Resurgence & Ecologist - Vol 29 No 7 - November 1999

Page 390

The Final Boltholes

Industry arguments justifying the continuation of nuclear power are largely

spurious - the last boltholes of a dying industry. By Anthony Froggatt

The decline of nuclear power is not a new phenomenon: it started almost as soon as the industry began its path to commercialism. In the USA, the country with the most nuclear power plants in operation, the cancellation of reactor orders began in the 1970s. It is now 25 years since a reactor was ordered in the US. Al l over the world, in fact, the growth of the industry has come to a virtual standstill. In the other G8 countries, the current situation shows this clearly:

ing life, both the construction and future decommissioning costs should have been accounted for. The plant would thus be able to sell its electricity at the marginal cost of production (fuel and operation and maintenance costs) which are general­ ly lower than for alternatives such as gas. Therefore, further operation should significantly increase the profits for the utili­ ty. Analysis in the United States has predicted that Plex could cost as little as $10-50/installed kW, compared to the cheapest non-nuclear alternative of $400-500/kW.2

• In Canada, it is 25 years since a reactor has been ordered.

Ageing problems have begun to occur in the heart of their reactors. • In France, there is only one reactor under construction; the

lowest number since the late 1950s. • In Germany, the country's fast breeder and reprocessing

plants have been abandoned, and no new reactor ordered for 14 years. The new government is negotiating a total phase-out of nuclear power. • In Italy, the entire nuclear power programme has been

abandoned, with all operating reactors closed and construction halted on the remainder. • In Japan, which has the most ambitious expansion pro

gramme for nuclear power, two reactors are under construction with others planned. However, changes in the electricity market are beginning to worry nuclear suppliers. • In the United Kingdom, there are no reactors under

construction; the last two proposed were abandoned at the planning stage.

However, Plex has problems. The plants that are currently being proposed for Plex are the oldest, and also those that have, in design terms, the lowest safety standards. These reactors have not incorporated into their design the lessons learned from accidents such as Three Mile Island, and will thus require addi­ tional safety technology. However, as these reactors were not designed with such technologies in mind, there may not be suf­ ficient physical space to inspect and install the required equip-

Uranium for reprocessing arrives in Japan

The growing trends of smaller government, and the liberal­ isation of electricity markets, are making life even more diffi­ cult for the industry. Indeed, deregulation of the electricity markets in Europe is said by one nuclear company to "repre­ sent an even bigger threat to the future of nuclear power than anti-nuclear ideologues"1

So, in order for the industry to justify the vast government budgets still being spent on it, and to persuade the public across the world that the industry is worth keeping, its proponents have, in recent years, been coming up with new 'justifications' for keeping it alive. Ranging from the opportunity to bring 'development' to Eastern Europe, through the 'economic importance' of extending the lives of reactors, to the value of nuclear power in preventing climate change, these arguments are largely spurious: the last boltholes of what is hopefully a dying industry.




Keeping the Monster Alive The industry has realised that, in the West, it is highly unlike­ ly that any new reactors will be built in the near future. So it has come up with another way of keeping the industry going for the next few decades: extending the lifespan of the existing plants - for 40, 50 or even 60 years.

This process is referred to as Plant Life Extension, or Tlex.' Economically, Plex can bring huge benefits for the nuclear util­ ity because, in theory, at the end of a station's nominal operat-


The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 7, November 1999

Page 391


ment, and there may be compatibility problems between old and new technology. Aware of these potential controversies, utilities are playing down the measures aimed at extending the operat­ ing time of the reactors and instead emphasising the 'additional safety measures' that Plex will bring to old reactors.

Looking East One of the Western European nuclear industry's favourite cur­ rent arguments is that nuclear power, i f exported east, will help the countries of the former Soviet Union to patch up their more

According to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, it was only at the insistence of the West that the new nuclear reactors were proposed as a replacement for Chernobyl The Ukrainians had wanted economic assistance for a gas-fired power station. dangerous reactors. The G8 countries publicly support this argument. The Chernobyl accident caused the European indus­ try huge problems, but it also - combined with the subsequent political changes in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union - opened up a huge new market for Western equipment suppliers and technical consultants. Since it was clear that Soviet nuclear standards were behind those of the

£2 3

West, the European industry could help prop itself up by exporting its technology and expertise to the East - thus not only bringing in money, but ensuring the expansion of nuclear power in the East. This has now become, as the above state­ ment shows, virtually G8 government policy

Over the last decade, hundreds of millions of Euros have been given to nuclear-related firms for nuclear safety pro­ grammes in Eastern Europe. To date, over 1.6 billion Euros3

have been allocated in grants, while 'soft loans' and govern­ ment credit guarantees have further underwritten activities in the East. The European Union, through the 'Phare' and 'Tacis' programmes, is the largest donor to the grants programme, contributing over 800 million Euros.

Yet despite all this spending, these programmes have been widely criticised for not being effective in reducing nuclear risk. Probably the most revealing insight into the problems comes from Remi Carle, former Deputy Director-General of Electricite de France, and later President of the World Associ­ ation of Nuclear Operators, who stated in a symposium on nuclear safety in Eastern Europe in 1995: "The millions of ECU [euros] spread out on numerous small contracts have changed themselves, slowly but steadily into masses of paper; moreover not well co-ordinated and without an overall view".4

In November 1998, the European Court of Auditors released an assessment of these nuclear safety programmes.5 The Court concluded that they lacked clarity and realism and failed to work effectively with other institutions. There was also exces­ sive use of mechanisms to bypass competitive tendering - and a conspicuous lack of results.

Case Study 1: Prolonging Chernobyl A classic example of the Western nuclear industry's desperate attempts to prop up Eastern Europe's capacity can be seen in the case of Chernobyl. In 1995, the G7 and the European Union signed a 'Memorandum of Understanding' with the Ukraine, which sought the closure of the nuclear plant at Cher­ nobyl by 2000. The Memorandum outlined investment plans for the Ukrainian energy sector, and grant programmes to reduce the ongoing impact of the faulty reactor.

However, within the Memorandum was a proposal for West­ ern funding of the completion of two new, part-built reactors Khmelnitsky 2 and Rovno 4 - on the condition that they were shown to be economical. In other words, the West was promis­ ing to help Ukraine close down Chernobyl and clean up the mess - as long as the Western nuclear industry was allowed to build two new reactors in its place.

In 1996, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Devel­ opment (EBRD), which had been asked by the G7 to consider part-funding the $ l .7 billion project, commissioned an interna­ tional panel of experts to undertake a cost-assessment of this project. It concluded that the project was not economical, and should be abandoned.6 But rather than abide by the recommen­ dations of the project, the EBRD commissioned further analy­ sis - and this time, the data used by the new consultants in their economic model was supplied by the nuclear industry itself. The second analysis managed to ignore the fact that Ukraine already has massive excess electricity capacity - 20 times the capacity of Chernobyl - and is experiencing a decline in elec­ tricity demand, and concluded, unsurprisingly, that the project was economic.7

To date the European Commission has allocated over 30 mil­ lion Euros for the preparation of the Chernobyl replacement project, including redirecting funds originally allocated for the decommissioning of Chernobyl.8 However, the EBRD and

The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 7, November 1999