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Nuclear Renaissance Stalls: Problems Plague Launch of 'Safer' Next-Generation Reactors

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Part 2: Inexperienced Subcontractors

Very few of the hundreds of subcontractors have any experience in reactor technology. Many go about their work as if they were quickly erecting a double garage somewhere. In one case, one of the subcontractors' workers summarily decided to install a tube for a sensor in a different location than planned, because they felt that the original location was too difficult to reach. The only problem is that the device was intended to take readings in precisely the location specified by the design engineers. "The employees have to know why they have to stick to the plans," says nuclear inspector Tiippana. "They have to understand the safety significance of their work, but it does not mean that every employee has to become a nuclear scientist."

The only problem with that approach is that it is difficult to make even the most basic assumptions, as evidenced by notes displayed at the construction site that read, in four languages, "Please do not relieve yourself in the building."

"This is not a model project but a model disaster," says Mycle Schneider, a German nuclear expert who lives in Paris and was a winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize.

Anti-Nuclear Movement Remains Quiet

Ironically, the conditions couldn't have been better. Finland's relatively small anti-nuclear movement is unlikely to get in the way of construction. The town of Eurajoki has 6,000 inhabitants and three nuclear reactors: Olkiluoto One, Two and Three. Mayor Harri Hiitiö is very enthusiastic about the reactors.

Hiitiö has traveled to Helsinki several times in recent months to attempt to convince the government to approve the construction of a fourth reactor in Olkiluoto. The town already collects €8 million in taxpayer funds each year, revenues that support eight local schools. Are there any protests?

"There were protests a while ago," says Hiitiö, "but the people weren't from here."

TVO is also considered to be one of the most reliable nuclear power plant operators worldwide, and its reactors are almost never shut down because of problems. But when TVO project manager Silvennoinen is asked what he would say to someone purchasing the Areva reactor who wants to avoid the same problems, he smiles and says: "Good luck."

Global Renaissance off to a Slow Start

The French state-owned company isn't the only one having trouble building new nuclear power plants. Last year, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, not a single new reactor went into service worldwide. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 52 reactors are "under construction," although 13 of them have been under construction for more than 20 years now. And in the case of 24 reactors, it is not even clear when exactly they can be put online.

More importantly, 36 of the new reactors are to be built in China, India, Russia and South Korea rather than the safety conscious West. "It makes me dizzy to think that 16 power plants will be built at the same time in China, and that all you hear from China is that there are no problems," says nuclear critic Schneider.

Other than in Finland, only one other new nuclear reactor is currently under construction in the Western world. At the reactor construction site in Flamanville in Normandy, the French are experiencing problems similar to those in Finland.

In the United States, the administration of former President George W. Bush drastically lowered the bar for new plant construction, and in 2007 it earmarked more than $20 billion for loan guarantees. But the industry isn't interested. It hasn't started construction on a single new reactor in more than three decades.

"A number of US companies have looked with trepidation at the situation in Finland and the magnitude of investment there," says American economist Paul Joskow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2003, the US Congressional Budget Office assessed the risk that loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear power plants could come due at "more than 50 percent." In 2007, six major investment banks wrote to the US Department of Energy that money for new construction could only be raised if the government guaranteed these loans "at 100 percent, and without conditions."

Extended Lifespans a Boon for Utilities

Electricity from nuclear sources has only been cheap in the past when old reactors were in operation for long periods of time and without complications -- and when governments addressed what remains an unresolved question in Germany: end storage facilities. The Berlin-based Eco Institute has calculated that an electric utility can earn from €800,000 to €2.2 million with an old nuclear reactor for each day the power plant continues to run after its scheduled decommissioning. If all German reactors remain up and running for another eight years, the utilities could collect up to €84 billion, depending on the price of electricity.

But is it really that easy to extend the life of a nuclear reactor? In the past, the industry defined 40 years as the technical life of a nuclear power plant. Following the nuclear phase-out announced by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD-Green Party government in 2002, the 19 German reactors in operation at the time would remain connected to the grid for an average of only 32 years.

"There is zero experience with pressurized water reactors with lifetimes of more than 40 years," says nuclear expert Schneider. But Jürgen Grossmann, the CEO of German electricity utility RWE, believes that Germany's reactors could also last for 60 years. Similar ideas have been raised in the United States, Sweden and France, but strong reservations about the idea remain.

"We found it funny that the first time EDF began talking about extending the lifetime of reactors past 40 years was to financial analysts in London," says French nuclear regulatory agency chief André-Claude Lacoste. "It wouldn't be a bad thing for them to bring us a technical file on this."

At Areva, spokesman Christian Wilson claims: "Aside from the reactor vessel, one can actually replace and renew everything ... Technically speaking, 60 years are possible."

Even before Germany's recent election, Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear to energy suppliers that she would only extend plant lives if the reactors were upgraded to satisfy the strictest safety standards. But that could cost billions at the Biblis or Krümmel reactors, which have both been shut down because of accidents, and perhaps would not even be worth it in the end. The major electric utilities are now focusing on the obvious: They are trying to delay, for as long as possible, the shutdown of very old power plants like Biblis and Neckarwestheim I, which are scheduled to be shut down within the next two years.

But can the nuclear sector be trusted to perform any modernization when it makes as many mistakes in new construction as it did in Finland? Not a single nuclear power plant has been built in the Western world for more than a decade. Nuclear regulators see the lack of know-how as a cause of the series of breakdowns. "Some supervisors lack experience," says engineer Tiippana. "Many companies are new to the nuclear sector, and their employees must be trained to comply with the standards."

The problem will only get worse. Forty percent of employees at US nuclear power plants are set to retire soon. The industry will have to find jobs for 26,000 new employees in the next 10 years -- even if it doesn't build a single new nuclear power plant. However, only 841 nuclear engineers completed their studies in the United States in 2008.

The situation is even more dramatic in Germany. Between 1998 and 2002, only two students graduated with an emphasis on nuclear engineering. This prompted Areva to set up a postgraduate course in nuclear engineering in Karlsruhe in February. The students are paid by Areva and are even guaranteed a job upon graduation.

Despite everything, Areva manager Mouroux still has a lot of faith in a reactor renaissance. The engineer is sitting in the conference room of a construction container, wearing a well-cut suit and paying little attention to doubts. "We will build the reactors all over the world," says Mouroux. What difference does it make if the machine becomes more expensive and the construction takes a little longer. "In return," says Mouroux, the EPR is supposed to operate for 60 years.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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