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ISIS Report 15/09/08

Nuclear Renaissance Runs Aground

World leaders sign up as US nuclear programme stalls and accidents rocks top nuclear nation Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

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World leaders sign up to “nuclear renaissance”

Leaders at the Group of 8 (G8) summit in Hokkaido, Japan, in early July 2008 reiterated their commitment to build new nuclear power stations. They see a “nuclear renaissance” in mitigating climate change and energy security that would reduce dependence on fossils fuels and greenhouse gas emissions [1, 2]. The G8 includes the industrial nations Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States of America. The European Union is represented but does not have the right to host or chair a meeting. Also invited to the summit were China and India.

Some 29 countries worldwide have indicated they wish to introduce nuclear power, while most existing users have announced plans to expand their nuclear capacity. By 2030, Japan will increase nuclear power generation to as much as 40 percent of total electricity, and Russia’s share of nuclear power will grow to 20-25 percent from the current 16 percent [3].

Several days later, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that Britain must build “at least” eight new nuclear power stations during the next 15 years to replace ageing plants and contribute to a “post-oil economy” [4].

Earlier in May, Italy’s newly elected government said that within five years, it planned to resume building nuclear plants [5]. The country dropped nuclear energy 20 years ago after a referendum resoundingly condemned nuclear power. Environmental groups immediately attacked any plan to bring back nuclear power. Giuseppe Onufrio, a director of Greenpeace Italy, called it “a declaration of war.”

France has been the world’s top nuclear nation, and will continue in that capacity (see later).

Germany and Belgium stand alone among nations that use nuclear power, but have long prohibited the building of new reactors, although old ones are allowed to continue operating for their natural lifespan.

Across the Atlantic in Canada, the nuclear industry showcased its technology and expertise to more than 100 delegates representing 35 countries at the World Nuclear University (WNU) for a six-week series of lectures, facility tours and special events during July and August [6]. The WNU was inaugurated in 2003 in London, UK, as a “global partnership committed to enhancing international education and leadership in the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.”

Back in the summer of 2006, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a key speech to the UK Chamber of Commerce, noted that Britain is among those countries poised to begin buying new reactors for the first time in decades, and said [7]. “We’ll hope you remember that Canada is not just a source of uranium, we also manufacture state-of-the-art CANDU reactor technology, and we’re world leaders in safe management of fuel waste.” That last claim turns out to be gross overstatement [8] see Close-up on Nuclear Safety, SiS 40).

Harper’s speech [7] was delivered three days after the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair formally proposed that Britain build new nuclear plants to stay on track with its plans to cut greenhouse emissions. President George W. Bush had already signed an energy bill in the summer of 2005 that offered billions in tax breaks and loan guarantees in a bid to jump-start the first new nuclear reactor construction in the US since the 1970s. Given all that action, Harper’s government, goaded by the Canadian federal bureaucrats, lost little time in projecting its embrace of nuclear energy as part of the nuclear renaissance around the globe.

There is a well-orchestrated effort worldwide to promote nuclear power. One of the instruments is the World Nuclear Association (WNA) [9], formerly the Uranium Institute, a confederation of companies connected with nuclear power production from uranium mining to electricity generation and is responsible for 95 percent of the world’s nuclear power outside the US.

According to the WNA [10], the current nuclear renaissance dating back to about 2001 is now in full swing. China plans a five-fold increase in nuclear capacity to 40 GW by 2020, while India’s target is to add 20 to 30 new reactors by 2020; Russia plans to build 40 GW of new nuclear power by 2025; Finland and Sweden have designated permanent disposal sites for nuclear wastes that are accepted by local communities; and several countries in Eastern Europe are currently building (Romania) or have firm plans to build new nuclear power plants (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey)..

US nuclear future unravelling despite slick PR campaign

In the US, The current push for nuclear power began in 2002, when George W. Bush launched the Nuclear Power 2010 programme for the construction of at least three major nuclear power plants [11].  The US Energy Policy Act of 2005 then offered three major forms of subsidy. New nuclear power plants could get production tax credits, federal loan guarantees and construction insurance against cost overruns and delays, together worth $18.5 billion.

Christian Parenti, writing in The Nation [11] reveals how the Nuclear Energy Institute, industry’s main trade group, hired the PR firm Hill and Knowlton to run a slick campaign to green wash nuclear energy. Part of their strategy involves an advocacy group with the grassroots-sounding name, Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. At the hub of the campaign are former Environment Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman and former Greenpeace co-founder turned “corporate shill” Patrick Moore (also a champion of GM crops). Ghost-written op-eds are placed under the bylines of “scientists for hire”.

All the major environmental groups in the US oppose nuclear power. But the PR campaign is having some impact. The online environmental journal Grist found that 54 percent of its readers are ready to give atomic energy a second chance; and 59 percent of Treehugger.com readers feel the same way.

But despite all the corporate spin, public subsidies and presidential speeches, there are signs that the nuclear rebirth is coming to a halt.

In late December 2007, Warren Buffett, “whose name is synonymous with sound money” turned his back on nuclear power. His MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company scrapped plans to build a plant in Payette, Idaho, because no matter how many times the managers ran the numbers, and they have already spent $13 million doing so, they found they could not balance the books. South Carolina Electric and Gas too, has suspended its two planned reactors, citing costs as the key factor. If nuclear power breaks ground soon, it will likely be NRG Energy's double-reactor plant to be built in South Texas. But that one has also been delayed.

