(EnergyAsia, February 9 2012, Thursday) — The cost of nuclear-generated power and issues associated with this energy source will continue to challenge the sector in 2012, said US experts.

Following the Fukushima disaster last March, the sector has seen an increase in earthquake-related reactor shutdowns, reactor project cost escalation, infighting at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the rise of natural gas.

There will be no reprieve in 2012 as cost and safety issues continue to make it extremely difficult for the nuclear power industry to expand in the US beyond a small handful of reactor projects, which critics said these projects have been “forced” on taxpayers by government agencies.

In a recent paper, Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, said the cost of nuclear power, which already had risen sharply in 2010 and 2011 before the Fukushima disaster, could climb another 50% due to tighter safety oversight and regulatory delays in the wake of the Fukushima tragedy.

He said: “Before Fukushima, the mythical ‘nuclear renaissance’ had already proven to be a bubble with the air rapidly leaking out of it. Fukushima will make it even more difficult to inflate. Fukushima is magnifying the economic problems that the ‘nuclear renaissance’ faced, which are the very problems that that have plagued nuclear power throughout its history.

“Nuclear power suffered from high cost and continuous cost escalation, high risk and uncertainty long before Fukushima.

“The nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima will increase the cost and further undermine the economic viability of nuclear power in any country that conducts such a review.

“The Japanese government has recently estimated that the cost of power from nuclear reactors will be 50% higher than estimated seven years ago.  My analysis shows this increase is consistent with the impact of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.”

His paper is available online at http://www.markcooperresearch.com/Nuclear-Safety-and-Nuclear-Economics-Post Fukushima.pdf.

Another critic, Peter Bradford, adjunct professor on Nuclear Power and Public Policy, Vermont Law School, said:

“With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent approval of the design of the AP-1000 reactor and the anticipated approval of specific projects in Georgia and South Carolina, much is being written about a ‘nuclear revival.’

“This is an important moment to compare what is really likely to happen over the next 10 years with the industry’s expectations when the ‘nuclear renaissance’ was first announced a decade ago.
“When that comparison is performed properly, it becomes clear that we are witnessing not a revival but a collapse in expectations for new reactor construction.”

“The two forthcoming projects are all that remain of a thirty-one reactor fantasy fleet that was said to constitute the real nuclear renaissance as recently as early 2009.  It is important to understand that this collapse was well underway before the accident at Fukushima. 

“It was the result of nuclear power’s high costs compared to other alternatives.  Fukushima and the unseemly effort of four NRC commissioners to oust the chair do nothing to enhance the appeal of nuclear power, but even if these factors vanished tomorrow, the pace of new reactor construction in the U.S. would not increase at all.”

Mr Bradford is a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member and a former chair of the New York and Maine state utility regulatory commissions.

Carol Werner, executive director, Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), said: 

“While nuclear energy still enjoys considerable support from the Congress and very significant subsidies, escalating costs for new construction, and uncertainty over adequacy of safety design and compliance following the August earthquake in Virginia, have not fostered realisation of the ‘so-called’ nuclear renaissance. There simply are too many other choices which provide greater certainty at lesser cost and without the enormous long-term unresolved problems and risks facing nuclear power.”

Mr Cooper noted that Fukushima has stimulated vigorous reviews around the world, in part because of the severity of the accident, in part because it is the worst accident affecting a nuclear reactor in a market economy and in part because it occurred in a nation that was assumed to have a high standard of safety and superb technical expertise.

The challenges perceived by those responsible for nuclear safety around the world in the wake of the Fukushima accident are quite substantial.

Perhaps more striking than the technical issues raised by Fukushima, are the persistent institutional failures revealed by a comparison between the post-accident evaluations of Three Mile Island (TMI) and Fukushima.

He said that for decades, the nuclear industry has been plagued by failure of voluntary, self-regulation; denial of the reality of risk; lack of safety culture; lack of a comprehensive, consistent regulatory framework; the challenge of continuous change and the need to retrofit existing reactors; failure to resolve important outstanding safety issues; failure to require existing reactors to add safety measures because of cost; and complexity, confusion and chaos in the response to a severe accident.

With the global nuclear safety institutions expressing strong concerns, particularly the advanced industrial nuclear nations, and the aftermath of Fukushima likely to command attention for years as the extent of the damage and the challenge of decommissioning unfold, the issues are likely to continue to have traction.  

Mr Cooper said the reviews stimulated by accidents are not limited to safety issues. Re-evaluations of energy options and nuclear risks and economics have substantially dimmed the prospects for construction of new nuclear reactors.

He said major policy reviews by governments have led several nations to decide to scale back or abandon their commitments to nuclear power including important large industrial national like Japan and Germany.

Financial institutions have conducted extensive reassessments of the economic prospects of nuclear power and concluded that the costs will rise while utilities with nuclear plants in several nations have been downgraded by rating agencies.

Furthermore, several major firms in advanced industrial nations have abandoned the sector or been forced to scale back their activities e.g., Shaw Group, Siemens and Areva.