Yesterday Robert Gottliebsen of Business Spectator spruiked the glories of BHP’s Olympic Dam uranium mine, including BHP’s claim that within 20 years the number of nuclear reactors around the world would nearly double from 439 to 793.

BHP got the 439 right. It’s 793 appears to be rather more mysterious. The number of operational reactors has actually fallen since 2002, when 444 reactors were in operation. There are, according to the nuclear power industry itself, 60 reactors under construction in January. Sounds impressive — if not quite the 300-plus reactors BHP is counting on — but in fact it’s not enough to replace the reactors that will reach the end of their lifespans over the next 15 years.

Many of those 439 reactors currently operating are old, built in the 1970s before Chernobyl and Three Mile Island cruelled the industry’s hopes of a prosperous — perhaps glowing — future. They’ll all need to be decommissioned in the next few years — although of course no one has yet found a way of decommissioning reactors without spending billions of dollars to do so.

All those numbers come from before Fukushima. Here’s a list of what’s happened in responding to the continuing and now fatal events at Fukushima:

  • Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced Japan was abandoning its plans to expand its nuclear power industry, will make renewables a key part of its energy policy to be developed ”from scratch”. Japan’s previous policy envisaged Japan relying in nuclear power for 50% of its energy needs by 2030;
  • The Chinese State council put an embargo on the approval of new reactors;
  • Switzerland’s Energy Minister suspended nuclear plant replacement approvals;
  • Venezuela called off plans to build a nuclear plant despite a deal with Russia;
  • Italy announced a one year pause on plans to re-launch nuclear power;
  • the EU agreed to conduct stress tests at all 143 European power plants
  • Germany decided to phase out nuclear reactors, with Angela Merkel telling the German Parliament that her goal was “to reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible.”
  • India’s Prime Minister has ordered a safety review of all nuclear power plants there;
  • In Brazil, the government agreed to a safety and licensing review for all nuclear plants
  • The UK government has commissioned a report on what can be learned from the Fukushima Japanese crisis, to be ready in May.
  • In the US, the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located on a fault line near New York City, has been moved to the top of the list of plants being reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as part of an urgent safety review in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Any increase on safety or design regulations for reactors developed in response to Fukushima will of course increase the already enormous cost of new reactors, which typically require government subsidies or loan guarantees to fund the on-average nine year-long construction phase.

Evidently BHP knows something the rest of us don’t about the future of the nuclear power industry.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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