Lights out for nuclear power?

Japan’s Fukushima disaster and the rise of shale gas have the developed world running from nuclear power


Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The last thing anyone wants to hear regarding a nuclear accident is “unprecedented crisis” and “getting worse.” Yet that was the frank assessment Tatsujiro Suzuki, chair of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, gave about the Fukushima power plant in an interview with the BBC earlier this month. Two and a half years after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the coastal facility, causing the meltdown of three of its four reactors, efforts to contain the disaster are failing. Water being used to cool the still-molten cores is leaking into the Pacific from giant tanks at the rate of 300 tonnes a day. Radiation at ground level has hit an all-time high of 2,200 millisieverts—enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. And the latest government plan—to spend $470 million to turn the ground beneath the plant into an impenetrable “ice wall” via a network of refrigerated pipes—sounds more like a James Bond movie than proven science.

The immediate consequences of Fukushima were painfully evident for the global nuclear industry. Japan took all 50 of its reactors off-line. (Only two have since been restarted, and they are both scheduled to be shut down for maintenance this month.) The German government shuttered eight of its oldest nuclear facilities and committed to phasing out the remaining nine plants by 2022. Reactors around the world were subject to immediate safety inspections, and proposed projects were put back under the microscope. The World Nuclear Association says the probable frequency of a meltdown at a modern plant is about one in a million years, and that even in a triple metldown like Fukushima there were “no fatalities or serious radiation doses to anyone, while over 200 people continued working on the site.”

But as at the disaster site itself, it’s the lingering after-effects that are proving most difficult to overcome. Lost in the headlines about the leaks and ice walls this month was the latest calamity to befall the business, the closure of Vermont’s only nuclear plant. It was the fifth announced shutdown of a U.S. reactor in the past 12 months alone. Fourteen others are already in the process of being decommissioned. A confluence of factors—Fukushima-driven safety concerns, reinvigorated environmental opposition, cheaper power alternatives and depressed demand for electricity—has governments and utilities backing away from fission. It’s a growing trend that has proponents of nuclear energy suddenly worrying about its future.

“Public opinion about nuclear energy hasn’t really changed, but what happened in Japan has really mobilized people who want to shut down plants,” says Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economy and Environmental Policy at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. “And the price for electricity is so low that the people who own them can’t even cover the maintenance costs.”

It wasn’t that long ago that experts were predicting a bright tomorrow for nuclear power. Oil and natural gas prices were spiking, and the move away from coal-fired generating stations due to increasing concerns about pollution and greenhouse gas emissions augured well for the tried and relatively clean technology. When the U.S. Congress rubber-stamped $18 billion in federal loan guarantees in 2008 for new plant construction, power companies submitted 30 proposed reactors to regulators across the country. But as of now, only five of those projects—two in South Carolina, two in Georgia and one in Tennessee—have broken ground. And all are reported to be over budget and behind schedule. (The are no new reactors under construction in Canada, although Ontario is mulling over proposals for two more at its Darlington station outside Toronto.)

What few saw coming, however, was the rapid emergence of shale gas as a cheap and abundant fuel source. Coupled with a six-year economic slump that has greatly slowed the growth in industrial demand across North America, the new supply has pushed down wholesale electricity prices to the point where nuclear operators are now feeling the squeeze. And when it comes to planning for future needs, gas plants—which can be built in just over a year for less than $1 billion—are proving far more attractive than nuclear stations that cost in excess of $12 billion and take as long as a decade to come online.

The outlook for nuclear is similarly bleak in western Europe. The U.K., facing a looming energy crunch as EU regulations force the shutdown of its coal-fired plants, is looking to gas to fill most of the gap. Safety concerns that forced the temporary shutdown of two reactors in Belgium last year have led regulators to call for new tests at every other nuclear plant on the Continent. Germany has pegged its energy future to wind and solar—although it admits its nuclear closures may well result in higher prices and “moderate” electricity imports. And even France, a long-time nuclear champion, is moving forward with a plan to reduce fission-derived power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent of its national supply by 2025.

Increasingly, it seems that the industry’s best prospects for expansion are in the Far East. After taking a brief pause to review its plans post-Fukushima, the Chinese government is forging ahead with the construction of 30 new reactors (along with 363 additional coal plants). Russia is currently constructing 11, India is working on seven, and South Korea four. At present, those four countries are responsible for close to 80 per cent of all global nuclear construction.

“The growth potential for us is definitely in the developing world,” says Ala Alizadeh, senior vice-president of marketing and business development for Mississauga’s Candu Energy Inc., now a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin. The Canadian reactor-maker is currently in negotiations to build two units in Romania, and hopes to soon conclude a partnership with the Chinese government for the newest generation of its heavy-water Candu, which runs on the nuclear waste produced by light-water reactors. Market factors and politics have conspired to make nuclear a tougher sell closer to home, he allows. “Nuclear is high cost in capital, but low cost in fuel,” says Alizadeh. “Over 60 years the two balance out, but it demands a big upfront investment.” The reluctance to build new plants in the West has created a strong demand for refurbishment work to extend the lifespan of existing facilities. In recent years, Candu has upgraded old units in Korea and New Brunswick, and is currently working on plants in Argentina and Ontario.

