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Lobbyists debate responses to the nuclear power crisis

By Jim Green - posted Monday, 27 March 2017


Nuclear lobbyists are abandoning the tiresome rhetoric about a nuclear power 'renaissance'. Indeed they've turned full-circle and are now warning about a crisis. Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute, a US-based pro-nuclear lobby group, has recently written articles about nuclear power's "rapidly accelerating crisis" and the "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West".

A recent articlefrom the Breakthrough Institute and the like-minded Third Way lobby group discusses "the crisis that the nuclear industry is presently facing in developed countries" and states that "the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies".

'Environmental Progress', another US pro-nuclear lobby group connected to Shellenberger, also acknowledges a nuclear power crisis. The lobby group notes that 151 gigawatts (GW) of worldwide nuclear power capacity (38% of the total) could be lost by 2030 (compared to 33 GW of retirements over the past decade).

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As a worldwide generalisation, nuclear power can't be said to be in crisis. To take the extreme example, China's nuclear power program isn't in crisis ‒ it is moving ahead at pace. Nuclear power is moving ahead at snail's pace in some other countries (e.g. Russia, South Korea), while in others the industry faces problems but is not in crisis (e.g. UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Ukraine).

Nonetheless, the global picture is one of stagnation and malaise. The July 2016 World Nuclear Industry Status Report provides an overview of the troubled status of nuclear power:

  • nuclear power's share of the worldwide electricity generation is 10.7%, well down from historic peak of 17.6% in 1996;
  • nuclear power generation in 2015 was 8.2% below the historic peak in 2006; and
  • from 2000 to 2015, 646 GW of wind and solar capacity were added worldwide while nuclear capacity (not including idle reactors in Japan) fell by 8 GW.

Renewable energy generation doubled over the past decade and renewables now account for 23.5% of global electricity generation, more than twice the contribution from nuclear reactors. The gap is widening every day. The International Energy Agency's 2016 Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report anticipates 825 GW of new renewable capacity from 2016-21.

The International Energy Agency report notes that record deployment of 153 GW of renewable energy capacity in 2015 was accompanied by "continued sharp generation cost reductions", with further cost reductions of 15% for onshore wind and 25% for utility-scale solar PV anticipated over the next five years. Conversely, the Hinkley Point project in the UK typifies nuclear power's astonishing cost increases ‒ the estimated cost (including finance) is A$40 billion for two reactors.

US nuclear industry in crisis

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The US nuclear industry is in crisis, with a very old reactor fleet ‒ 44 of its 99 reactors have been operating for 40 years or more - and no likelihood of new reactors for the foreseeable future other than four already under construction.

Japanese conglomerate Toshiba and its US-based nuclear subsidiary Westinghouse are in crisis because of massive cost overruns building four AP1000 reactors in the US ‒ the combined cost overruns amount to about US$11.2bn and counting.

Toshiba said in February 2017 that it expects to book a US$6.3bn writedown on Westinghouse, on top of a US$2.3bn writedown in April 2016. The losses exceed the US$5.4bn Toshiba paid when it bought a majority stake in Westinghouse in 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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