10/10/2011 NY Times: After Fukushima, Does Nuclear Power Have a Future? By STEPHANIE COOKE: A couple of months after the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant March 11, an American nuclear expert posed an interesting question. “The post-Fukushima public sentiment is surprisingly low-key isn’t it? What a difference between this event and TMI or Chernobyl,” he wrote in an e-mail, using an abbreviation for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. “What do you think is going on? Why so quiet?”
I was not convinced. What he said was certainly true in the United States, but the accident had a profound effect in Germany, China and several other countries, serving as a fearful reminder of what can go wrong with nuclear power plants. Phase-outs were the order of the day in Germany (where Chancellor Angela Merkel also demanded immediate shutdowns of eight of the country’s oldest reactors) and Switzerland. China suspended approvals for new reactors pending a safety review, which is now reportedly completed. This has resulted in a downward revision of China’s unofficial pre-Fukushima goal to install 86 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2020. It now looks like that will be set around 60 gigawatts (up from around 12 currently) or just a little higher.
Italy said no to new reactors for the second time, ending a relatively brief flirtation with nuclear planners after a long post-Chernobyl freeze. “I think there is now less than 0.01 percent chance for nuclear in Italy,” said Luigi De Paoli, energy economy professor at the Bocconi University in Milan, according to Reuters.
Taiwan appears on the brink of some kind of phase-out involving four reactors, although it is likely to allow a recently constructed fifth unit to operate. Venezuela and Israel, both countries that had harbored nuclear power ambitions, decided they could do without after all. “I think we’ll go for the gas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN. “I think we’ll skip the nuclear.”
In Japan, of course, the effect was most dramatic. Thirteen units were automatically “scrammed” when the earthquake struck, and a 14th was already out for maintenance. With 15 others offline because of previous quakes or for mandatory inspection and refueling, the country’s fleet of 54 operating reactors was cut to 25. In May, the government ordered a shutdown of three additional units (one of which had already been down for maintenance) at Hamaoka, situated in a particularly vulnerable seismic zone near Tokyo.
The nuclear “capacity factor” — a measure of how much electricity reactors generate as a percentage of what they could provide — had dropped precipitously, from 71 percent in February to 51 percent in May, but it would plunge even further in subsequent months.
Facing the prospect of broad electricity failures over the summer, Japan’s leadership did not dare order more plants shut down, but it hardly needed to. Because of the requirement for inspections every 13 months, more reactors were taken offline, one after the other. Now only 11 are operating. (The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum stopped publishing monthly capacity factors after July, when the figure stood at 34 percent, with 19 units operating.) While there certainly were electricity shortages, Japan survived the summer without the extensive blackouts that had been predicted.
Normally the reactors would have been restarted within several weeks of shutdown, but these are not normal times in Japan. Restarts require approvals from local and prefectural governments, and these have not been received since the disaster. The 11 reactors still in operation are due to go down for maintenance between now and next September, and that in theory could leave Japan with zero nuclear-generated electricity — although that is unlikely, given the pro-nuclear sentiment of governors in some prefectures and the intense pressure for restarts from Tokyo.
However, the Japanese government has ordered a gradual phase-out of the country’s reactors, reversing a previous policy of increasing nuclear’s share of the generating mix to 50 percent by 2030. (Japan’s reactors were generally credited with supplying about 30 percent of the electricity mix, but the figure was debatable, given the frequency of power failures even before Fukushima.) “To build new reactors is unrealistic, and we will decommission reactors at the end of their life spans,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in his first policy speech Sept. 2.
Despite this relatively dismal outlook for nuclear energy, the London-based World Nuclear Association predicts a 30 percent increase in global nuclear generating capacity over the next decade; it foresees 79 more reactors online by 2020, for a total of 514, even taking Fukushima into account. And it sees a 66 percent increase by 2030, with capacity additions in China, India, South Korea and Russia outnumbering projected declines in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Curiously, it assumes Japan will restart all but the six units at Fukushima Daiichi and continue to build new reactors to replace aging ones, for a net number of operating reactors in 2030 more or less the same as before Fukushima.
While the nuclear association is obviously bullish, it is less so than it was in its last forecast two years ago. And the projected increase would only keep nuclear energy treading water. As a percentage of global generation it would account for just 14 percent, the same amount the association says it currently contributes. (Other experts say the figure is lower.)
In the United States, currently home to the world’s largest reactor fleet, only one proposed project, in Texas, was effectively canceled after Fukushima, but it had been teetering for more than a year since its largest backer, NRG Energy, decided to pull the plug. Plans for about 30 new reactors in the United States already had been whittled down to just four, despite the promise of large subsidies and President Barack Obama’s support of nuclear power, which he reaffirmed after Fukushima.
Perhaps most interesting to watch will be France, whose dependence on nuclear energy is the highest in the world, with nearly 80 percent of the country’s electricity produced by 58 reactors, a fleet second in size only to that of the United States.
A poll by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique in May, published in Le Journal du Dimanche, found 77 percent of the public favored some kind of nuclear phase-out. That is not completely surprising, given past polls showing French opinion toward nuclear energy to be lukewarm. What is clear is that Fukushima is prompting a major rethinking of the country’s energy policies and that the nuclear issue promises to be a big factor in the presidential election next year.
Against this background, it is not surprising that in the World Nuclear Association’s midcase scenario, both the United States and France show a gradual decline in the number of operating reactors over the next two decades.
It has been evident for some time that nuclear energy’s future increasingly lies in Asia. Whatever the reasons for the muted response to Fukushima, the European phase-outs prompted by the tragedy would make this trend even more pronounced. But even in Asia, a nuclear future is no certain thing. Twenty-five years apart, Chernobyl and Fukushima were events that nuclear plant designers assumed would never happen. Any further major accidents could spell the industry’s doom.
Stephanie Cooke is editor of the Energy Intelligence Group’s Nuclear Intelligence Weekly and author of “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.”