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Three years on from Fukushima, nuclear power has some new allies

Japan has reinvested in nuclear power, even though the Fukushima power plant is still not safe. Freelance journalist David Donaldson says developing nations are just getting started with nuclear.

Nearly three years after the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown began, things are not looking as bad for the nuclear power industry as you might have imagined.

Last month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared his intention to restart reactors taken offline after Fukushima, and he has left open the possibility of building new ones, reversing the previous government’s decision to phase out nuclear power. Which isn’t to say Fukushima has not had any incidents since the 2011 disaster; only last month it was revealed that 100 tonnes of radioactive water had leaked out of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which remains potentially unstable and will probably take decades to clean up. It’s thought the Fukushima clean-up could cost $250 billion over 10 years.

The Abe government’s turn to nuclear power is in response to a record trade deficit last year, thanks to Japan’s need to import a huge amount of crude oil to make up for the energy shortfall created by suddenly shutting down so many power stations. Japan’s debt burden is already more than twice the size of its annual output and living costs are high, so politicians are eager to reduce expensive energy imports. Idle nuclear power plants seem like an obvious, easy solution. The election of pro-nuclear candidate Yoichi Masuzoe as governor of Tokyo last month suggests a change in mood may have taken place in Japan since Fukushima.

Currently around 13% of worldwide energy is generated by nuclear power. The United States has the largest nuclear power capacity, though it only accounts for 20% of the total. France is a big centre for nuclear power (pictured, the Cattenom plant)  — more than 70% of its power is generated by nuclear.

Several fast-growing developing and middle-income states are building nuclear plants, in particular China, India, Russia and South Korea. Only last week China approved construction of two new plants in Shandong; it’s looking for ways to cut the suffocating air pollution from burning coal while addressing the need for new power sources. China is also now helping energy-starved and politically unstable Pakistan to build several nuclear plants.

But nuclear’s future is looking less rosy in other parts of the world. The financial crisis undermined certainty in economic growth, making it more difficult to convince investors to pump millions into a power source that might not be needed by the time it is built. The share price of the world’s largest nuclear power plant builder, French state company Areva, has declined from 80 euros in 2007 to around 19 euros today. The price has remained low despite modest rises in other areas of the French sharemarket.

The current Coalition government has indicated it will not pursue nuclear power for Australia, despite John Howard’s embrace of nuclear before his defeat at the hands of Kevin Rudd in 2007. Although Australia is home to almost one-third of the world’s uranium, the idea of nuclear power remains unpopular. A 2011 poll by Roy Morgan (soon after Fukushima) found 61% were opposed, nearly double the number of supporters. The issue of where to dump the nuclear waste we already generate at the research reactor at Lucas Heights, hospitals and universities remains controversial.

Thanks to the increasing availability of cheap natural gas as a result of the so-called “fracking revolution”, building new nuclear power plants has become uneconomical in the US. The cost of generating one unit of nuclear power is more than double that of natural gas in some cases, signalling a possible end to the “nuclear Renaissance” touted only a few years ago. Plants in Vermont and Wisconsin closed last year due to market pressures, while safety concerns caused the closure of plants in Florida and California. However, the US recently approved its first new nuclear plant in decades.

Meanwhile, some western European nations have moved to phase out or cut down their use of nuclear power. Germany plans to rid itself of nuclear power entirely by 2022; Switzerland by 2034. France wants to reduce its reliance on cheap nuclear power following Fukushima — tricky without increasing carbon emissions, but made easier by the fact the costs associated with nuclear power are set to rise over coming decades. Britain, on the other hand, is building a new nuclear power station.

Like carbon-intensive energy sources, nuclear power is often relatively affordable in the short to medium term, but has significant long-term costs and risks. While coal, oil and gas contribute to the eventual — and likely massive — costs of climate change, the safety issues surrounding nuclear power generation mean governments must pay huge amounts to ensure the safety of decommissioned plants and fuel, as Germany is now discovering.

