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Sunday 2 August 2015

Nuclear Industry Future Far From Clear

By Henry Hewitt, posted on Fri, 31 July 2015 20:51

My uncle was 17 years old, proud of his martial Prussian heritage, when he joined the U.S. Marines, just in time to make the landing on Guadalcanal. He made it through that encounter, was later wounded on Okinawa, recovered, and was training for the invasion of the Japanese mainland when Hiroshima and Nagasaki went up in atomic flames. When we buried him a few years ago, the Marine Honor Guard spokesman on hand said that most of the 500,000 Purple Hearts minted for the invasion were still in inventory. That is fortunate for Americans, though it meant woes a thousand fold had come raining down upon the Land of the Rising Sun.

It is understandable that his generation thought, and continues to think (those who are left), that atomic power was a miracle – a Godsend. For Japan, it was Godzilla, and that nation’s miserable luck with nuclear energy continues to this day. The plot thickened in 1949 when the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, and the Cold War heated up.

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one” – Robert J. Oppenheimer

When Robert Oppenheimer saw the first atomic test go off in the New Mexico desert 70 years ago, like his fellow engineers, he was awestruck by what they had done. “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ’Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another,” Oppenheimer recounted.

As terrifying as the new power was, the prevailing feeling about atomic energy on this side of the Pacific was hope. Less than ten years later, President Eisenhower’s Atomic Energy chief even believed that electricity from nuclear plants would be “too cheap to meter.” It hasn’t turned out that way, and not long after the Fukushima disaster, the Economist ran a cover story on the technology, declaring that the dream had failed. Are they right? If so, why are some smart people trying to develop the next generation? Why are several countries, China included, planning to build dozens more reactors?

Those who still favor nuclear power have strong headwinds to contend with. Like the stamp pictured above, the cost of nuclear power has risen more than tenfold. The cost of renewables, on the other hand, has fallen by more than that factor. The gulf is widening and it is hard to see why any prudent investor would bet on fission and the problems that come with it.

Nuclear power is not only too expensive, it is extremely risky from a financial perspective. Private investors will not finance or insure it. It does not scale down, except in submarines where cost is not the primary issue. The cost to decommission the reactors is high and rising and no one has yet satisfactorily figured out what to do with the mounting collection of wastes, some of which will remain lethal for eons.

Finally, the most terrible weapons of mass destruction, whose impact would be the next worst thing to a large meteor hitting the earth, can be made as a by-product of generating power that can be produced in many other ways. It is not the only, nor even the best, way to produce power without emitting carbon.

According to the recently published World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR): “China, Germany, Japan – three of the world’s four largest economies – plus Brazil, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain, now all generate more electricity from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear power. These eight countries represent more than three billion people or 45 percent of the world’s population.”

The market is telling us something and the news from the nuclear front is rather dire. A recent article in Forbes concludes: “For all intents and purposes, Areva is dead.” Forbes magazine is not generally regarded as an anti-nuclear mouthpiece.

It is worth considering that when it comes to nuclear power, when anything goes wrong, the taxpayer has to pick up the tab, and the pieces. In other words, the risks are socialized.

Related: Top 6 Myths Driving Oil Prices Down

Furthermore, the upside for nuclear power (baseload power, less carbon) may be had in abundance from other, cheaper, less risky sources. As to the claim that it is the best answer to carbon-free power production, according to the WNISR study, compared to 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was signed, “in 2014 there was an additional 694 TWh [terawatt-hours] per year of wind power and 185 TWh of solar photovoltaics – each exceeding nuclear’s additional 147 TWh.”

(Much) More...

See also:

Nuclear Power Industry Still Has an Unclear Future
Greentech Media, 14 August 2015

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