Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Issues: The Stillborn ‘Nuclear Renaissance’

Ikata Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in August 2006 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Julio Godoy Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

BERLIN (IDN) - Since several years, a handful of international institutions, such as the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), some governments and state-owned enterprises specialized in the construction of nuclear power plants have been publicising the view that atomic power is experiencing a renaissance.

In 2005, for instance, the NEA in its Uranium 2005 report, argued that nuclear power was set to play a significant role in the next 40 years, given the expected raise in world wide demand for electricity. The NEA also advanced then the now well-known argument that nuclear energy is a clean source, indispensable to fight global warming. It argued that "the extent to which nuclear energy is seen as beneficial in meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets could potentially increase the role of nuclear energy in future electrical generation."

This campaign was part of the effort of an international lobby to counter the global awareness of the perils of nuclear power, rising steadily particularly since the most tragic March 1979 Three Mile Island and April 1986 Chernobyl accidents.

Since 1979, and especially during the 1990s, numerous industrialized countries, conscious of the health and environmental risks, decided to phase out nuclear power. As a consequence, and as recently as September 2009, the European Nuclear Society listed new nuclear power plants under construction in only six European countries. The list, however, included 19 projects in Russia, which are under construction since decades, and which are therefore considered stillborn monsters. (http://www.euronuclear.org/info/maps.htm).

This campaign by the international lobby found its way into mass media, under the catchy phrase of the 'Renaissance of nuclear power'. Typical of this media resonance was a story by the German weekly Der Spiegel, published in July 2008, which claimed, quite inexactly, that "Dozens of new reactors (were) under construction." Der Spiegel corrects the claim later in the article, stating that "after decades of hesitancy, more and more countries are turning back toward the atom with well over 100 reactors either already under construction or in the planning stages." Both claims were far from true. (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,druck-565363,00.html)

For, while it is true that several governments have announced plans to construct new nuclear power plants, most of these remain projects which, according to numerous experts and scientists, hardly will overcome the tough economic and technical obstacles nuclear power has to face.

And those nuclear power plants actually under construction serve, at best, as examples of follies.


Take the case of the Finnish Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant 3, probably the one reactor under construction most referred to as proof of the so-called renaissance of nuclear energy. The facility, which uses the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) technology, authorised in December 2000, was set to start functioning in May 2009.

However, numerous construction setbacks forced the French constructor Areva already in December 2007 to postpone delivery to the summer of 2011. When the setbacks continued, Areva had to announce further delay: On October 2008, Areva announced that the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant could only be delivered in June 2012.

By early September 2009, drastic construction budget excesses -- the construction costs, initially estimated at three billion euros, have jumped to well over five billion, for a preliminary cost surplus of at least 55 percent -- and legal quarrels between Areva and the Finnish Teollisuuden Voima Oyj (TVO), which owns and operates the Olkiluoto complex, are threatening the completion of the plant. Now, the plant may actually start operations in 2014.

In late 2009, after several years of troubled cooperation with TVO, Areva threatened to lodge a legal complaint against the Finnish operator, to obtain compensation for the 2.3 billion euros losses incurred during the reactor's construction. If no compensation were to be agreed, Areva would stop the construction of the plant, Anne Lauvergeon, head of the French group, said to French journalists.

In an interview with the French economics daily newspaper Les Echos, TVO deputy CEO Timo Rajala dismissed the claim as "a message addressed to the French", and accused Areva of lacking professionalism. "Areva sold us the EPR and only afterwards started the engineering works for the plant," Rajala said. (http://www.lesechos.fr/info/energie/020146990147.htm)

Steve Thomas, professor for energy policy at the Public Services International Research Unit, University of Greenwich, Britain, summed up the quarrels in an interview with the International Herald Tribune in 2008, "Olkiluoto has become an example of all that can go wrong in economic terms with new reactors". (Curiously, the link to Thomas' interview with the IHT is no longer available at the paper's online site. French anti-nuclear activists claim that the interview was erased from the server under pressure by Areva.)

Rajala's apparent coolness in the face of Areva's threats is understandable: While Finland may renounce one nuclear reactor, Areva cannot afford to stop the construction of the EPR of Olkiluoto, for it considers the model the company's key to the world.

That pressure led Areva to offer Finland the EPR under generous conditions. As The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009, written by several nuclear energy experts for the German environment ministry, put it, "AREVA needed a 'shop window' for EPR technology and Olkiluoto-3 would serve as a reference plant for other orders."

