It’s quite something to find myself in a country where nuclear power is even more of a basket case than it is in the UK – and that of course is the United States of America. Not yet dead, but struggling to find a reason to go on living.
And absolutely no mystery about why that’s happened. Large-scale, old-style nuclear reactors, anywhere in the world, can only be made to work when governments override market forces and use taxpayers’ money to keep those nuclear white elephants staggering along before they finally end up in that inevitable nuclear graveyard.
But the immediate circumstances are still fascinating. On March 29th, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection in the USA. Westinghouse is owned by Toshiba, the vast Japanese conglomerate, whose very existence has been put at risk because of the Westinghouse meltdown. It’s had to book an $8.2bn write-down on Westinghouse, and has said that it would be only too happy to sell it as soon as possible, apart from the fact that it’s ‘in too much of a mess’.
Having acquired a majority stake in Westinghouse from the UK Government (via BNFL) back in 2006, for around $5.4bn, all seemed to be going fine since then. Only 18 months ago, Toshiba was talking about ’50 potential contracts’, primarily in India and China. But behind the scenes, it was already going horribly wrong, with its four AP1000 reactors under construction in the USA (two in Georgia and two in South Carolina) racking up incredible cost overruns – now estimated at around $14bn! Even EdF would have a job competing with that kind of financial recklessness.
But here’s the thing: those four reactors are the ONLY reactors currently under construction in the USA! The company is still talking tough about none of this having any impact on its determination to complete construction of all four reactors, but no-one I’ve been talking to over here seems terribly convinced.
And that pretty much means curtains for the US nuclear industry as it operates today. Right now, there are just 99 reactors still in operation, 44 of which are at least 40 years old! The remaining nuclear companies are now talking, inevitably, about needing to extend the lifetime of some of these reactors to 80 years (twice their designed lifetime!), and you can see why. Financially, that may make sense, were it not for the fact that the older a reactor gets, the less reliable it is, the more time it has to be offline for maintenance, and the more prone to accidents it is.
The reality is that half of that ageing reactor fleet is likely to close by 2030. And there will be no new reactors (apart from those four dodgy AP1000 reactors) to replace them.
For decades, US nuclear engineering kept the US at the forefront of the civil nuclear power league, with pretty constant bipartisan support – all the way through from Richard Nixon’s astonishing promise to have a thousand reactors power the US grid, through to President Obama’s coming up with ever more creative inducements to encourage private sector operators to keep that nuclear dream alive. But there were no takers. Even before the Fukushima disaster six years ago.
The economics for large-scale, capital-intensive nuclear reactors just don’t work any more. In the US, they can’t begin to compete with home-fracked gas or with renewables – and even the economics of coal work out better than nuclear. Up front, post-Fukushima capital costs are simply not financeable in a market-based economy – even with the fundamentally distorted, rigged market-based economy of the kind that exists in the USA.
Hence the dismal mess that Westinghouse finds itself in today. The likelihood is that it won’t be in any kind of position to complete the construction of those four reactors. And many people believe they won’t ever be completed, full stop.
All this has huge implications for the UK. With its AP1000 reactor newly approved by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Toshiba is still the principal partner in the NuGen consortium planning to build three new reactors at Moorside, near Sellafield in Cumbria. Toshiba is now having to buy back the 40% stake owned by Engie, and has admitted, with classic Japanese understatement, that there is a ‘significant funding gap’. (By the way, that makes seven international companies that have given up on the idea of any kind of ‘nuclear renaissance’ in the UK: Toshiba, Engie, E.ON, RWE Npower, Iberdrola, SSE and Centrica.)
Those reactors at Moorside will never be built by Toshiba Westinghouse.
The only company in the running to take over the NuGen consortium is KEPCO, the Korean utility and nuclear operator, which is hardly reassuring. Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment commented recently that: “KEPCO is itself still emerging from a major scandal that surfaced in 2012, involving bribery, corruption and faked safety tests for critical nuclear plant equipment, which resulted in a prolonged shut-down of a number of nuclear power stations, and the jailing of power engineers and parts suppliers.”
