Lights out for nuclear power?

Japan’s Fukushima disaster and the rise of shale gas have the developed world running from nuclear power

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The last thing anyone wants to hear regarding a nuclear accident is “unprecedented crisis” and “getting worse.” Yet that was the frank assessment Tatsujiro Suzuki, chair of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, gave about the Fukushima power plant in an interview with the BBC earlier this month. Two and a half years after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the coastal facility, causing the meltdown of three of its four reactors, efforts to contain the disaster are failing. Water being used to cool the still-molten cores is leaking into the Pacific from giant tanks at the rate of 300 tonnes a day. Radiation at ground level has hit an all-time high of 2,200 millisieverts—enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. And the latest government plan—to spend $470 million to turn the ground beneath the plant into an impenetrable “ice wall” via a network of refrigerated pipes—sounds more like a James Bond movie than proven science.

The immediate consequences of Fukushima were painfully evident for the global nuclear industry. Japan took all 50 of its reactors off-line. (Only two have since been restarted, and they are both scheduled to be shut down for maintenance this month.) The German government shuttered eight of its oldest nuclear facilities and committed to phasing out the remaining nine plants by 2022. Reactors around the world were subject to immediate safety inspections, and proposed projects were put back under the microscope. The World Nuclear Association says the probable frequency of a meltdown at a modern plant is about one in a million years, and that even in a triple metldown like Fukushima there were “no fatalities or serious radiation doses to anyone, while over 200 people continued working on the site.”

But as at the disaster site itself, it’s the lingering after-effects that are proving most difficult to overcome. Lost in the headlines about the leaks and ice walls this month was the latest calamity to befall the business, the closure of Vermont’s only nuclear plant. It was the fifth announced shutdown of a U.S. reactor in the past 12 months alone. Fourteen others are already in the process of being decommissioned. A confluence of factors—Fukushima-driven safety concerns, reinvigorated environmental opposition, cheaper power alternatives and depressed demand for electricity—has governments and utilities backing away from fission. It’s a growing trend that has proponents of nuclear energy suddenly worrying about its future.

“Public opinion about nuclear energy hasn’t really changed, but what happened in Japan has really mobilized people who want to shut down plants,” says Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economy and Environmental Policy at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. “And the price for electricity is so low that the people who own them can’t even cover the maintenance costs.”

It wasn’t that long ago that experts were predicting a bright tomorrow for nuclear power. Oil and natural gas prices were spiking, and the move away from coal-fired generating stations due to increasing concerns about pollution and greenhouse gas emissions augured well for the tried and relatively clean technology. When the U.S. Congress rubber-stamped $18 billion in federal loan guarantees in 2008 for new plant construction, power companies submitted 30 proposed reactors to regulators across the country. But as of now, only five of those projects—two in South Carolina, two in Georgia and one in Tennessee—have broken ground. And all are reported to be over budget and behind schedule. (The are no new reactors under construction in Canada, although Ontario is mulling over proposals for two more at its Darlington station outside Toronto.)

What few saw coming, however, was the rapid emergence of shale gas as a cheap and abundant fuel source. Coupled with a six-year economic slump that has greatly slowed the growth in industrial demand across North America, the new supply has pushed down wholesale electricity prices to the point where nuclear operators are now feeling the squeeze. And when it comes to planning for future needs, gas plants—which can be built in just over a year for less than $1 billion—are proving far more attractive than nuclear stations that cost in excess of $12 billion and take as long as a decade to come online.

The outlook for nuclear is similarly bleak in western Europe. The U.K., facing a looming energy crunch as EU regulations force the shutdown of its coal-fired plants, is looking to gas to fill most of the gap. Safety concerns that forced the temporary shutdown of two reactors in Belgium last year have led regulators to call for new tests at every other nuclear plant on the Continent. Germany has pegged its energy future to wind and solar—although it admits its nuclear closures may well result in higher prices and “moderate” electricity imports. And even France, a long-time nuclear champion, is moving forward with a plan to reduce fission-derived power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent of its national supply by 2025.

Increasingly, it seems that the industry’s best prospects for expansion are in the Far East. After taking a brief pause to review its plans post-Fukushima, the Chinese government is forging ahead with the construction of 30 new reactors (along with 363 additional coal plants). Russia is currently constructing 11, India is working on seven, and South Korea four. At present, those four countries are responsible for close to 80 per cent of all global nuclear construction.

“The growth potential for us is definitely in the developing world,” says Ala Alizadeh, senior vice-president of marketing and business development for Mississauga’s Candu Energy Inc., now a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin. The Canadian reactor-maker is currently in negotiations to build two units in Romania, and hopes to soon conclude a partnership with the Chinese government for the newest generation of its heavy-water Candu, which runs on the nuclear waste produced by light-water reactors. Market factors and politics have conspired to make nuclear a tougher sell closer to home, he allows. “Nuclear is high cost in capital, but low cost in fuel,” says Alizadeh. “Over 60 years the two balance out, but it demands a big upfront investment.” The reluctance to build new plants in the West has created a strong demand for refurbishment work to extend the lifespan of existing facilities. In recent years, Candu has upgraded old units in Korea and New Brunswick, and is currently working on plants in Argentina and Ontario.

However, that’s a temporary solution that adds another 30 years or so of operating life. Most of the Western world’s nuclear facilities are already toward the tail end of their usefulness, having been built in the 1970s and early ’80s. And with nuclear power still a substantial part of the supply mix—20 per cent in the United States, and 15 per cent in Canada—a reckoning is approaching. “The choice isn’t yes or no to nuclear power. The choice is, if not nuclear, then what else?” says Rutgers’s Felder. With concerns over Fukushima still top of mind, and the abundance of cheap shale gas, he now believes it will take a sustained market reversal to once again revive the nuclear option. The introduction of a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions might do the trick. But the continued weakness of the global economy has strengthened opposition to such proposals.

A recent series of roundtables on the future of nuclear energy, convened by Canada’s Public Policy Forum, found widely divergent views among industry leaders. In the best-case 25-years-out scenario, Canada would be a world leader, building a new, smaller generation of Candu reactors and exporting its uranium around the world. In the worst-case one, the only real growth in the business will be from decommissioning and cleaning up existing facilities. ?Felder, who started his career as a nuclear engineer aboard a missile-launching U.S. Navy submarine—later decommissioned as part of the SALT II arms reduction treaty—is reluctant to even hazard a guess. “You can certainly be very wrong on guessing the fate of nuclear power.”