As an additional incentive and at the request of the client, AREVA offered the plant on 'turnkey' terms, that is, fixed price. It also took responsibility for the management of the site and for the architect engineering, not just the supply of the 'nuclear island‘."

Olkiluoto 3 is the prototype of the EPR technology. A second model is under construction on the French Atlantic coast; other EPR plants, at home and abroad, shall come. For instance, Areva has offered the construction of four EPR reactors in Britain.

However, the chances that Areva will build the reactors in Britain have all but vanished, after an expertise by the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) warned that the French EPR technology suffered of serious safety deficiencies in its control and instrumentation (C&I) systems.

In June 2009, in a letter to Areva, leaked to the British press, the NII expressed concerns that "the C&I architecture (is) overly complex." The C&I is considered the "cerebral cortex" of a nuclear power station, for it manages the computers monitoring and controlling the reactor's temperature, pressure and power output levels.

"It is our regulatory judgment that the C&I architecture appears overly complex," the NII letter said. "We have serious reservations about (Areva's) proposal which allows lower safety class systems to have write access (permissives etc.) to higher safety class systems."

The NII further called attention upon other concerns, especially the lack of safety display systems or manual controls that would allow the reactor to be shut down, either in the station’s control room or at an emergency remote shutdown station. (http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article6613960.ece)

Add to the technical warnings against the EPR the financial constrains imposed by competition and those forced upon states and other investors by the international economic crisis.

A September 2009 editorial comment in the French economic newspaper Les Echos pointed out that "a gas fuelled power plant of 800 megawatts (MW) costs 550 million euros, and is constructed in four years. The construction of a nuclear power plant of 1,600 MW takes eight years, and costs up to six billion euros."

An investor putting money into a new nuclear power plant has to wait at least eight years to end the investment -- if he gets to put the money together at all. In the comment, the newspaper quoted Yves Giraud, chief economist at the French energy provider EdF saying that, in the best of cases, an investor has to wait 25 years after the investment decision was taken to start covering the costs.

Here arises a first question on the financial feasibility of nuclear power plants: Who, in these tight fiscal and financial times, will put such amounts of money together, for an investment that promises insecure returns in 25 years?


The sheer insurmountable financial obstacles the so-called nuclear renaissance faces are one problem. The other, by far much more important, are the technical, environmental, and health risks associated with nuclear power.

The catastrophe of Fukushima and Onagawa in Japan shows that even a country with a state-of-art technology cannot properly deal with what some euphemistically call the "residual risk" of nuclear power -- an euphemism, for this "residual risk" becomes the main feature of nuclear power when the radioactive meltdown sets in, as in Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

The "residual risk" is even the central data in cases where the meltdown does not happen, as in the accident of the nuclear power plant in Civaux, France, in May 1998. One would rather not think of the "residual risk" in a nuclear catastrophe in a country like China, where even schools crumble down like sand castles after the first tide.

But even way below the nuclear meltdown, atomic energy represents an enormous collective danger, which should make it simply indefensible. An exhaustive list of examples of environmental and health catastrophes caused by nuclear power, from the extraction of uranium to the disposal of nuclear waste, could not be presented here.

Suffice it to say: In France, according to official documents leaked recently, 34 of the 57 nuclear power plants presently in operation suffer of a serial construction defect that in the worst case would paralyse the cooling system. That is, a nuclear meltdown in most of the French nuclear reactors is possible, due to construction errors.

In Germany, the irresponsibility of the operators of nuclear power plants is such that nuclear waste has been routing since decades in search of an appropriate final storage. In Japan, the mendacity of nuclear operators is legendary. They have been since years lying to the public, to conceal the numerous accidents in their nuclear facilities.

In a nutshell: The evidence of the health and environmental risks of nuclear power is enormous and should be most convincing. The international nuclear lobby has so far remained impervious to it. Will it remain so, after the worst conceivable nuclear catastrophes, such as the one just happening in Japan? Let’s hope no, and finally accept that the renaissance of nuclear power which the atom lobby has been heralding was just the stillbirth of a monster. (IDN-InDepthNews/14.03.2011)

Copyright © 2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer is a freelance journalist. This article appears in his regular column 'Stray Thoughts' in the March 2011 issue of Global Perspectives (www.global-perspectives.info), a monthly magazine for international cooperation, produced by Global Cooperation Council -- a non-governmental organisation campaigning for genuine cooperation and fair globalization -- in partnership with IDN-InDepthNews.