As you know, I also happen to believe that Hinkley Point will never get built either, primarily because EdF is in even worse financial difficulties than Toshiba – but by virtue of being 80% owned by the French Government, will be able to stagger along for a while yet.
And I also doubt that Wylfa will ever be built either, this time because Hitachi (the principal partner in this project) has incurred huge losses on a uranium enrichment project in the USA, and it also very exposed to the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
These are, in effect, zombie companies, wholly incapable of autonomous existence without constant infusions of blood/cash from hard-pressed taxpayers, still duped by their governments into believing that “there really is no option”.
That’s not the way the majority of people see it in the USA, where the alternative options just keep on getting stronger (and cheaper) even as the case for nuclear keeps on getting weaker (and more expensive) by the day.
For pro-nuclear greenies (of whom there are a few, as there still are in the UK, despite all the evidence), this is proving to be a huge dilemma. Michael Shellenberger (who was once quite a serious environmentalist until he embraced the delights of the nuclear industry) has plaintively described the “rapidly accelerating crisis” in the nuclear industry, suggesting that we are now witnessing “the death of nuclear power in the West”.
He conveniently blames this on his erstwhile colleagues in the environment movement! “NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists, and myriad state and local groups, have spent 50 years frightening the public with pseudo-science, suing utilities, subsidising the competition, and winning regulations that do nothing for plant safety. On the one hand, the nuclear industry responded brilliantly to these attacks. But the industry also responded by creating new and untested designs, such as Westinghouse’s AP1000 and Areva’s EPR.”
So what is Shellenberger’s solution? He believes the industry must “consolidate”, “standardise”, and “scale” before it’s too late. He’s come to the conclusion that there’s been too much innovation in the industry, causing chaos with multiple reactor designs.
He’s particularly critical of how this has undermined the case for nuclear in the UK, and believes the UK Government should now scrap everything (Hinkley Point, Moorside, Wylfa – the lot) and start with a blank sheet of paper, opting for one reactor design for all available sites. (They’ve no sense of history, these Americans: he probably doesn’t realise that’s exactly what Mrs Thatcher tried to do back in 1979, with the aim of building at least 15 Pressurised Water Reactors. In the end, just one of them got built – at Sizewell B.)
Others think that the problem is not too much innovation, but rather too little – and their favoured innovative ‘white knight’ (for the time being, at least) is the Small Modular Reactor – which also happens to be George Monbiot’s nuclear fantasy of choice.
But even in the USA, the future for Small Modular Reactors is looking pretty dodgy. Bechtel, one of the SMR front-runners through its joint venture with Babcock and Wilcox, has just withdrawn from committing to any further R&D. Westinghouse is still in there, but hardly capable of paying for its coffee cups, let alone for establishing a whole new supply chain. Only NuScale Power (with its partner, Areva – yes, that very same bankrupt Areva being bailed out by the French Government!) is still in there, and has just submitted its light water reactor design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In other words, hope piled on phony hope, one fanciful conception after another. A recent analysis of the potential future for Small Modular Reactors in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists commented as follows:
“Without a clear-cut case for their advantages, it seems that small nuclear modular reactors are a solution looking for a problem. In the realm of nuclear technology, the enormous expense required to launch a new model, as well as the built-in dangers of nuclear fission, require a more straightforward relationship between problem and solution. Small modular nuclear reactors may be attractive, but they will not, in themselves, offer satisfactory solutions to the most pressing problems of nuclear energy: high cost, safety and weapons proliferation.”
As I’ve said before, these nuclear chimeras never entirely fade away. But in the meantime, year after year, the very concrete, investible world of our 21st Century alternative energy paradigm (based on renewables, energy efficiency, storage, smart grids and demand management) is materialising for real in the lives of more and more people.