However, as GIS expert Dr. Carole Nakhle wrote in 2014, nuclear power has entered a new phase. Most governments reversed course and began pushing ahead with new nuclear plans. In 2013, there were 31 countries producing nuclear energy, compared with 15 in 1973. Dr. Nakhle pointed out that nearly 70 power plants were planned to be built or already under construction.
Civic groups members stage a protest against the Japan-India nuclear pact outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Saturday.
the japan times | Foto: KYODO
The disaster also revealed the cozy relationship between the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the monopolistic energy sector. By 2013, Japan had shut down all its nuclear power plants.
Doing so was costly. The country was forced into an even heavier reliance on imported fossil fuels, wrote GIS expert Dr. Frank Umbach. Japan’s LNG costs surged from 3.5 trillion yen ($42 billion) to 6.5 trillion yen ($78 billion). The energy sector recorded $13 billion in annual pre-tax losses in 2012 because of rising imports and fossil fuel prices. Dr. Umbach predicted, rightly, that Japan would begin to bring some of its nuclear plants back on line to turn this trend around. Two nuclear reactors restarted the following year.
The so-called “nuclear village” – a network of pronuclear politicians, bureaucrats, industry executives, academics and journalists – though wounded, retained some of its influence, and no clear antinuclear political platform ever appeared in Japan. As the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tested the waters for a gradual comeback of the industry, Dr. Lippert pointed out that the country still needed a solution for storing its nuclear waste. He predicted that 10 – 15 reactors would come back online, and that “Japan’s nuclear waste pile would keep growing, and with no final solution in sight. ... It appears that the Abe government has chosen this strategy in order to please key constituencies such as the nuclear village without significantly losing public approval.”
Officially, the Abe government wants Japan to generate up to 22 percent of its energy from nuclear by 2030. “The target is unrealistic, since it would require restarting practically all of the country’s remaining 43 operable reactors (58 were in operation before March 2011),” wrote Dr. Lippert in November 2015. Almost all of its reactors were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are rapidly approaching their 40-year age limit. Japanese regulations allow for their life span to be extended by 20 years, but only if expensive safety measures are implemented. Building new reactors is not an option, due to the financial constraints on the country’s utilities and huge political resistance.
In effect, this means that “Japan’s nuclear sector is on the way to silently vanishing,” wrote Dr. Lippert in March 2016. “The most likely scenario for Japan’s mid-term energy outlook is that nuclear reactors will account for a moderate ‘baseload’ of about 5 percent of the energy mix, equivalent to a maximum of 10-15 active reactors,” he added. “Japan will be nuclear-free by the 2030s – without an explicit German-style exit strategy and its associated political cost.”
In 2011, 23 percent of Germany’s electricity came from nuclear generation. After Fukushima, however, the country turned strongly against the power source, immediately shutting down seven of its existing 17 reactors and announcing that it would stop producing nuclear energy altogether by 2022. Dr. Umbach discussed the fallout of this decision extensively in three reports in January 2012, pointing out that it increased Germany’s dependence on Russian energy imports. Already Germany’s dominant source of gas, Russia became its largest supplier of hard coal.
Moreover, the decision to shut down nuclear reactors “does not mean the end of nuclear-produced electricity in Germany. It has led to higher imports of nuclear produced electricity, at least partially from more unsafe nuclear reactors in neighboring countries,” he wrote. It was also made without consulting Germany’s neighbors, with whom its energy grid has become increasingly linked. Energy supplies in Italy and Poland could be at risk.
Ironically, the decision also made this very green-minded country much more dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal. This compromised Germany’s 2020 greenhouse gas-emissions targets. Calls grew for the country to stop using coal altogether and phase out all subsidies to the industry. But as Dr. Umbach predicted in June 2015, “Germany will depend on fossil fuels for decades to come,” since completely replacing coal with renewable energy would substantially raise costs and the country’s dependence on imports.Moreover, as GIS guest expert Dr. Fritz Vahrenholt wrote in September 2016, wind and solar capacity fluctuates wildly – adding more of that capacity to Germany’s grid would make little sense until after 2022, when the last nuclear plants, which provide stable supplies, are shut down.
As Germany and Japan move away from nuclear energy, other countries are moving ahead full-steam. China, for example, has 33 operational nuclear power plants. These generate only about 2 percent of the country’s electricity output, but this share will rise quickly: Beijing plans to build seven new nuclear reactors a year between now and 2030. In 2015, China accounted for almost the entire global increase (1.3 percent) in nuclear power production, surpassing South Korea to become the fourth-largest producer of nuclear power (after France, the U.S. and Russia). Most of the new plants relied on foreign technology, but crucially, China has also become a force to be reckoned with in supplying nuclear technology to other countries.
“The Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), one of China’s biggest nuclear companies, has improved on a 1990s French water reactor design to start offering its own power plants,” wrote GIS guest expert Joseph Dobbs in July 2017. “The Hualong One (HPR1000) reactor is currently planned for use in six locations under construction in China and is being pitched by Chinese companies to foreign customers.” It already has a deal to sell two to Pakistan.
Nuclear energy still accounts for only a small portion of the world’s energy mix
China’s push to supply nuclear technology around the world is a perfect example of the geopolitics involved in the industry. As concern over climate change grows and more countries try to limit their use of fossil fuels, many – including poorer states like Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda – are planning to introduce nuclear power. But the costs of a nuclear plant are often beyond their budgets. Exporters of nuclear technology can therefore reap big geopolitical benefits, wrote Dr. Nakhle in January 2017.
Like China, Russia has used its nuclear energy industry as a tool for both economic and geostrategic gain. It has moved to sow discord within the European Union, offering Hungary a 10 billion loan on favorable terms to secure a deal for Rosatom to upgrade that country’s nuclear power plant. As GIS guest expert Peter Juhasz wrote in January 2016, the deal provided a “useful leash” attached to an EU member country.
Nuclear energy remains the main source of electricity in France, accounting for about 76 percent of production – the highest in the world. French multinational Areva is also one of the leading suppliers of nuclear technologies to countries around the globe. Nevertheless, France’s nuclear industry is weighed down by cost overruns, delays and mismanagement. As GIS expert Dr. Emmanuel Martin pointed out in 2015, much of this is due to France’s delusions of grandeur regarding “state capitalism.” The billions of euros in losses incurred by Areva after a failed investment in a company that owned three uranium mines in Africa was the result of technocrats making decisions instead of businesspeople, he wrote.
In November of the same year, Dr. Martin showed how France was losing its game of atomic chess with Russia. Rosatom has done deals in recent years with Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Finland, Argentina, Iran and Brazil. Areva floundered, and its reactor business was sold to Electricite de France (EDF).
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making moves to increase his country’s ability to produce nuclear energy and export technology. Holding India back is its lack of membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a multilateral body that sets global rules on the spread of nuclear technology. Since India has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (doing so would force it to give up its nuclear weapons in the face of two nuclear-armed rivals in China and Pakistan), it has been barred from the group. That has limited the Indian industry’s access to fuel and technology.
Prime Minister Modi has made a big effort to gain India membership in the NSG. He scored a major victory when, in 2008, the United States allowed American firms to export fuel and trade technology with India. Since then, it has got many NSG member countries to support its bid, but regional rival Beijing continues to block New Delhi’s membership.
Iran’s nuclear program has been the source of much worry and geopolitical maneuveringaround the world. In 2012, the U.S. and EU imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, to get it to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons and bring it back to the negotiating table. In 2015, an agreement was reached that allowed Tehran to continue its civil nuclear program while, its proponents say, effectively blocking it from pursuing nuclear weapons.
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