Perhaps the biggest disincentive regarding nuclear power remains the risk presented by the possibility of a Fukushima or Chernobyl-style accident. The risk of large accidents occurring remains relatively low, but a meltdown can be disastrous. Apart from the health repercussions and direct costs of cleaning up Fukushima, a whole region has been rendered uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture for at least the next few years. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl, once a mix of farmland and industrial towns, is now so sparsely populated that there are animals living there that had not been seen in the region for centuries.

Yet despite the shock of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, it looks like nuclear power won’t be going away anytime soon.

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  • 1
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Yet somehow contingency for cleanup, decommissioning and waste storage costs never get factored into the total cost of generation. What does it cost to paint a sign and maintain a fence for thousands of years ?

  • 2
    leon knight
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    True Andybob, but what about factoring in the long-term cost of coal and unconventional gas? No-one really knows how much this damage will cost future generations, but we sure as hell should be collecting some money from the miners now to plan for the future.

  • 3
    wayne robinson
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Natural gas is only cheap in America because there’s a glut of fracked gas. The domestic demand isn’t great and America hasn’t got the infrastructure to export it. If more gas powered generators are constructed or the port facilities to export the gas is built, then the price of gas will inevitably increase, and it will lose its current price advantage.

  • 4
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Decommissioning costs are regularly factored into levelised cost of nuclear electricity studies, for example bebr.utah.edu/Documents/studies/Nuclear_Report_Final_Web_7Mar2012.pdf
    They’re still only a fraction of the total value of electricity generated.

    There’s also a strong possibility that the regional decontamination effort around Fukushima is excessive, and resulting in worse outcomes than simply letting nature take its course: atomicinsights.com/realistic-dose-limits-better-predictive-models-will-help-fukushima-recovery/

    e360.yale.edu/feature/as_fukushima_cleanup_begins_long-term_impacts_are_weighed/2482/

    But governments must be seen to be Doing Something.

  • 5
    Brian Williams
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    The post-Fukushima anti-nuclear posturing by Japan and Germany was always going to unravel when the big reality hit home - somehow, somewhere and in some way, enough electricity has to be economically generated to enable their populations to live a normal existence in a first world country. Japan is the first to blink, and Germany will follow.

  • 6
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Dealing with Nuclear Waste in the long term is a nettle no government in the world has fully grasped.
    The extreme time spans, the problem of heat production and often the production of explosive hydrogen gas by radiolysis of surrounding water are all very difficult problems.
    Avoiding groundwater contamination is paramount.
    I do wonder however why areas such as Chernobyl and now Fukushima are not being thought of as areas for the global storage of nuclear waste. These areas are already contaminated.

  • 7
    Rpinglis
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Following on from Mark Duffett, if the decommissioning costs are a fraction of the value of the electricity generated, what does that say about the cost of decommissioning being so often left to taxpayers across the world? Where’s the fault? Weak governments and weak regulation?
    Then there’s the cost of waste disposal / storage associated with pressurised water reactors. These ‘burn’ little & leave a lot of radioactive material.
    It would be better if reactors that use high temperature liquid metal for cooling could be made to work efficiently and safely as they ‘burn’ almost everything, leaving very little waste. Potentially so efficient are these that if widely and quickly available they could massively decarbonise our economies. But that’s a very huge ‘if’ and ‘potentially’ because so far they aren’t up to the job, despite billions spent on them.
    To avoid catastrophic climate change & large amounts of persistent radioactive waste, solar thermal is worth far more development funding than it gets. Other non-carbon options too such as thermal / wind towers.
    But none of these are likely to see much development and establishment funding while carbon pollution is free & the crushing future costs monetary, environmental and human are willfully ignored.

  • 8
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Avoidance of groundwater contamination is why a flat, dry, impervious, aseismic terrane such as the Gawler Craton in central South Australia would be ideal (think backfill at Olympic Dam, 1.5 km below surface).

    Another take on geological waste disposal is in the edition of Nature that came out today: nature.com/news/us-seeks-waste-research-revival-1.14804?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140306

    But as Rpinglis points out, reactor tech that ‘burns’ almost all waste would be best. If they aren’t yet up to the job they’re getting close: world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Fast-Neutron-Reactors/ Russia is starting one up in a couple of months (the 800 MWe Beloyarsk 4).

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