THE nuclear power industry is deeply troubled, with little cause for optimism. There is growing worldwide public resistance to nuclear power stations, US President Barack Obama has terminated government subsidies for nuclear power, and Germany and Switzerland have committed to shutting down all their reactors. While the renewable energy industry has seen dramatic growth and constantly falling costs, the nuclear industry grapples with spiralling costs, the seemingly intractable waste-disposal issue, and the huge economic and human costs of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
We have heard from the nuclear lobby that a "nuclear renaissance" is just around the corner and, as evidence of this, we are told 65 reactors are "under construction" worldwide. Examination of this list reveals some interesting details. The International Atomic Energy Association maintains a database of all commercial reactors, the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS). In March this year, it listed 65 reactors as "under construction".
It is instructive to look at the number of years some of these have been "under construction". For example, Lungmen 1 and 2 in China were begun in 1997 and have so far taken 15 years to build. In the Slovak Republic, construction of Mochovce 3 and 4 was started in 1987, making 25 years so far. For Atucha 2 in Argentina, it's 31 years. Moving from the disappointing to the ludicrous, Watts Bar 2 in the US has been "under construction" since 1972. It is likely these long-delayed projects will eventually be cancelled, and almost certainly they will never be an economic success. Even if they are ever completed, the designs will be frighteningly outdated and their safety features unlikely to satisfy current regulatory requirements or public concerns. It is therefore disingenuous to include these in a list of "success stories" about nuclear power. Eliminating the reactors that have been "under construction" for 15 years or more reduces the list of 65 to 52.
Another item in the PRIS data is the estimated start-up year. It is interesting that for many of these reactors across South Korea, India, France, Brazil and China, the PRIS database does not list an estimated start-up year. It is unusual, to say the least, for a construction project to have no estimated completion date. This can be interpreted as either a lack of commitment to the project or a sign that problems have arisen that will delay construction. These can hardly be considered success stories and eliminating them from the list of 52 reactors leaves just 10 reactors.
Of these 10, most are in pairs and they are spread over six different nuclear plants. And of these plants, only two (Vogtle in the US and Flamville in France) are in the West. What is more, Vogtle is likely to be the last nuclear plant built in the US and was viable only because of subsidies from the Bush administration.
Another statistic offered by the World Nuclear Association is that nuclear power is being "considered" by 45 countries that do not currently use it. At first glance, this seems to be impressive evidence of the nuclear "renaissance". However, any country that is considering using nuclear power is, by definition of the word "considering", also considering not using it.
An analysis of the 45 countries reveals interesting examples. It includes Namibia and Mongolia, which both consume about 3000GWh a year. A small nuclear power station such as Koeberg, if operated at 80% capacity, would produce more than 12000 GWh a year. Is it likely any country will pay for generating capacity that will produce more than four times the electricity they need? Including these countries in the "considering" list is a distortion of the facts by the World Nuclear Association, perhaps born of a desperation to conceal the decline of the industry.
Nuclear power plants are very long-term commitments. It is therefore important to have a healthy global nuclear industry in place so that services such as maintenance, spare parts, decontamination after a leak, plant decommissioning and waste handling are available at reasonable prices when they are required, decades from now.
The sad truth is that even according to the optimistic International Atomic Energy Agency data from the PRIS data, the number of reactors on which construction was started fell 75% from 2010 to last year, and again 75% from last year to this year. Far from a renaissance, this is a catastrophic collapse. SA would do well to wait a few years to see if this trend reverses before locking itself into the nuclear energy option.
. Becker is chairman of the Koeberg Alert Alliance.