Mainstream Rhetoric on Nuclear Power Far From Reality
by Julio Godoy
PARIS, Aug 1 2012 (IPS-Inter Press Service) - The catastrophe following the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactor in March 2011 has turned the old debate on nuclear power into a war of words between international agencies and independent experts with diametrically opposed views.
In their newest Uranium report, released Jul. 26, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all but ignored the lessons learned from Fukushima, predicting that by the year 2035, world nuclear electricity generating capacity will grow by 99 percent.
This forecast also effectively dismisses the financial constraints caused by the ongoing global economic crisis, which has brought countries in the eurozone to the brink of collapse.
Both agencies, mostly financed by industrialised countries, say that during the next two decades nuclear power will grow between 44 and 99 percent, and that uranium reserves, despite higher costs of extraction, are more “than adequate to meet (the) high-case requirements through 2035 and well into the foreseeable future.”
But for independent experts, these optimistic forecasts are typical of the sustained delusions of both agencies.
Mycle Schneider, co-author of the new ‘World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2012’ (WNISR), recalled that both agencies have a long history of exaggerated forecasts that never came true. “In 1973-1974, the IAEA forecast an installed nuclear capacity of 3,600-5,000 gigawatt (GW) in the world by 2000, ten times what it is today,” Schneider told IPS.
Schneider, a Paris-based consultant on energy and nuclear policy, has been a consultant to practically every Western European government, the European Union, the European Parliament, and numerous leading environmental organisations.
A member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), based at Princeton University, he is considered an international expert on nuclear policy.
“Even after the accident of Chernobyl, in 1985, the NEA forecast an installed nuclear capacity of 497-646 GW for the year 2000, still between 40 and 80 percent above reality,” Schneider added.
In sharp contrast to the NEA and IAEA, the WNISR, released Jul. 1, sees a collapsing nuclear power industry in most parts of the world, and gives it only marginal significance in the present and future global energy mix.
Particularly in the context of financial instability and ever-higher costs of construction, not to mention tight security requirements for nuclear reactors and a growing market for renewable energy resources, the report does not place nuclear power anywhere close to the top of the energy agenda.
“Nuclear electricity generation reached a maximum in 2006 with 2,660 terawatts per hour (TWh) and dropped to 2,518 TWh in 2011 (down 4.3 percent compared to 2010), while the nuclear share in the world’s power generation declined steadily from a historic peak of 17 percent in 1993 to about 11 percent in 2011,” the report says.
In addition, the report notes that, “Installed worldwide nuclear capacity decreased in the years 1998, 2006, 2009 and again in 2011, while the annual installed wind power capacity increased by 41 GW in 2011 alone.”
In contrast, global investment in renewable energy totaled 260 billion dollars in 2011, five percent above the previous year and almost five times the 2004 amount, the report indicates.
“The total cumulative investment in renewables has risen to over one trillion dollars since 2004 according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance,” Schneider told IPS. “Compare this to our estimate of nuclear power investment decisions of approximately 120 billion dollars over the same time period,” he added.
Schneider said that such contradictory developments show that “renewables and natural gas energy sources increasingly are more affordable and much faster to install” than nuclear power.
While the WNISR considers the Fukushima catastrophe to be a turning point in the development of nuclear power, the Uranium report by the NEA and the IAEA see it only as “bump in the road.”
As NEA’s Director General, Luis Echávarri, put it, “The Fukushima Daiichi accident … has had the effect of delaying the development of nuclear power programmes worldwide as the lessons from the accident are analysed and implemented.”
“Although most countries have reaffirmed their commitment to continue using nuclear power, a few have opted to phase out or not to reintroduce its use,” Echávarri added.
The NEA and IAEA repeat again earlier references to supposed plans for new nuclear power plant construction, “with the strongest expansion expected in China, India, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation,” and take nuclear power growth in other countries for granted.
However, the NEA and IAEA refuse to comprehensively quantify such growth. “(Its) speed and magnitude in generating capacity elsewhere is still to be determined,” the NEA and IAEA claim.
Such optimism can only be explained by a purposeful denial of actual energy developments since the accident at Fukushima, says Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow on energy, environment and resources at the London-based independent think-tank, Chatham House.
“The most significant post-Fukushima policy change outside of Japan has been in Germany,” Froggatt told IPS. “Within four months of the accident Germany adopted legislation that reintroduced and accelerated a previous phase-out plan for nuclear power.”
Germany’s phase-out of nuclear energy should be complete by Dec. 2022. Japan is also considering phasing out nuclear power within the next two decades.
“Other countries in Europe, including Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, have moved away from nuclear as well,” Froggatt added. In the developing world, countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Thailand “have also dropped plans to develop nuclear power.”
However, Froggatt pointed out that other governments, in the Czech Republic, France, Hungary and Britain, as well as India and Pakistan, have declared their intentions to continue developing nuclear power.
A good example of the uncertainty of the global energy sector is the People’s Republic of China.
“China is building 26 reactors, 40 percent of the global total,” Froggatt said. “Yet, it has suspended new construction to undertake further assessments and testing.”
Such uncertainty is already a strong argument against the NEA and IAEA’s optimistic forecasts. For nuclear electricity generation to actually increase by 99 percent during the next 23 years, hundreds of new nuclear power plants would have to be built in that period.
Present reality and immediate perspectives could not be farther from that kind of growth. As Schneider’s report points out, since 2011, only nine reactors actually started up – against 21 that were shut down.
Additionally, Schneider said, “Of the 59 units presently under construction in the world, at least 18 are experiencing multi-year delays, while the remaining 41 projects were started within the past five years or have not yet reached projected start-up dates, making it difficult to assess whether they are running on schedule.”