Undeterred by Fukushima: Nuclear Lobby Pushes Ahead with New Reactors

Part 2: Resistance in India

Photo Gallery: Going Nuclear After Fukushima Photos
AP

India is following China in terms of both skyrocketing growth and the expansion of its nuclear-energy capabilities. Speaking at the India International Nuclear Symposium in late February, Minister of Power Sushil Kumar Shinde praised nuclear energy as both cheaper and "greener" than imported coal.

Nevertheless, after Fukushima, there has also been growing resistance to nuclear energy among Indians. In October 2011, demonstrations were held against the Rosatom-built power plant in Koodankulam, on the southern tip of India, which have succeeded in postponing its start-up.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has complained that environmentalist groups based in the US and Scandinavia backed the demonstrations. "The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs … don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply," he said in the February edition of Science magazine.

Still, the anti-nuclear movement is thrilled. "It's already remarkable that these sorts of problems are suddenly appearing in such tightly run countries as India and China," says Tobias Münchmeyer, a Greenpeace nuclear expert based in Berlin.

New Plants for America

But for the time being, Western builders of nuclear power plants can still take comfort in all of the contracts they have from emerging economies. It is primarily US-based reactor-builders like Westinghouse who are the big players on the global stage. Back in 2007, Westinghouse, which is a subsidiary of Toshiba, and a partner signed contracts to build four new nuclear facilities in China. Two AP1000-type reactors are currently being built in Sanmen, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. The first reactor is scheduled to enter operation in 2013. Construction work is simultaneously being conducted at the Haiyang facility on the eastern coast of China.

Plans also call for new nuclear power plants to be built in the United States. In early February, for the first time since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the construction of two new Westinghouse reactors. Workers have already dug up the ground and laid the power lines for the reactors in the pine forests of the southeastern state of Georgia. The two 1,000-megawatt giants, which together cost $14 billion, are scheduled to go online in 2016. The new reactors are part of an expansion of the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant operated by the energy supplier Southern Company near the city of Augusta.

If the nuclear industry is to continue supplying 20 percent of America's energy, there's no way to avoid building new plants. The fact is that many of the 104 nuclear reactors currently in service in the United States are extremely old, and most of them have already been operating for over 30 years. To buy some time, since 2000, the NRC has extended the operational life span of 71 reactors to 60 years.

The main focus of criticism are the 23 ancient boiling water reactors, developed by the US industrial giant General Electric. These are the same type of power plant that blew up in Fukushima.

The US Department of Energy has $18.5 billion in federal guarantees available for building new nuclear power plants. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics, praises the expansion project in Georgia as pioneering. "The Vogtle project will help America to recapture the lead in nuclear technology," he says.

Approval could also soon be in the works for two reactor blocks in South Carolina. Indeed, energy suppliers are putting added pressure on the NRC, which has already received applications for some 30 additional reactor blocks. Still, critics doubt that all of the planned facilities will actually be built. Even under the best of conditions, a single nuclear power plant costs, per megawatt of capacity, almost twice as much as a coal-fired power plant and almost four times as much as a gas-fired one.

For this reason, Amory Lovins, an energy expert at the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, thinks that the supposed renaissance of atomic energy is nothing more than a nuclear-industry fabrication. Indeed, since a significant portion of the financing for nuclear facilities comes from federal subsidies and private investors are hardly ever involved, Lovins compares the situation to a form of "nuclear socialism."

"The nuclear industry is in a desperate effort to demonstrate that it is healthy," he says. "Loan guarantees are not a sign of economic health," he adds, in the same way that "blood transfusions are not a sign of medical health."

Germany Supports Plants Elsewhere

Rainer Baake, a former senior official at Germany's Environment Ministry who is viewed as the architect of the nuclear phase-out passed by the Social Democrat-Green coalition government in 2002, also finds it hardly surprising that there is not "more serious thinking about new reactors in any country with a liberalized energy market." He notes how two new nuclear power plants in France and Finland are not being financed according to standard market rules. "Costs have doubled, as have construction times," Baake says. "As a result, investment bankers regard the buildings as a kind of cautionary warning."

Even more surprising is the fact that Germany, the country so openly set on phasing out its own nuclear energy, intends to provide government support to the construction of a new nuclear power plant in far-away Brazil. Sitting on Economics Minister Philipp Rösler's desk is an application for a so-called Hermes export credit guarantee from the German government valued at €1.3 billion. In the Brazilian municipality of Angra dos Reis, located in the southern part of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the French nuclear giant Areva wants to build a nuclear power plant that German engineers had planned to build in the 1980s.

A report compiled by a Brazilian nuclear expert on behalf of the German environmental organization Urgewald finds that the proposed Angra location is dangerous. Wedged between the sea and steep slopes, the reactor would be practically defenseless against a tsunami or one of the region's frequent earthquakes. Worse yet, there is only a single coastal road on which the population could be evacuated. "We have the potential for a catastrophe that could even surpass Fukushima," the report says.

Likewise, the report notes that the Angra location doesn't meet the criteria that Eletronuclear, the Brazilian regulatory agency, "currently uses to identify suitable locations for future nuclear power plants." This month, Germany's Economics Ministry plans to decide whether it will make the construction of Angra 3 possible by extending a loan guarantee.

In the wake of the Fukushima accident, the German government raised the prospect of also no longer granting Hermes loan guarantees for the export of nuclear technology should the country decide to phase out its own nuclear energy facilities. Since then, however, the issue has not been discussed. Klaus-Peter Willsch, a prominent member of Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats and a member of the parliament's Budget Committee, even disputes the claim that safety considerations played a role in the government's decision to phase out nuclear energy. "We only did it on account of people's sensitivities," he says.

Phasing Out the Phase-Out

Everything is relative, it would seem, including Germany's nuclear phase-out. The Rosatom higher-ups working in Kaliningrad on the nuclear power plant project have their own thoughts about that, as well. Project director Sergey Boyarkin finds it rather convenient that the second reactor block in Kaliningrad is scheduled to enter into service at the end of the decade, right when Germany is supposed to be shutting down all of its plants. "We are making an offer to German energy companies that we could lay a power line from Kaliningrad, along the Nord Stream gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea," Boyarkin says. Doing so, he adds, would help Germany avoid shortages in its power grid.

The Russian nuclear executive also thinks it's conceivable that, before that could happen, Germany might once again phase out the phase-out. The first phase out he's referring to is that passed in 2002 by the Social Democrat-Green coalition government led by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and then-Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer, which was then postponed by 12 years in 2010 by Chancellor Merkel. "Merkel has already revised once what Gerhard and Joschka passed back then," Boyarkin says.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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