10 years after Fukushima
Illustration: fog over the lake!
(See also the webinar on this topic:
In the history of the civilian use of nuclear energy, each of the three major reactor accidents (Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011) marked a social shock, led to the questioning of nuclear safety and the adaptation of safety standards to the experience of the accident. Fukushima also led to political decisions in several countries that went beyond the tightening of safety measures, namely to turn away from nuclear energy in the short to medium term. Today, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Fukushima, we will take a brief look at the current status and future visions of the civilian use of nuclear power. More detailed information can be found in the annual “Status Report” of the “World Nuclear Industry” (last edition 2019: M. Schneider et al. 2020), as well as on the information platform of the World Nuclear Organisation (https://www.world-nuclear.org/). Strategy papers are published on the websites of the various national governments.
31 countries operated a total of 417 nuclear reactors in July 2019, 21 fewer than in the record year 1989. The nuclear share of global electricity production in 2018 was 10.15%, compared to 17.5% in 1996 (all-time maximum, similar to 2011 before the Fukushima accident). Production figures collapsed after the Fukushima disaster, but have risen slightly since then, mainly due to the connection of the newly built Chinese and Russian nuclear power plants. According to the status report, 46 nuclear power plants are currently under construction in 16 countries worldwide, 10 of which are in China and 7 in India. The oldest of the construction projects on the list started in Slovakia in 1985, but only a few countries have their own nuclear industry, which plans nuclear power plants and builds and operates them with their own reactors (figures 2019):
- China leads the way: 47 reactors in operation at the end of 2019, 37 of which have been connected to the grid over the last 10 years, and 10 more nuclear power plants under construction.
- Russia follows with 39 operating nuclear power plants, of which 10 new nuclear power plants have been connected to the grid since 2010; 5 plants are currently under construction.
- South Korea also has its own reactor line with the OPR-1000 and the APR-1400, which is also an export model. 4 reactors are currently under construction.
- France is building an EPR (Flamanville) in its own country, as well as further reactors in Finland (Olkiluoto) and England (Hinkley Point).
- Canada also still has the capacity to build CANDU heavy water reactors. The Indian PHWR-700 reactor is comparable to the CANDU reactor. India is currently building 7 new reactors, including two reactors of Russian design.
Other countries buy reactors more or less “off the shelf”.
In geographical Europe, the following countries still operate nuclear power plants today: Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland, France, Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and the Netherlands. The following European countries are pursuing a short- or medium-term phase-out policy: Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain. Italy, Austria and Ireland deliberately did not join the association of operating countries. Poland and Lithuania have new projects for nuclear power plants.
The history of Japan is of course interesting. Until the Fukushima disaster of 11 March 2011, the country operated 54 commercial nuclear reactors. During the disaster three reactors were destroyed by meltdown. In the months following, all of the other reactors were provisionally shut down. Since then, the government has been trying, with varying degrees of success, to get these facilities up and running again. Today, eight reactors are probably back on line.
When looking at the officially declared national strategies, the discrepancy between the official declarations and reality is striking.
Here the (extreme) example of the USA:
In the USA 96 commercial reactors are operated, which went online between 1971 and 1989, i.e. in a period of 18 years. Since the last reactor was switched on, 31 years have passed. Since 2013, two new Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors are being built in Vogtle (reactors of the so-called 3rd generation). Their commissioning is planned for 2021 and 2022, but this is still uncertain. In its strategy paper “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage” the Department of Energy (DOE) now writes:
“First, the U.S. Government will take bold action to revive and strengthen the uranium mining industry, support uranium conversion services, end reliance on foreign uranium enrichment capabilities, and sustain the current fleet, removing strategic vulnerabilities across the nuclear fuel cycle and restoring a world-class workforce to provide benefits to the U.S. and to compete in the international market.
Next, the U.S. Government will leverage American technological innovation and advanced nuclear Research, Development, and Demonstration (RD&D) investments to accelerate technical advances and regain American nuclear energy leadership.
Finally, the U.S. Government will move into markets currently dominated by Russian and Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOE) and recover our position as the world leader in exporting best-in-class nuclear energy technology, and with it, strong non-proliferation standards. We will restore American nuclear credibility and demonstrate American commitment to competing in contested markets and repositioning America as the responsible nuclear energy partner of choice.“
And our comment: Reality is a stern master. Whether it’s the steel industry, the modernization of the automobile industry, or the reawakening of the uranium cycle-based nuclear industry, the current US administration has lost touch with reality. Notably, one of the more important lines of development planned in the strategy paper in question is that of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs, see below).