According to Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environment Research [11], “Wall street doesn't like nuclear power.” Parenti agrees, “nuclear power is too expensive and risky to attract the necessary commercial investors.” He points out that even with vast government subsidies it is difficult or almost impossible to get proper financing and insurance. The massive federal subsidies on offer will cover up to 80 percent of construction costs of several nuclear power plants in addition to generous production tax credits, as well as risk insurance. The average two-reactor nuclear power plant is estimated to cost $10 billion to $18 billion to build. That’s before cost overruns, and “no US nuclear power plant has ever been delivered on time or on budget.”

Parenti remarks that [11], “rarely has so much money, scientific know-how and raw state power been marshalled to achieve so little.” An investment of several hundred billion dollars resulted in a US nuclear industry of 104 operating plants, about a quarter of the global total that produces just 19 percent of electricity in the country.

Atomic optimism run amok caused the largest municipal bond default in US history,” Parenti recalls. In 1983, Washington Public Power Supply System abandoned three nuclear plants in mid-construction, plagued by massive cost overruns and incompetent contractors. When the project finally died, unfinished costs had ballooned to $24 billion, and the utility abandoned $2.25 billion worth of bonds.

In 1985 Forbes called the nuclear industry “the largest managerial disaster in history.”

France nuclear accidents wrecks façade of competence and safety

In the very week that the G8 and other leaders were pledging their nations to the nuclear renaissance, a series of nuclear accidents was sending shock waves throughout France, severely denting the façade of competence and safety in the use of nuclear energy that the country had created around itself.

Nuclear power has dominated France since the early 1980s [12]. The country’s main electricity company EDF (Électricité de France) manages its 59 nuclear power stations that produce 87.5 percent of both EDF’s and France’s electrical power. This makes EDF the world leader in producing nuclear power. Much of France’s electricity (18 percent) is exported, to Italy, the Netherlands, Britain and Germany. France has long enjoyed a reputation as Europe’s nuclear energy expert, and is fully committed to continue in that capacity. In 2005, EDF announced plans to replace the current nuclear plants with new 1.6 GWe units as they reach the end of their licensed life starting around 2020. In 2006, the French Government asked Areva (the French nuclear power conglomerate) and EDF to build a Generation III nuclear reactor, the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) at the Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant. Another new EPR was announced by President Sarkozy in July 2008, at a site still to be selected. Areva has a pilot EPR plant under construction in Finland (already plagued by delay and cost overrun see [13] Nuclear Energy’s Financial and Safety Nightmare, SiS 40), and marketing activities have been extended to US and China

In the first week of July 2008 during the G8 summit, and as Sakozy assumed the role of president of the EU, the Tricastin nuclear power station in southern France malfunctioned, resulting in 30 000 litres of a solution containing 12 percent enriched uranium to overflow from a reservoir into the nearby Faffiere and Lauzon rivers, raising the concentration of uranium in the two rivers 1 000-fold [14]. This was the first of a series of 9 blunders and leaks in France’s nuclear reactors in three weeks since 7 July [15]. After initially downplaying the seriousness of the accidents, the French government was goaded into action. The Environment Minister Jean-Louis Barloo has since acknowledged that France’s nuclear facilities experienced a total of 115 “small irregularities” this year.  Borloo said the government will need a comprehensive examination of France’s atomic industry

The non-government organization CRIIRAD (Independent Commission of Research and Information on Radioactivity) had already noted many malfunctions on the Tricastin site [16]. High radiation levels had been measured in 2002 in various locations. Leaks from the waste pipes and retention tanks were found in April and August 2006; and on the waste treatment station in November 2007. In January 2008 radioactive effluent was inadvertently left in a transfer tank. Above normal releases into the atmosphere were noted in 2006. Areva has registered a request to increase maximum emission norms, which is still under discussion.

The enquiry into the 7 July incident also detected pollution of the water table apparently linked to the storage of military nuclear waste at Pierrelatte. And it was decided to test the water tables around all French power plants. Frederic Mariller of Greenpeace said in a press release on 17 July 2008: “this analysis must not stop at the nuclear plants but must be widened to all nuclear sites: to processing sites (such as Cadarache, Marcoule, or the Hague), to disused uranium mines (such as Bessines), to military sites (such as Valduc), and to waste-stocking centres, notably in the Manche region and at Soulaines.”

Areva made €743 million in profits in 2007. The drive for profits led Areva to maintain lax safety standards and insufficient infrastructure investment. Areva has long benefited from the low priced uranium ore from Niger, a former French colony in West Africa. It also runs uranium mines in Canada, and has operations at 40 locations in the US.

Sarkozy has made selling nuclear power infrastructure an important element of his visits abroad. On 11 July, Areva was declared the preferred bidder for the Sellafield site in the UK that is supposed to generate €1.6 billion annually. A nuclear energy deal was part of the €10 billion trade package negotiated between Sarkozy and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in December 2007. Sarkozy negotiated a €8 billion sale of nuclear plants to China in November 2007, and Areva obtained a €1 billion uranium enrichment contract in South Korea in June 2007.

In August 2008, the British government’s nuclear plans are on hold after French energy giant EDF’s bid to buy UK’s existing nuclear sites was rejected, possibly because existing shareholders in British Energy demanded more than EDF was willing to pay. [17].

We have previously deconstructed the nuclear renaissance in terms of safety, economics, technology and sustainability [18, 19] (Deconstructing the Nuclear Power Myths, SiS 27; Safe New Generation Nuclear Power? SiS 29). Recent developments not only confirm our arguments but give fresh insights as to what’s behind the nuclear renaissance that never was and will never be, as shall be revealed in four further reports. Read on.


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