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The Future of Nuclear Power: The Zero Option Is No Option At All


The Fukushima tragedy has caused many nations to reconsider their commitment to nuclear energy. Germany has decided, at least preliminarily, to eliminate nuclear power from its energy mix. France is reconsidering its massive dependence on nuclear, which produces about 75% of the country’s electricity. And, not surprisingly, there is tremendous public sentiment in Japan to shut down all of the nuclear power plants there.

But is this realistic?

I have recently returned from three weeks in Europe, and the nuclear controversy is a frequent subject of newspaper and TV coverage there. Late in August the international edition of the Wall Street Journal reported that shutting down the Japanese nuclear industry entirely would bankrupt four of the country’s largest utilities, since the costs involved would exceed their equity value, in part because a number of plants have been in operation less than five years and several new units are still under construction. All of these sunk costs would have to be written off. In addition, since Japan has precious few natural resources, the societal cost to import hydrocarbon products would further damage the country’s already fragile economy. Not surprisingly, the 15-16 September (weekend) edition of the International Herald Tribune carried a front page story detailing the compromises made between the Japanese government and the utility companies. The current plan is to phase out most nuclear plants by 2040, but in all likelihood the new operating units and those still under construction will be allowed to operate even longer. Equally unsurprising, Japan has announced a massive campaign to develop renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal over the next twenty years.

In Germany the cost to dismantle the nuclear power industry is likely to exceed 1 trillion Euros and, more unsettling, increase reliance on natural gas supplies from Russia, which has shown in the recent past that it views natural gas as a geopolitical negotiating tool – somewhat akin to a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Central and Eastern European nations. Two years ago, in a dispute with Ukraine, Russia shut down the natural gas pipeline running to the West through that country, and several former Warsaw Pact nations were reduced to only a one week supply before the crisis was resolved.

The same issue of the IHT contained a long article describing the delicate political situation in France. In order keep his coalition government from collapsing, President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, requires the support of the influential Greens; this has placed the Green Party members of his cabinet in a ticklish position. As reported, “… a series of compromises and backroom deals on nuclear power has placed the Green Party’s leadership at odds with its activist, environmentalist base….” At the moment, one installation - the aging Fessenheim power plant - has been designated as the nuclear industry’s sacrificial lamb. But it is highly unlikely that France will ever forego the nuclear power option completely. It, too, has few natural resources, and current legislation outlaws fracking, so that particular option is off the table, as well.

And then there is the United States. The US Department of Energy is supporting research that will lead to the development and regulatory approval of advanced reactor designs - so-called “Gen4” units characterized by higher shutdown reliability. Moreover, if existing DOE plans to transition most motor vehicles to hydrogen fuel in the next 25 years are to be realized, a large number of medium- to small sized reactor units will need to come on line: only nuclear can provide the tremendous amount of baseline power that will be required without adversely affecting the global climate.

So, public sentiment aside, it seems to me that nuclear is here to stay, at least for the next 40 years or so, if not longer.

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