Harvey Wasserman : Big Troubles for Big Nuke

Nuclear reactor fiasco in Oikiluoto, Finland. Four years under construction; defects multiply and price tag keeps climbing. Photo by Henna Aaltonen / The International Herald Tribune.

The New York Times finally reports the economic disaster of new nukes

Despite the torrent of bad economic indicators, Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) continue to demand massive government funding for new reactor construction.

By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / May 29, 2009

In a devastating pair of financial reports that might be called “The Emperor Has No Pressure Vessel,” the New York Times has blazed new light on the catastrophic economics of atomic power.

The two Business Section specials cover the fiasco of new French construction at Okiluoto, Finland, and the virtual collapse of Atomic Energy of Canada. In a sane world they could comprise an epitaph for the “Peaceful Atom.” But they come simultaneous with Republican demands for up to $700 billion or more in new reactor construction.

The Times’s “In Finland, Nuclear Renaissance Runs Into Trouble” by James Kanter is a “cautionary tale” about the “most powerful reactor ever built” whose modular design “was supposed to make it faster and cheaper to build” as well as safer to operate.

But four years into a construction process that was scheduled to end about now, the plant’s $4.2 billion price tag has soared by 50% or more. Areva, the French government’s front group, won’t predict when the reactor will open. Finnish utilities have stopped trying to guess.

Finnish inspectors say Areva allowed “inexperienced subcontractors to drill holes in the wrong places on a vast steel container that seals the reactor.” The Finns have also cited Areva for “the attitude or lack of professional knowledge of some persons.”

Areva hopes to build similar reactors in the U.S. Its boosters have promised cheaper, cleaner, faster nuke construction with standardized designs like the one at Okiluoto. But “early experience suggests these new reactors will be no easier or cheaper to build than the ones a generation ago” whose price tags soared by 700% and more, and whose completion schedules ran into the decades.

Areva’s second “new generation” project at Flamanville, France, is also over budget and behind schedule. Cracks have turned up in critical steel and concrete components, along with revelations that critical work has been done by unqualified welders.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not approved the Areva design in use at Okiluoto and Flamanville. Four other designs under consideration are also mired in process. Some are still being altered. A post 9/11 issue is their ability to withstand a jet crash, which the 104 US reactors currently licensed to operate were not forced to consider.

The fiascos in Finland and Flamanville have thrown Areva into economic chaos now being mirrored at the Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited. Once touted as a global flagship, AECL sucked up 1.74 billion Canadian dollars in subsidies last year and has been a long-term money loser which the government has now announced it wants to sell.

AECL’s natural uranium/heavy water design has flopped in the world market. “Design issues” with its installed plants require heavy maintenance. AECL’s Chalk River research facility, which suffered a major accident in 1952 (in which former President Jimmy Carter served as a “jumper”) needs 7 billion Canadian dollars for clean-up work. Its 51-year-old medical isotope facility recently popped a major leak that may close it forever.

The Paris-based energy expert Mycle Schneider reports that of 45 reactors being built worldwide, 22 are behind schedule and nine have no official ignition schedules.

Despite the torrent of bad economic indicators, Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) continue to demand massive government funding for new reactor construction. Alexander says he wants the US to build as many as 100 new reactors here, even though the private sector won’t finance or insure them. The media is citing the idea as a $700 billion package, but in fact the project price of building new reactors is on the rise, and by some estimates has already exceeded $10 billion each. The Department of Energy has cited four finalists for $18.5 billion in loan guarantees voted in with the 2005 Bush Energy Plan. Florida and Georgia have raised rates to pre-pay proposed new reactors.

But Missouri has turned down a proposed rate hike for a new Areva project. And green activists have three times beaten proposed $50 billion federal loan guarantee packages to fund “new generation” construction. Grassroots battles are now raging to prevent the re-licensing of aging reactors like Vermont Yankee and New York’s Indian Point.

As Congress deals with a wide range of energy-related legislation, the nuclear industry is desperately grabbing for any federal money it can get. One bill after another has been floated with nuclear hand-outs hidden in various nooks and crannies.

As the comparative price of efficiency and renewables plummets, the window may be closing fast on the possibility of building new nukes in the US, raising the industry’s desparation level.

This battle will certainly rage for years to come. But the appearance of such brutally bad news from Finland and Canada in the Business Section of the New York Times bodes ill for an industry that, after fifty years, cannot get private funding or liability insurance, cannot deal with its wastes, and now cannot demonstrate the ability to produce new product anywhere near on time or budget.

At very least, Paul Joskow of MIT tells the Times, the rollout of new nukes may be “a good deal slower than a lot of people were assuming.”

[Harvey Wasserman is an author, a journalist, an educator, an activist, and a utopian thinker. His Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is available at solartopia.org. This article was also published by The Free Press.]

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2 Responses to Harvey Wasserman : Big Troubles for Big Nuke

  1. jim welke says:

    Thanks for an encouraging article, Mr. Wasserman.

    I do hope we wise up soon and figure out that nuclear power is too costly, and too risky to the environment and national security.

    Besides, if we started building new nukes tomorrow, they wouldn’t be on line in time to benefit carbon reduction efforts.

    More info?
    What if we don’t pass the Energy BillNukes vs Renewables: Renewables Win

  2. R. Edward says:

    To borrow liberally from Dr. Helen Caldicott…. every billion dollars given to the nuclear industry is a theft from cheap, renewable energy.

    Despite all the good intentions of my comrades in the 70 anti-nuke movement and those of us again picking up the torch in this century, I can say with some sad certainty that cost overruns and loss of investor confidence put the nuke boys in the clay the last time around with more effectiveness then did chaining ourselves to entrance gates. The same will no doubt be the case this time too if “Joe Whomever” can be made to realize that it’s his/her tax dollars on top of his/her rate costs that are the only thing that make this corporate adventure possible.

    My dad at 83 still reminds me that there’s tax pocket and a take-home pocket and they’re both in the same pair of pants. What comes out of each comes out of all.

    Maybe if this becomes widely known, then the true financial cost for nuclear energy will encourage folks to act against it in, if for no other reason, their own selfish financial reasons.

    Thanks for the post, Harvey…. We can save pre-paying for pre-construction costs and debunking the “emission-free” bullshit for another time…


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