The State of the Nuclear Union

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Plant Vogtle Construction

Today, nuclear power plants operate in 31 of 196 nations, providing only 5.7% of the world’s energy, and prompting world-wide debate about the merits and benefits of the use of nuclear energy.  Annual generation of nuclear power has been on a downward trend over the last 5 years, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has had a significant negative effect on the industry around the world.   Globally, nuclear power’s share of electricity generation has declined from 16% in 2002 to 12.3% in 2011.

Costs of nuclear power

Many of the debates focus around the cost of nuclear power, which has continued an increasing trend, whereas the cost of renewable energy is still continually declining.

To date all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies where many of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, accident liability and other factors were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. In addition, because the potential liability from a nuclear accident is so great, the full cost of liability insurance is generally limited by the government.  Recently however, many countries have liberalized or are looking to liberalize their electricity markets in ways which put more of the risk back on the plant suppliers and operators than consumers, which has lead to a drastically different evaluation of the economics of nuclear power plants.

Even with significant subsidies and the ability to charge consumers prior to the construction or completion of new nuclear power facilities or repairs, nuclear power plants have been unable to overcome the tremendous costs of operating nuclear power facilities.  In the United States, nearly half of the nuclear reactors have had their operating licenses extended to 60 years.

Questions have been raised about the ability of Southern California Edison to restart the San Onofre nuclear reactors without replacing the faulty steam generator units, a decision which would likely be less appealing than decommissioning to the utility if forced to foot the bill for replacement.

In Florida, despite years of charges and no operation, Duke Energy announced that it would not continue efforts to repair the Crystal River nuclear power plant, which was shut down in 2009 after cracks were found in the concrete containment structure, and will instead start the process of retiring and decommissioning the facility.

In Wisconsin, the lack of a competitive edge led Dominion Resources to announce that it would close the Kewaunee Nuclear Power Station.  In response, Rep. Andre Jacque has proposed a bill which calls for the state to broaden its existing renewable energy mandate to include “advanced energy”, which would allow nuclear power to qualify and hopefully provide powerful incentive for Dominion to rethink it’s decision to shut down the nuclear facility.  This move has prompted critical responses from the public and other officials.

New Reactor Construction Projects Over-Budget

Today, the majority of operating reactors in the world were designed in the late 1960s and 1970s and are not offered commercially today.  Former nuclear heavy weights like the United States, Great Britain, and France, are all facing many obstacles to maintaining their nuclear reactor arsenals, let alone increasing them.

In the United States, at Plant Vogtle in eastern Georgia, the construction project which was initially estimated to cost $14 billion, has run into over $800 million in extra charges related to licensing delays.

In France, most of the nation’s nuclear reactors will require billions of euros of upgrades which threatens to make the French nuclear industry even less competitive at home, while French utilities efforts to construct new nuclear sites internationally is also failing to gain traction.

Proponents have argued that new nuclear reactor designs, like the European pressurized reactor, are safer and more reliable than older designs at existing plants, but no examples of new reactor types are operating anywhere in the world.  New reactors under construction in the United States, Finland, and France, which were meant to lead a nuclear renaissance, have been repeatedly delayed and found to be running over-budget.

Despite already being 4 years behind schedule, the utility behind the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland announced this week that the plant will not be operational before 2016, delaying the start another 2 years from a previous forecast provided to the public.  Originally the project was estimated to have been completed by 2009.  The utility is battling AREVA, the builders, over who will ultimately bear responsibility for the cost overruns.

In the United Kingdom, the amount of energy produced from renewable energy is expected to exceed that from nuclear power by 2018.  French utility EDF is still facing further delays and setbacks in reaching an agreement with the U.K. on a guaranteed electrical price, which is critical to the utility to ensure a profitable venture in the potential multi-billion dollar construction project.  Even worse, critical partners have decided not to participate with EDF in building the new nuclear reactors, citing uncertainty over overall project costs and the construction schedule.

This has lead EDF Energy to ask the Treasury to guarantee more of the costs incurred in the constructions of the new reactors, but the two sides seem unlikely to reach any meaningful agreement in the near future.

Battling Changing Weather Norms

For decades, proponents of nuclear energy argued that it offers stable output, but recent years of tough weather patterns such as heat waves, reduced precipitation levels and droughts, have all had significant impacts of nuclear power generation.  Rising sea levels also pose a threat to nuclear plants on both the Eastern and Western Seaboards.

These problems and others, are becoming increasingly significant over time, and may lead to the permanent decommissioning of some nuclear reactors.  The United States nuclear industry was greatly affected by severe weather and unexpected events at its nuclear power plants over the last two years, including the flooding at Fort Calhoun nuclear power station and the earthquake near the North Anna nuclear power plant, to name a few.  This week, in the United States, nuclear-power generation declined to the lowest level of the year as nuclear reactors were shut down in response to severe weather and faulty equipment lead to suspected leaks.

Waste Confidence Lacking

After more than 20 years of non-action, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing its policies, regulations, guidance, and technical needs in several key areas, such as: retrievability, cladding integrity, and safe handling of spent fuel; criticality safety features and requirements for spent fuel transportation; and aging management and qualification of dual-purpose canisters and components after long-term storage.  The majority of U.S. nuclear reactors currently in operation will have ceased to be in action by 2040 and the options to dispose of spent fuel pool are limited.

It should be no surprise then, that initiatives which seek to shutter nuclear power plants until the government has figured out where to put high-level nuclear waste are gaining momentum,.  This month, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, approved the “California Nuclear Initiative”, which would keep all of California’s nuclear power plants offline until the California Energy Commission determines that the “federal government has approved technology for permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste.”

Proponents used to argue that nuclear power was too cheap to meter and provided energy security by decreased dependence on imported energy sources, but have since been forced to abandon the ramparts of cheap, reliable, and safe power, and retreat to the interior defenses that nuclear power reduces carbon emissions.  Whatever the current state and perception of nuclear energy may be, proponents argue that safety improvements will make nuclear energy a safer energy supply in the future than it is today.

Source: Bloomberg

Source: JS Online

Source: KCET

Source: New York Times

Source: Fox Business

Source: Financial Times

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