03/08/2012 06:02 PM

Undeterred by Fukushima

Nuclear Lobby Pushes Ahead with New Reactors

One year after the reactor accident in Fukushima, resistance to nuclear energy is growing around the world. But the atomic industry continues to push for the construction of new reactors, primarily in emerging economies. The German government even wants to support that expansion -- despite the fact it has abandoned nuclear power back home. By SPIEGEL Staff.

The road to the construction site is flanked by ruins. At one point, there's a church that looks like its steeple has been shaved right off. An icy wind whistles through empty farmlands.

The buildings, which are slowly decaying at the foot of a small hill, are relics of the former German province of East Prussia. Now they are located in the eastern part of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, located between Poland and Lithuania.

At the top of the knoll, three cranes are pivoting. A massive construction pit comes into view, 20 meters (66 feet) deep and 500 meters long. Visitors can walk down a ramp to reach its bottom of sand-brown dirt.

Yevgeniy Vlasenko, the director of the nuclear power plant that will be built on the site, slips on his hardhat. With Vyacheslav Machonin, his construction supervisor, trailing close behind, Vlasenko heads for a mass of freshly poured concrete blocks. All around, workers are bending the iron rods that will be used in the building's ring-shaped foundation.

"The reactor with its fuel rods will rest on top of this," Vlasenko explains. His construction supervisor proudly reports to him that his workers are mixing 2,000 cubic meters (70,000 cubic feet) of concrete per hour for the structure. Should there be a core meltdown, the extremely hot uranium will drip down and be trapped in this basin. But, of course, Vlasenko insists that things "will never get to that point."

Vlasenko doesn't want to spoil the good mood on the construction site. Everything is reportedly going according to plan: In four or five years, at most, the first block of the new Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant will begin generating 1,200 megawatts of electricity. "Then we'll sell the energy to Europe," Vlasenko says. "Including Germany."

Build Reactors 'Until Your Noses Bleed'

The gaunt director and his more rotund construction supervisor can't help but laugh a bit about the irony of selling nuclear power to Germany, now that it has decided to phase out its own nuclear power plants by 2022. "You used to build fantastic nuclear power plants, elegant and solid," says Machonin, who is now working on his ninth such construction project.

Before this project, Machnonin was in the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr. "There, we took over and finished the Siemens building project," he says. "And we adopted some things from you there." Both of them shake their heads. "How could the Germans just throw everything away," asks Vlasenko. "Nuclear energy isn't on its way out; it's at the beginning of a renaissance."

Vlasenko is employed by Rosatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear company that is building a third of the nuclear power plants currently under construction across the world. The German and Russian opinions about the future of nuclear energy couldn't be more different. While Germany has decided to abandon atomic energy, Russia is unflagging in its commitment to the power of nuclear fission.

Indeed, during a celebration marking the opening of a new reactor, Russian leader Vladimir Putin called on those in his country's atomic industry to build nuclear power plants "until your noses bleed." Likewise, he has plenty of derisive things to say about Germany's nuclear anxieties. "I don't know where they intend to get their heat from," he says. "They don't want nuclear energy; they don't want natural gas. Do they want to go back to heating with wood?"

No Economic Sense

A year after the catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it is clear just how little the nuclear lobby and its government supporters have been unsettled by the disaster in Japan. But rejection of nuclear energy is growing among people the world over -- and building new reactors makes no sense in economic terms.

On the face of things, it would appear that little has changed. Only a few countries, such as Switzerland, Italy and Belgium, are joining Germany in turning their backs on nuclear energy. Indeed, it is primarily Russia and the United States, the two nuclear heavyweights, that are competing in a new atomic race, though this time with technologies geared toward civilian purposes. New nuclear power plants are being built with particular relish in emerging economies, such as China and India, who want to satisfy at least part of their energy needs with uranium (see graphic).