However, that’s a temporary solution that adds another 30 years or so of operating life. Most of the Western world’s nuclear facilities are already toward the tail end of their usefulness, having been built in the 1970s and early ’80s. And with nuclear power still a substantial part of the supply mix—20 per cent in the United States, and 15 per cent in Canada—a reckoning is approaching. “The choice isn’t yes or no to nuclear power. The choice is, if not nuclear, then what else?” says Rutgers’s Felder. With concerns over Fukushima still top of mind, and the abundance of cheap shale gas, he now believes it will take a sustained market reversal to once again revive the nuclear option. The introduction of a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions might do the trick. But the continued weakness of the global economy has strengthened opposition to such proposals.

A recent series of roundtables on the future of nuclear energy, convened by Canada’s Public Policy Forum, found widely divergent views among industry leaders. In the best-case 25-years-out scenario, Canada would be a world leader, building a new, smaller generation of Candu reactors and exporting its uranium around the world. In the worst-case one, the only real growth in the business will be from decommissioning and cleaning up existing facilities. ?Felder, who started his career as a nuclear engineer aboard a missile-launching U.S. Navy submarine—later decommissioned as part of the SALT II arms reduction treaty—is reluctant to even hazard a guess. “You can certainly be very wrong on guessing the fate of nuclear power.”


Lights out for nuclear power?

  1. Nuclear is 15% in Canada but Ontario relies on aging reactors for 68% of it’s electricity supply. The Ontario Nuclear fleet has been in operation since the 1970’s yet they have not managed to set aside the capital to pay Billions in upgrades required to extend their life.

    • Probably not allowed to by the province.

      The same sort of way they were not allowed to pay for the cost of building their reactors from revenue, and were forced instead to use long term bonds at interest rates exceeding 10%.

    • The silliness of panic-stricken carbon strangulation policies…

      • The stupidity of deniers.

        • Haw haw haw haw… what are you alarmists going to do after the current temperature stagnation extends for another decade?

          Already even the IPCC in its Fifth Report has downgraded its estimates of climate sensitivity to CO2 from “3, 4, or 5” to “2 or less and unlikely to exceed 3”.

          And if the sensitivity is less than 2, there is no basis for any of the alarm, the carbon strangulation policies, the panic, the overpayment for wind or solar power… and our economies will have a chance to recover.

          BTW, the calculable and experimentally demonstrable sensitivity is only 1.2 degrees.

          • Enough with the wishful thinking.

            The heat is going into the ocean…..pay attention.

          • Heh heh heh… so it has been claimed, but even that does not save the CO2 hypothesis, for the models and theorizings didn’t predict that either.

            No matter how you try to twist things, the AGW paradigm is failing badly.

          • No matter how you try to twist things, climate change is underway, and science….not to mention most of the earth….knows it.

          • The climate has always changed; you’re just being silly here.

          • Yes, it has….but over hundreds and thousands of years.

            So Life had time to adapt.

            We’ve had a 10,000 year window of good times agriculturally….and we’ve prospered.

            That’s coming to a rapid end.

          • We’ve had a century and a half of good times agriculturally, once the disastrous lean years of the Little Ice Age ended.

            The last time we had it this good was during the Mediaeval Climatic Optimum, as easily visible in the proxies of solar activity as the Modern Climatic Maximum.


            You’re spouting nonsense.

            Alarmist claptrap without the slightest foundation.

          • We’ve had 10,000 years of an agricultural window

            Deniers think no one but them knows about the ‘little ice age’…..but I assure you that everyone does

            And it only affected Europe….not the rest of the world.

            You see….a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

          • The LIA and MCO that preceded it were worldwide phenomena, though since the effects were visible mostly at higher latitudes it took longer to gather enough data.

            This myth of yours is failing as are the others.

          • Science isn’t falling…..deniers are. Sorry.

          • Heh heh heh… science is more and more showing how badly the fear-mongery of the AGW movement is failing.

            Don’t confuse the movement with science; they’re not the same thing.

          • Science is doing just fine….97% of scientists, dude

            Deniers are dying.

          • Even the 97% has been debunked.

            It’s just one failure after another for the AGW movement.

          • No it hasn’t….YOU have been debunked.

          • It’s getting harder and harder to keep up the pretense.

            The “97% consensus” never did exist, and was manufactured in a political effort to use the ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy along with the ‘argumentum ad vericundiam’ one.

            But even were to have been true, real observations are gutting the paradigm of catastrophic AGW.


          • I repeat….you are ignorant.

            Repeating your ignorance….doesn’t change your ignorance.

          • And insulting people doesn’t advance any conversation, no matter how often you do it.

