Is the nuclear power industry in its death throes? Even some nuclear enthusiasts believe so. With the exception of China, most nations are moving away from nuclear — existing power plants across the United States are being shut early; new reactor designs are falling foul of regulators, and public support remains in free fall. Now come the bankruptcies. In an astonishing hammer blow to a global industry in late March, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse — the original developer of the workhorse of the global nuclear industry, the pressurized-water reactor (PWR), and for many decades the world’s largest provider of nuclear technology — filed for bankruptcy after hitting big problems with its latest reactor design, the AP1000. Largely as a result, its parent company, the Japanese nuclear engineering giant Toshiba, is also in dire financial straits and admits there is “substantial doubt” about its ability to continue as a going concern. Meanwhile, France’s state-owned Électricité de France (EDF), Europe’s biggest builder and operator of nuclear power plants, is deep in debt thanks to its own technical missteps and could become a victim of the economic and energy policies of incoming President Emmanuel Macron. This is no short-term trend. While gas and renewables get cheaper, the price of nuclear power only rises. This is in large part to meet safety concerns linked to past reactor disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima and to post-9/11 security worries, and also a result of utilities factoring in the costs of decommissioning their aging reactors. Westinghouse’s downfall was partly caused by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission wanting, as Gregory Jaczko, its chairman from 2009 to 2012, put it, “to ensure [the AP1000 design] could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials.” A 9/11 clause, in other words. British plans to pay Toshiba to build a giant complex of three Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Moorside in the northwest of England look doomed because of the financial implosion of the company. The government recently asked South Korea’s nuclear giant KEPCO to take over the project, perhaps using its own design, the APR 1400. Also keen to break into one of the few markets for new nuclear power plants is China General Nuclear, a state-owned enterprise. It already has a one-third financial stake in EDF’s Hinkley plant and wants to use that to help secure good terms to build its own Hualong One reactor design, starting at Bradwell, east of London. It believes that British regulatory approval for its reactor design could open up world markets. On the face of it, now should be the moment when nuclear power fulfills the extravagant promises made for it half a century ago. In an age when there is no higher priority than delivering low-carbon energy, the biggest source of that energy in the rich, developed world should be ready to thrive. Yet the industry is in crisis. It looks ever more like a 20th- century industrial dinosaur, unloved by investors, the public, and policymakers alike. The crisis could prove terminal.
Yale Environment 360 15th May 2017 read more »