For the builders and operators of nuclear energy plants, the accident in Japan came at what might be considered a bad time. After years of stagnation, not only the emerging economies of Asia -- China, South Korea and India -- but also Russia and the United States were beginning to put greater emphasis on nuclear energy. This decision was driven not only by the growing energy needs of the newly industrializing nations, but also by fears related to carbon emissions and climate change.

This prompted the backers of nuclear energy to make frantic attempts to downplay the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, with the aim of nipping the debate about nuclear safety in the bud. For example, John Ritch, the director-general of the World Nuclear Association, asserted that the disaster hadn't cost anyone their life. "Nuclear power will be even safer after Fukushima," Ritch told the BBC in November, "and will continue to mature as the world's premier non-carbon technology."

Declining Support

Ritch's views are shared by Roland Schenkel, a German physicist who used to be the director-general of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. Fukushima, he says, did not prove that nuclear energy is risky elsewhere in the world. "Clearly, these plants were not appropriately protected against well-known specific risks, such as earthquakes and tsunamis."

Still, all of these efforts at placating and winning citizens over have apparently failed. Already in June 2011, the leading British polling company Ipsos MORI identified a decline in global support for the continued use of nuclear energy or its expansion. In a survey of around 19,000 people in 24 countries, the company found that only 38 percent of respondents approved of nuclear energy, which put it at the bottom of the lists of energy sources, far below even coal-generated energy. The survey also found that the greatest numbers of people who had changed their minds about nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima were found in South Korea, followed by Japan, China and India.

A poll conducted for the BBC in late November 2011 suggests that these survey figures are not a flash-in-the-pan reaction to the dramatic television images from Fukushima. Only 22 percent of the over 23,000 people questioned for the poll considered nuclear energy to be relatively safe and backed its further expansion. Somewhat surprisingly, there was also an increase in the number of people rejecting the construction of new nuclear power plants in France and Russia, where nuclear energy has traditionally enjoyed strong support. While the views of Americans seemed to be unaffected by events in Fukushima, there was even a slight gain in support for nuclear energy among the British, which might have something to do with the fact that many environmental activists there have embraced nuclear energy as a tool for combating climate change.

China Leads the Pack

On balance, it would be a stretch to speak of a renaissance in nuclear power. According to official figures, there were 436 nuclear power plants still operating around the world at the beginning of March 2012, or eight fewer than the record figure reached in 2002. "If you also subtract the reactors in Japan that have been taken off the grid, the number is only 388," says nuclear expert Mycle Schneider. "That's not exactly a renaissance."

Indeed, despite all the upbeat rhetoric from the atomic industry, hardly any nuclear expert seriously believes there will be a significant increase in the number of nuclear power plants in operation around the world. Schneider points out that existing reactors have a high average age and are gradually being disconnected from the grid. "The nuclear power plants being planned or under construction will not make up for this unstoppable reduction," he adds.

Granted, according to statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 63 nuclear power plants are currently being built. However, a number of these are projects with no end in sight, such as the dozen plants that have already been on the organization's list for more than 20 years. The current record is held by the second reactor unit of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in the US state of Tennessee, whose construction commenced in 1973. The Westinghouse reactor is supposed to finally begin operation this year, but its launch was recently pushed back yet again.

China leads the pack with 26 new nuclear power plants. Despite its skyrocketing energy needs, the country still conducted safety checks at all of its new plants in the wake of Fukushima. Construction work on several new plants is scheduled to commence this year, and a number of plants, such as the Hongyanhe Nuclear Power Plant in northeastern China, are supposed to begin generating energy. However, officials have not approved any new building projects since March 2011, the month of the Fukushima disaster.

China is also putting much emphasis on renewable energy. Indeed, in 2010, the country boasted 42,287 megawatts in installed wind energy capacity, or over four times as much as its nuclear reactors can generate. This gradual turning away from carbon-based energy production is also supposed to continue, with plans calling for 100,000 megawatts of wind energy and 43,000 megawatts of nuclear energy capacity by 2015.

Resistance in India

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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