            You’ve tried that ploy before, Emily, and to no avail.

          • I don’t want to advance any conversation with you….yer an idiot!

            And ignorance personified.

  2. The only thing missing here is Billybobby and his glo-bull warming. Yea haw.

    • We have Emily and her glo-bull warming.

      • And GlynnMhor and his ignorance.

  3. Just about everything in Gatehouse’s first paragraph is unambiguously false. Oil and gas are heavily taxed, and so those wanting to hear that a nuclear crisis is getting worse include not just oil and gas vendors, but governments. Suzuki’s assessment was not frank. Etc.

    If you wonder whether there are any practicing journalists covering this matter, see Leslie Corrice’s Fukushima commentary in his Hiroshima Syndrome blog.

  4. No, its not lights out for good for nuclear power. Notice how you had to put in the qualifier “western World” into your rant? Nuclear is being built a plenty in Asia, Ask yourself why.? What makes nuclear a logical answer in China (where logic drives decisions a lot more than in the West) and not in Europe? Is it the economics? or the politics?

    As these Asian plants are built, the lessons learn will allow the price of nuclear power plants to plummet and then nuclear will drive even natural gas from the market

    • I don’t believe all those chinese nuclear plants will ever be built when they find how poisoned their shores are from Fukushima. Russia has been banning fish imports since 2011 and now S.Korea too. The chinese are next.

      • believe what you may but the Chinese program is back to full swing after a careful review of the Fukushima incident. Remember, that their decision making process is far more rational and not open to scare mongering tactics of the Western anti nuclear movement

        The biggest drawback to nuclear power in the West has been its high cost which is largely based on an insane application of the Linear No Threshold model of radiation exposure.

        In India and China, nuclear power costs far, far less both to build and operate. As plants are built and lessons learned, that cost will fall and nuclear will become the obvious answer everywhere.

  5. Is it any coincidence that the countries that are most invested in expanding nuclear power plants are China and India (Pakistan has an interest there as well)? Reminds me of the Cold War – that golden age of US and Russian nuclear power plant proliferation… Nothing like an arms race to help the nuclear business along.

    • To anyone who read this blatant fearmongering: think for yourself. China and India already have a nuclear arsenal. Energy is the only reason they are building more plants.

      • Don’t kid yourself. Nuclear is part of the Military–industrial complex.

  6. Nuclear power plants cant be shut off if there is a issue, even successful shut downs release a lot of noble gases (keep that in mind if you live near a reactor), and the liability of a failure to properly shut down is so huge, it is asinine to consider using a system like that. If the average person knew the risk and the fact that it is tax payer funded because it has no return on investment without subsidy, no one would allow one in their back yard. It is the near sited ignorant people that just care about stopping coal, that keep the reality of nuclear obscure. At least if you have a power outage at a coal plant (not that i like coal plants because i think they are very dirty sources of energy), it wont induce still births, rampant cancer and heart attacks and forever scare the DNA of those who get exposed to the ionizing radiation externally and internally. Furthermore, the eons of time that highly radioactive particles will be circulating in the food chain and hydrodynamic cycles and damaging organics and life.

  7. Aging nuclear reactors becoming exponentially more hazardous past 25 years!! The radioactive nature of them accelerates aging — in all living tissue and also in all inanimate substances like concrete, steel, plastic — everything! You cannot “replace” every part of the place, nor should one try. It is one of the massive costs related to nuclear — factor in the decades it takes to decommission a nuclear plant, the safety hazards go one for hundreds of thousands of years. Are the owners of such hazardous materials really going to pay for safe storage of all things hazardous for a quarter of a million years?
    Who really pays for costs of decommissioning – costs that can outrun original building costs? Everyone except the corporation. Who really pays for damages? Taxpayers, not the corporation. Who pays for the next quarter of a million years of containment and safety? You do. You pay and pay and pay.

    We owe the future health of our children and grandchildren a far better legacy than to leave a behemoth of radioactive hazards that requires constant maintenance — every increasing costs. It is irresponsible to leave behind such lethal burdens We’ve done enough harm already.

    The world does not need to keep damaging the world; the world does not need to keep using hazardous materials like nuclear, oil and gas. Solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric can be decentralized and holds up far better at fundamentally lower costs — for one, it won’t destroy your health.


    Save this, share it, demand it! It’s the best thing going. Alternative energy infrastructure has always been the wise choice.

  8. thank you , good work,,

  9. The Fukushima disaster just demonstrates the stupidity
    and lack of good governance of the Japs. Why use this to sidetrack from the cleanest and most reliable source of enery – nuclear? T

    • Because in Japan, a dollar’s worth of uranium can be replaced with $64 worth of natural gas — and at typical rates, that includes $8 for government.

  10. Would the climate change deniers please take a trip up to the Arctic. It would be good for tourism and they might learn something from the locals.

  11. Lights out for nuclear which is carbon free for natural gas from fracking. Crazy.

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