Nuclear Power Goes Rogue

Article excerpt

Byline: Henry Sokolski

Post-Fukushima, the market for nuclear power is changing latitudes. Here's what's at stake.

As the full cost of the Fukushima nuclear accident continues to climb--Japanese officials now peg it at $64 billion or more--nuclear power's future is literally headed south. Developed countries are slowing or shuttering their nuclear-power programs, while states to their south, in the world's hotspots (think the Middle East and Far East), are pushing to build reactors of their own. Normally, this would lead to even more of a focus on nuclear safety and nonproliferation. Yet, given how nuclear-reactor sales have imploded in the world's advanced economies, both these points have been trumped by nuclear supplier states' desires to corner what reactor markets remain.

Certainly, nuclear sales opportunities are far less flush than they once were.

This spring, Germany permanently shut down eight of its reactors and pledged to shutter the rest by 2022. Shortly thereafter, the Italians voted overwhelmingly to keep their country nonnuclear. Switzerland and Spain followed suit, banning the construction of any new reactors. Then Japan's prime minster killed his country's plans to expand its reactor fleet, pledging to reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power dramatically. Taiwan's president did the same. Now Mexico is sidelining construction of 10 reactors in favor of developing natural-gas-fired plants, and Belgium is toying with phasing its nuclear plants out, perhaps as early as 2015.

Even the most pro-nuclear of states have experienced post-Fukushima reactions that have jilted their plans. China--nuclear power's largest prospective market--suspended approvals of new reactor construction while conducting a lengthy nuclear-safety review. Chinese nuclear-capacity projections for the year 2020 subsequently tumbled by as much as 30 percent. A key bottleneck is the lack of trained nuclear technicians: to support China's stated nuclear-capacity objectives, Beijing needs to graduate 6,000 nuclear experts a year. Instead, its schools are barely generating 600.

Neighboring India, another potential nuclear boom market, is discovering a different set of headaches: effective local opposition, growing national wariness about foreign nuclear reactors, and a nuclear liability controversy that threatens to prevent new reactor imports. India was supposed to bring the first of two Russian-designed reactors online this year in tsunami-prone Tamil Nadu state. Following Fukushima, though, local residents staged a series of starvation strikes, and the plant's opening has now been delayed. More negative antinuclear reactions in the nearby state of West Bengal forced the local government to pull the plug on a major Russian project in Haripur. It's now blocking an even larger French reactor-construction effort at Jaitapur.

These nuclear setbacks come as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is straining to reconcile India's national nuclear-accident-liability legislation with U.S. demands that foreign reactor vendors be absolved of any responsibility for harm that might come to property or people outside of a reactor site after an accident. Singh recently announced that he would try to persuade his Parliament to cap foreign vendors' liability to no more than $300 million (even though Japan has pegged Fukushima damages at no less than $64 billion). In India, a country that saw at least 3,000 die in a 1984 chemical explosion at a U.S.-owned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, it's unclear if the prime minister will succeed.

In the United States, new-reactor construction has also suffered--not because of public opposition but because of economics. Even before Fukushima, a superabundance of relatively clean-burning natural gas and a dearth of financing for projects whose construction costs were escalating out of control suggested the nuclear renaissance was imploding. Then Fukushima threatened to be the catalyst for tougher, yet-to-be-determined safety regulations. …