In the United States, nuclear operators in competitive electric markets are losing ground to cheap natural gas. To keep their reactors online, many are seeking state subsidies as a largely carbon-free electric source. The only US reactor to join the grid in 2016, at Tennessee’s Watts Bar nuclear plant, came into service 43 years after the project was launched.
The first new American reactors being built in decades — two each in plants in Georgia and South Carolina — are years behind schedule and billions over budget. Those overruns drove their builder, Westinghouse, into bankruptcy in March, but the utilities behind those projects expressed confidence that they’ll be finished no matter what happens in bankruptcy court.
Westinghouse is also building four reactors of the same design in China.
The forecasts of rising demand and cheaper power plants made during the much-touted “nuclear renaissance” of the past decade never materialized, Schneider said. Even if the reactors now under construction in the United States are completed, “they would never, ever bring back the money they cost.”
“You cannot build a new nuclear power plant anymore under market economy conditions — full stop,” Schneider said.
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China is now deploying its third generation of reactors, which are believed to be comparable to other designs in terms of safety, but Schneider expressed concern about its rush to train workers to staff those new plants. Beijing froze its buildup for four years after the massive Japanese earthquake in 2011, which led to catastrophic meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — the industry’s worst disaster since Chernobyl.
“There were very powerful people inside the establishment saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are we doing. here?’ ” Schneider said. The country is still debating whether to build any plants in the interior of the country, near their agricultural heartland, he said.
Kee said China’s new designs are safer and easier to operate than American reactors, which were conceived in the 1970s and 1980s. Their current designs “are comparable to the best the Russians, the French or the US could offer,” and Chinese anti-corruption laws are notoriously strict: A nuclear executive convicted of taking a bribe during a 2004 bid competition was sentenced to death, though the sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
“They’re pretty serious about the nuclear industry being straight and getting things right,” Kee said.
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But the Asian wave may already be breaking, Schneider said. Vietnam has halted plans for nuclear power plants, and South Korea’s elections may bring in a government pledge to rein in that country’s ambitious nuclear program.
Bangladesh appears to be going forward with a Russian-built power plant, but construction has yet to start. And for all its investment in nuclear power, China has been spending five to 10 times more on renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Schneider said.
“This is an old industry,” he said. “The average age of the world nuclear fleet is over 30 years. Thirty years ago, we were in another technological age. Think of the car you owned 30 years ago … it’s a totally different time context.”
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