1000, China’s own design, pirated from Westinghouse’s AP1000. China has not yet tried to sell the design abroad, but when it does it could quickly dominate world markets.
The Chinese are also exploring futuristic technologies in a way that was once attempted in this country but has been abandoned. In 2011 the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) announced the commercialization of its first Integral Fast Breeder Reactor, a design that burns any kind of nuclear fuel and can eliminate the problem of “nuclear waste.” Project director Wang Junfeng told reporters that recycling could provide China 3,000 years’ worth of cheap electricity. America built an Integral Fast Breeder at the Idaho National Laboratory in the 1980s, but the Clinton administration excised it as part of a nuclear phase-out in 1994.
It was not surprising, then, that when Bill Gates’ new company, Intellectual Ventures, headed by Mi-crosoft’s former head of research, Nathan Myhrvold, decided to attempt an experimental model of its futuristic Travelling Wave Reactor, Gates ended up in Peking signing an agreement with the CNNC. The Travelling Wave promises to reprocess its own wastes and run for 100 years without refueling. Gates saw no possibility of moving ahead with the project in the United States.
Of all the countries with nuclear technology, Russia has been the most dismissive of the Fukushima accident. Speaking at the opening of the Kalininskaya reactor late last year, Premier Vladimir Putin scorned wind and solar energy and said if no one else is prepared to lead the world into a nuclear renaissance, Russia will. The Russians now get 17 percent of their electricity from nuclear and hope to raise it to 25 percent by 2030 with the construction of 38 new reactors.
Russia has sold reactors to India, Vietnam, and Iran and hopes to sell as many as 30 more abroad in the coming decade. Putin has proposed supplying the world with uranium out of a single large mine in Siberia. They are even touting their blunders at Chernobyl as giving them “experience” in the field of nuclear accidents. As one New York Times reporter marveled, “The Russians have a peculiar lack of discomfort with all things nuclear.” They have even offered to take any country’s spent fuel for reprocessing—a technology that we abandoned in the 1970s.
France has led Europe’s nuclear effort since Charles de Gaulle decided to free his country from foreign dependence in the late 1960s. France has 59 reactors, the highest per capita in the world, and gets 75 percent of its electricity from splitting the atom. As a result, it is only half as much dependent on Russian natural gas as the rest of Europe. Areva, a world-leading manufacturer, has nevertheless seen its position slip in recent years. Its Olkiluoto project in Finland, begun in 2005, was originally supposed to be completed by 2008 but is now not scheduled to open until 2014 at more than 50 percent over budget. An identical reactor in Flamanville on the Normandy coast, begun in 2006, is not scheduled to open until 2016. Bureaucratic delays and disputes over workmanship have slowed both projects. Still, Areva dominates nuclear construction in Europe and America. It is building both a weapons-plutonium recycling plant in South Carolina and a uranium enrichment plant in Idaho.
A nascent anti-nuclear movement has finally taken hold in France, but it is unlikely to close any reactors. If it did, Italy would probably collapse. The Italians responded to Chernobyl by shutting down all their reactors and now import 80 percent of their electricity. An Italian proposal to build eight new coal plants was shouted down in Europe and a subsequent plan to revive nuclear has been postponed indefinitely by the financial crisis. The Italians may be the first country to miss the nuclear boat completely.
Although they only started building reactors in the 1990s, the South Koreans have quickly become the world’s leading provider. KEPCO, the national utility, astonished everyone by beating out Wes-tinghouse and Areva for a $20 billion contract to build four new reactors in the United Arab Emirates in 2009. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the UAE last December and the whole country celebrated with a National Nuclear Day to introduce schoolchildren to the technology.
And so we can now ask the question, “What are the prospects for nuclear energy in the United States?” The news is not great but perhaps not quite as bad as might be expected.
After almost eight years of deliberation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finally gave approval to the design of the Westinghouse AP1000 last December—the model that is already being built in China. If, as expected, the NRC also issues a construction-and-operating license to Southern Electric this year, then the utility will be able to start work on twin reactors at its Vogtle site in Georgia. It would be the first newly licensed project since 1976. Southern already has 1,500 construction workers on the job doing site preparation.
Flamanville-type delays can be expected. When bulldozers leveled the first mounds of fresh earth last year, the NRC made them do it all over again. Then it suspended operations for a month because two employees had given oral assurance that they were not addicted to drugs instead of filling out a written form. With this kind of oversight, the project could take more than a decade to complete.
Still, nuclear construction may not be impossible. Flying under the radar, the Tennessee Valley Au-thority has completed two reactors in the last six years using licenses originally issued in the 1970s. Both were completed on time and on budget. But then, the projects didn’t attract much attention from opposition groups.
The real problem is that the American nuclear industry has become one giant corporation operating out of central headquarters in the 11-story offices of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nothing can be done without processing it through Beltsville, and the pace is glacial. Over the past two years, Constellation Energy of Baltimore and NRG Energy of New Jersey have abandoned major projects out of despair of ever gaining NRC approval.
Such centralization makes innovation almost impossible. Over the past decade, inventive engineers have adapted the small modular reactors we have been putting on submarines since the 1950s into commercial designs. There are almost a dozen proposals for such reactors on the drawing boards but none has much of a chance of making it through NRC licensing over the next decade. The Russians are mounting a 150-megawatt reactor aboard a barge to be floated into an isolated Siberian coastal village to provide power. South Korea, Japan, and China are all moving ahead have similar designs. It is no wonder that Bill Gates decided to develop his Travelling Wave abroad.
So there is a distinct possibility that we could wake up in ten years to find the giants of Asia have passed us by in nuclear technology and we have no choice but to buy it from them—just as we are now buying our nuclear infrastructure from France. As one blogger commented to the CNN story announcing the opening of China’s Integral Fast Breeder, “In case you missed the 19th century, this is what the transfer of world domination looks like.”