France: Also interesting is the case of France, a country whose electricity production (even after the shutdown of Fessenheim) depends 75% on its nuclear power plants. In our blog post of July 21, 2020, on the 19 billion Euro EPR of Flamanville, we already pointed out the difficulties of maintaining and renewing the current 56 nuclear power plants. The issue is now gradually being discussed in France in a more comprehensive and honest way than before. The report “Stratégie française pour l’énergie et le climat, programmation pluriannuelle de l’énergie, 2019-2023, 2024-2028” gives interesting indications of this new spirit of frankness. Here are some extracts (our translation):
p. 3: “The share of nuclear energy will be gradually reduced in order to diversify our electricity generation sources … The reduction in consumption and the transition to more sustainable energies will improve air quality and, more generally, reduce the environmental and health impact of the energy sector. But it is also of economic interest by reducing our dependence on imports and thus on the world market price of fossil fuels.”
p. 5: “Nuclear power production capacity: 4 to 6 nuclear reactors are to be shut down by 2028, including the one in Fessenheim. Closure of 14 nuclear reactors by 2035, when nuclear energy will account for 50% of the electricity mix.”
p. 28, 29: “Beyond this first phase, the government is pursuing the goal of diversifying the electricity mix to achieve 50% nuclear power generation. This diversification policy is a response to various challenges: A more diversified electricity system, if it succeeds in integrating a larger volume of variable renewable energy, can be an electricity system that is more resistant to external shocks, such as a reduction in the production capacity of reactors following an incident or a general failure that would lead to the unavailability of several reactors. The majority of the nuclear power fleet was built up in a short period of about 15 years. It is therefore desirable to anticipate the closure of certain reactors in the existing fleet in order to avoid, for example, a “cliff” effect which would not be sustainable either in terms of social impact or for the production system. This anticipation is also necessary in order to distribute investment in new electricity generation capacity . . . The objective of achieving a 50% share of nuclear power in electricity generation by 2025 seems impossible, unless we risk disrupting France’s electricity supply or resuming the construction of fossil-fuelled power stations, which would be contrary to our climate change objectives. The government has therefore set itself the target of increasing the share of limiting the share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix to 50% by 2035. This is in line with our climate commitments …”
In order to achieve the target of 50 percent of electricity production by 2035, the government therefore sets out the following guidelines:
- 14 nuclear reactors will be shut down by 2035, including the reactors at Fessenheim power station;
- EDF has proposed that the government investigate the closure of pairs of reactors at the sites of Blayais, Bugey, Chinon, Cruas, Dampierre, Gravelines and Tricastin. Preference is given to shutting down reactors that do not lead to the closure of any site; the general principle is to shut down the 12 reactors (with the exception of Fessenheim) at the latest at the end of their fifth 10-year visit.
- …. 2 Reactors could also be shut down in the next five years, 2025-2026, under the following cumulative conditions . . . .
In addition, the strategy of nuclear fuel reprocessing will be maintained during the design period and beyond into the 2040s, when a large proportion of the La Hague plants will have reached the end of their life. To this end, and to compensate for the shutdown of 900 MW Mox reactors, a sufficient number of 1300 MW reactors will be “moxed” to ensure the sustainability of the French recycling economy”.
And finally, to build new reactors and nuclear power plants:
p. 31: “In order to enable a decision to be taken on the possible launch of a program for the construction of new reactors, the Government will carry out a comprehensive work program with industry up to mid 2021, including:
- Demonstrating, together with French industry, that it is capable of mastering an industrial program of new reactors based on a working hypothesis of three EPR pairs, through the formalization of a consolidated economic and safety feedback during the commissioning of the first EPR, in particular Flamanville 3, and the technical and industrial mobilization phase of Hinkley Point C, and through a risk reduction program for the new model of EPR2 reactor proposed by EDF
- The assessment of the estimated costs of the new EPR2 reactor model proposed by EDF and the technical and economic comparison of nuclear energy with other low-carbon electricity generation methods, taking into account all direct and indirect costs (network development, full storage costs, nuclear waste management, etc.)
- The analysis of the possible options for the implementation and financing of a program of new reactors for the French electricity system, including the question of the model for the economic regulation of these new reactors; the measures necessary for the validation of the program; the analysis of the options for the financing of a program of new reactors for the French electricity system, including the question of the model for the economic regulation of these new reactors; the measures necessary for the validation of the program of new reactors for the French electricity system.”
“Furthermore, it appears necessary to regularly review alternative options to ensure a carbon-free electricity mix with the necessary guarantees for security of supply until the next planning period. With regard to alternative options, the state will look into research on batteries, hydrogen storage (as part of the hydrogen plan), power-to-gas and demand management in order to take advantage of French know-how and industrial expertise in this field and reduce costs”.
Our comment: The French government has been wrestling for years now with the question of its long-term share of nuclear energy in electricity generation and the corresponding calendar. The proposals are now gradually becoming more concrete. However, many points remain open to question, such as the feasibility of actually implementing a construction program for 3 EPR pairs. [In any case, France will be left alone with its nuclear strategy in Europe the longer the more alone it will be.]
SMR’s (Small Modular Reactors)
According to the definition of the IAEA, reactors with a power of less than 300 MWe are called small reactors and those with a power of 300 to 700 MWe are called medium-sized reactors. The idea of building and operating small reactors is as old as the use of nuclear energy. Small reactors were built by the USA after the Second World War to operate submarines and cruisers. The USSR and France soon followed. The British Navy equipped its fleet with American small reactors after the Second World War.
