Nuclear energy's future - extinction

Last week a few hard-core nuclear boosters got together at a conference in Sydney.  The conference title was put as a question - Nuclear Energy for Australia?

The answer to that question is clear: nuclear energy has no future in Australia, nor does it have a future anywhere else in the world and what's more it is going to be extinct in 20 to 30 years time, but you wouldn't have got that message at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) nuclear conference attended by rusted on true believers.

Recently, a well-known prominent academic and nuclear advocate wrote an article about moving to an electric planet. In that article he conceded that we couldn't wait for nuclear power. The reason is obvious, because it will never come.

Nuclear power is in decline. There are less plants operating and most of those that are, are operating less of the time. Many nuclear plants have been switched off permanently or semi-permanently, and they are getting old. The average age of a nuclear plant is 28 years and many nuclear plants already are or are soon to be over 40 years old, and continuing to run them would be operating a plant where safety is paramount well beyond its design life.

Extinction is also coming due to the industry's failure to be able to build any new plants anywhere in the west.  It is far easier to bread Platypus or Panda bears in captivity than it is to build a third generation nuclear plant. Just ask the French state-backed mega-conglomerates that have built more nuclear plants than anyone else.  

The world's leading (if you can call them that) nuclear plant builder Areva has consistently failed to build nuclear plants to western safety standards on-time or at all, the most recent examples are the ongoing sagas in France and Finland.

The third generation European Pressure Reactor (EPR) being built in Finland was supposed to take four years to construct and commission.  Despite the Finnish already having an established nuclear industry and the country being relatively close to the much larger French, Russian and German industries, things are going very badly. The flagship of the nuclear renaissance (which incidentally was pronounced dead in a recent report) the nuclear power plant at Olkiluoto in Finland was approved in 2000, commenced construction in late 2004 and was supposed to be generating power by 2009. But that was just wishful thinking, which is one thing that the nuclear industry is good at generating. The plant's completion date has been announced and reannounced over five times and is now 'officially' set to 2016, however that is now being questioned as optimistic.

So if the Okiluoto plant actually gets completed by 2020, the Finnish will have been paying for hardware, construction and huge bank loans all this time without getting any electricity at all and the plant is now expected to cost $8.5 billion euros and that is without including financing costs. One could expect that by the time it generates its first megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity someone (mostly the Finnish people, and the shareholders including the French and German people who own Areva and Siemens) would have paid $20 billion for a 1600MW power plant that at best generates 1440MW of net electricity (after onsite consumption is taken out) and is taken offline for up to a month every 13 months for serious servicing and refueling. The levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) on a $8.5 billion-dollar plant that took at least 12 years to build would vary depending on the interest rate used.  But if a competitive privately sourced market interest rate was used the electricity would be going on 50cents a kilowatt hour. The reason is the length of the time from committing the cash until the plant is commissioned, with every additional passing year of delay the overall real cost of electricity from such a belated project spirals.

If however the Finns had built wind power plants instead of nuclear which take on average nine months to build from the commencement of construction, (at least 11 years less than the third generation plant in Finland) the Finns would have succeeded in building more than 16,000MW of Wind Power and be generating four times as much annual electricity than their nuclear plant that still isn't generating anything at all as it struggles with delay after delay. Add to that from an energy security perspective they wouldn't have to be sourcing nuclear fuel from third countries by going with wind.  Another win for wind.

And then there is the Fukushima factor, at the ATSE conference speakers were saying that no one had been killed at Fukushima.  Well not yet anyway as increases in cancer and other terminal illness show up over along time period when the results for those affected and their families are devastating.  Putting aside the human misery of Fukushima for a moment if we look at the impact on the economy it is staggering.  Remember that it will take at least 12 years for the world's leading nuclear power plant builder Areva to build their flagship third generation plant in Finland and over $12 Billion to fund it not factoring in financing costs.

Japan currently has 52 reactors representing about 50,000MW of capacity that is shutdown, if Areva was to rebuild Japan's fleet based on the experience in Finland it would cost at least $375 Billion dollars to replace (not including financing costs) and that is based on the current $12 billion dollar figure in Europe which is likely to rise further.

That's 375 billion dollars of nuclear plant that hasn't operated for two years. Add to that a huge amount of industrial manufacturing capacity worth billions that has been abandoned due to contamination fears, an agricultural sector that has completely shutdown and a $60-$70 billion (and rising) clean-up cosst. And considerable fossil fuel import costs to make up the massive shortfall.

And then there is Abe, the Prime Minister who is keen on restarting the reactors, but he hasn't got far. There are two reactors currently operating in Japan at the Oi nuclear complex. Reactor number three and four were restarted last year, however they may not make it past their September scheduled maintenance shutdown. The problem is that speculation is mounting that the authorities are well aware that those reactors have been built right atop a major fault line and they may need to be shut permanently.

In an unfolding scandal, when the first inspection trenches were dug to see if they were on-top of a fault line and the results looked less than favourable the company backfilled the holes and tried for new trenches in another location in proximity to the site to try and find locations that the inspecting geologists wouldn't find fault with.

Where does that leave the nuclear restart plan? Dead in the water, which leads me to the next point. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has just got worse. TEPCO, the biggest operator of plants in Japan, has just admitted they have highly dangerous levels of radioactive material underneath reactors 2 and 3 more than two years after the disaster.  In addition, it is becoming clear after the unearthing of a cover up that this radioactive material which is in the ground water is making its way into the Pacific ocean. The result of the fault line at the Oi complex and the newly discovered highly radioactive ground water not to mention the steam rising from reactor 3 for the last week is that the Japanese public will not allow the restart of any reactors period and the Oi reactors are likely to be halted for good come September.

Nuclear is to be extinct globally and There is no way that Australia should be wasting time considering, debating or planning nuclear energy, but I'll take it a step further.  There is no reason that ATSE should be wasting members' money on running a conference on a technology that is soon to be extinct all over the world and has never had and never will have a start in Australia.  For ATSE to be relevant in 2013 it needs to broaden its horizon and start running Renewable Energy conferences on topics like the cheapest direct path to 100% renewable energy.