The diminishing band of nuclear power fans had some rare good news recently. Two of the leading designs for new nuclear power plants — the AP1000, designed by US company Westinghouse, and the EPR, developed by Areva in France — achieved criticality (that is, the state where nuclear fuel sustains a fission chain reaction) in June. Both the plants are in China, at Sanmen and Taishan respectively.

But good news for nuclear power is never unmixed, and that’s certainly the case here. The construction process was as overtime and over-budget as usual, though not as badly as in the West, where construction of similar plants is running as much as a decade behind schedule. In the course of this protracted process, both Westinghouse and Areva have gone bankrupt. 

These plants will require a fair bit of operating experience before it can be said whether they actually function as designed. Since the design took place in the 1980s and 1990s, the latest nuclear power plants have the unfortunate distinction of being simultaneously untried and obsolescent.

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In the decades since the design process of Generation III and Generation III+ nuclear plants began, the technology of renewable energy generation has changed radically. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has fallen from $30 per watt in the early 1980s to 30 cents a watt today, a factor of 100. The cost of wind power has declined by “only” a factor of 10 over the same period, but the outcome is costs far lower than that of new nuclear.

Outside China there are now only two AP1000 reactors under construction, both at Vogtle in the US state of Georgia. Another two-reactor plant in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of billions of dollars. There are also two EPR reactors under construction, at Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland, both far behind schedule. Finally, there’s a new plant proposed for Hinkley Point in the UK, which seems unlikely ever to happen, despite an absurdly favorable deal from the UK government.

India has held out the prospect of a rescue with statements of intent for a six-unit AP1000 plant to be built in Gujarat and a similar-sized EPR plant in Mahrashtra.  These massive projects, similar to proposals for a dozen or more “Ultra Mega” coal fired power plants of 4000 GW, seem unlikely ever to proceed. The primary object seems to be the announcement of the project rather than its construction and completion.

There’s another downside to the completion of the Sanmen and Taishan plants. One of the favorite claims of nuclear advocates is that there are lots of plants being constructed in many countries. But each project completion reduces the number under construction and hardly anyone is starting new projects. Many countries are reaching the end of their construction pipeline. 

The World Nuclear Association lists 50 projects currently under construction, down from more than 60 a few years ago. Nearly all of these were started in 2015 or earlier and most are expected to be finished by 2021. Unless new projects are started, that will mark the end of Generation III nuclear power construction in China, Korea and France, leaving only India with a substantial and continuing program.

For the true believers, hopes are now pinned on new technologies, including Generation IV reactors and “small modular reactors”.  Gen IV projects have been around for decades, and seem about as likely to work as controlled nuclear fusion. Small modular reactors are being developed in China and the US, but there’s no reason to suppose they will be cheaper than traditional larger reactors. In any case, they are not going to be deployed on any large scale before the 2030s, by which time the cost of renewables will have fallen even further.

But none of this is going to shake the faith of the majority of nuclear power advocates in Australia. Most of them, like Tony Abbott, are climate science denialists. Their assertions on energy issues are statements of cultural affiliation, rather then factual claims about the world, open to being refuted by contrary evidence. Even when nuclear construction stops altogether they will still be blaming the failure on greenies, the United Nations and Agenda 21.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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