Civil applications have also been discussed for a long time. India, for example, was already planning the AHWR reactor, a small heavy water reactor, in the 1990s. The idea of SMR reactors then became a real “fashion” from around 2011. The “Status Report 2019” of the “World Nuclear Industry” mentions the programmes of the following countries: Argentina, Canada, China, India, Russia, South Korea, Great Britain, USA. However, the conclusions are not very encouraging (p. 209):
“Although policy makers in many countries continue to be interested in SMRs, it has become evident that they will be even less capable of competing economically than large nuclear plants, which have themselves been increasingly uncompetitive. Thus, even if a few SMR projects get built over the next decade or beyond, typically as a result of massive support from one or more governments, it is unlikely that SMRs could play any significant role in the future electricity sector.”
However, even this evidence does not discourage dreamers (see box).
In the second half of the 20th century, the civilian use of nuclear energy was an industrial sector that was mainly driven by the western industrialized countries, above all the USA. Today, the West (with the possible exception of France?) is out of the market and, at least in the medium term, is pushing towards extensive civilian de-nuclearisation. When looking at the “Status Report”, for example, it is striking how little weight is given to new reactor developments and the development of new fuels. The trend today is clearly towards renewables – decentralized and sustainable production systems for electricity, provided that the issue of energy storage can be satisfactorily resolved. Of course, a reversal of this trend cannot be ruled out, whatever the reasons may be (including military priorities). And there remains, once again, as ever, the question of waste disposal.
Box: Two German scientists plan to withdraw from the exit
In July 2020, an article by the former Jülich physicist Rainer Moormann and the Eastern European and technology historian and “industrial anthropologist” Anna Veronika Wendland appeared in the respected “Die Zeit” newspaper. It caused a brief sensation in Germany, a country that is about to phase out nuclear energy (“Die Zeit,” “Stoppt den Atomausstieg”, 15 July 2020). The two pro-nuclear energy advocates explain their proposal “of stopping the nuclear phase-out” in an interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v). The argument can be summarized in 3 points:
· there is still no solution for certain problems in the utilization of intermittent renewable solar and eolian energies, e.g. the long-term storage problem, especially for the cold dark periods in winter
· the relevant replacement technologies (power-to-gas generated methane/hydrogen technology) are only just beginning to be introduced and replacing coal-fired power stations with conventional gas-fired power stations is not an alternative;
· the material and energy requirements of the unfinished renewable system would lead to a battle for resources that would not respect ecological constraints and would raise the question of whether such a system was economically feasible or ecologically desirable at all.
As a solution to the dilemma, the two authors advocate a change of course by continuing to operate the six nuclear reactors still in operation for a period of about 10 years – and this under state control from December 2022. If the energy turnaround does not succeed, then, according to Moormann, one would have to think about CO2-free alternatives, and even generation-III reactors and small- or medium-size reactors (generation-IV) would be considered. Fusion might then be visible on the horizon.
The authors conclude with an appeal to correct the “ideologically influenced misguided political decisions” and to make science-based decisions in the future.
The argumentation of Moormann and Wendland really seems to come from a different era, when dreaming about nuclear utopia was still socially fashionable. The destructive effects of nuclear technology are not even addressed by the two authors. Eight decades of nuclear fission-related problems – up to 80,000 nuclear warheads, approximately 500 nuclear weapon tests fired above ground, radioactively contaminated regions, waters, lands and people worldwide, reactor meltdowns, catastrophic environmental legacies from uranium mines and reprocessing activies, and a hitherto unsolved radioactive waste problems over geological time periods – would at least have deserved mention in such a context.
It is revealing that the two authors feel comfortable invoking the ever-receding time horizon of fusion energy as a policy option, along with new generations of untested and extremely expensive nuclear power plants. If the capital costs of nuclear plants were steadily declining, as is the case with renewables and with energy storage technologies, one might be tampted to give their proposal more credence. But steadily rising costs combined with our increasing awareness of the ecological and economic consequences of the “first nuclear age” – not to mention the alarming military implications – make it impossible to accept their analysis without skepticism (1).
(1) see Alvin Weinberg, The First Nuclear Era, The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, AIP Press 1997
DOE, Department of Energy: «Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage»
HM Government: Long-term Nuclear Energy Strategy https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/168047/bis-13-630-long-term-nuclear-energy-strategy.pdf
Ministère de la transition écologique et solidaire: Stratégie française pour l’énergie et le climat, programmation pluriannuelle de lénergie, 2019-2023, 2024 – 2028, synthèse. https://www.ecologique-solidaire.gouv.fr/sites/default/files/20200422%20Synthe%CC%80se%20de%20la%20PPE.pdf
Schneider, M. et al. (2020): The World Nuclear Industry, Status Report 2019. Schneider Consulting, Budapest, Paris, 323 S. https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/-World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Report-2019-.htm
World Nuclear Organisation: https://www.world-nuclear.org/
 This is an in-depth review of the safety of the nuclear power plant that is carried out every ten years by the safety authority ASN.