The European Nuclear Impasse

10 November 2010 (Last Updated November 10th, 2010 18:30)

With a chasm opening between nuclear development in the East and West, has the European nuclear experiment stalled? With the European Nuclear Supply Chain conference about to take place in London, Chris Lo talks to Professor Stephen Thomas of Greenwich University to find out.

The European Nuclear Impasse

Back in the early 1960s, the nascent nuclear power sector held the promise of an inexpensive, low-emission, sustainable energy source. But the nuclear dream began to rapidly wane in the face of the growing complexity of nuclear reactor technology and regulations, as well as the rise of high-tech renewable energy development.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, global nuclear installed capacity shot up from 1GW to 300GW between 1960 and the late 1980s, but this progress has since slowed, with installed capacity crawling to 366GW by 2005. The organisation has also noted that more than two thirds of nuclear plants ordered after 1970 were cancelled before completion.

These figures speak to both the immense cost and complexity that is inherent to modern nuclear development and its controversy in the public mind and within state energy departments. The troubled development of the latest Generation III+ reactors, including Areva's European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) at the Olkiluoto and Flamanville nuclear plants (in Finland and France, respectively) could be seen as indicative of the risks that many European organisations are not prepared to take.

We interviewed Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at Greenwich University, who will be speaking at the European Nuclear Supply Chain conference in London on 17 November, about the fate of nuclear development in Europe, which appears to be balancing on a knife edge.

"More than two thirds of nuclear plants ordered after 1970 have been cancelled before completion."

Power Technology: How would you characterise the development of nuclear power in Europe in the last few years?

Stephen Thomas: It seemed to have stalled pretty much everywhere; there was a hint of some orders in Finland and France but everywhere else seemed pretty closed.

2005 was when Britain did its about-turn on nuclear power, with the famous Blair statement that nuclear was back with a vengeance.

I think there's still a lot of uncertainty - there have still been no orders placed, except for the Flamanville plant in France and I don't think orders are that close.

Even in Britain I think they're probably two or three years away at the earliest and there is plenty that can go wrong in that time. Finland [the third reactor at the Olkiluoto plant] I think is going to be delayed; I think the Penly order in France is going to be delayed after the Roussely report [former CEO of EDF Francois Roussely, who published a report on the French nuclear industry in July 2010].

Basically, Roussely said, 'Don't go ahead with Penly until you've sorted out the design.' He said that it could be done without delays, but I don't think he believed that for one second, frankly. I think he knows what is politically feasible to say, and saying that it's going to take quite a while to sort out the design was not politically feasible.

"The original vision was that Generation III+ would be simpler, safer and therefore cheaper."

PT: Are technological improvements making nuclear projects a more attractive prospect?

ST: Well, there seems to be quite a gap between the theory of Generation III+ and what's turning out. The original vision - you could find lots of people saying it 10 years ago - was that Generation III+ would be simpler, safer and therefore cheaper.

It might be safer, but there hasn't been any sign that it's any simpler or any cheaper.

PT:Would you say there's a lot of of variation between the different Generation III+ designs?

ST: The problem with Generation III+ is that it's such a vague term, and it's the latest level of safety, so no vendor is going to say that their design is anything other than Generation III+. With EPR, Areva claims it's Generation III+, but if Generation III+ means passive safety features, I don't think it has any, as far as I know. ABWR [Advanced Boiling Water Reactor] - that's going to be updated, but I doubt the updates will include passive safety; it'll just be tweaks to it.

If you're looking at the passive safety plants, then I suppose it's got to be the AP1000 and the ESBWR [Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor], but the trouble is that none of them have regulatory approval and there's no construction on any of them except in China and EPR [Olkiluoto].

ESBWR looks in pretty bad trouble. There's no interest outside the United States and I think it's down to one customer there. The ESBWR, which I think is seen as one of the more radical designs, seems in big trouble and they might go back to the ABWR.

PT: Do you think the regulatory landscape is confusing in terms of what people expect from the newest generation of reactors?

ST: I don't know so much about safety analysis, but the issue that does seem to keep coming up is core-catchers, and Europe is said to want core-catchers; America and Japan don't want core-catchers, and the rest of the world is less concerned about core-catchers. It does seem to be a fairly high price item. I think the high cost is putting pressure on non-European, non-American countries to look at earlier generation designs - we're seeing interest in the Chinese and Korean design.

The Korean design is not so much of an earlier generation and could conceivably be upgraded to current standards, but then it might lose its economic advantage. There has always been divergence in safety standards from national authority to national authority. But with so few designs now, it's more obvious. When we're basically talking about three or four designs worldwide, the differences do become much more obvious.

PT: Is there an impasse in reactor design, in that earlier designs are cheaper but might be more controversial and more modern designs are prohibitively expensive?

ST: If you're making political decisions, it puts the regulators in a fairly difficult position. If South Africa, for example, is saying, 'We want to buy Korean-designed Generation III or Chinese-designed Generation II+, then where does the regulator come in if the South African regulator believes they want core-catchers? What do they do? There seems to be a bit of pre-empting going on, if decisions are being taken at a governmental level in the way that they are in South Africa.

PT: How would you explain the divide between Asian countries, which are investing more heavily in nuclear, and the West, which seems more reluctant?

ST: I think it's simply down to competition and the certainty with which you can recover costs. So it's down to financing - in China, Russia, Korea, Japan, I don't think there's any issue about the fact that costs can be recovered. I think in Europe and North America, even where you haven't got competitive markets, regulators are going to be a lot less compliant than in the past.

PT: As time goes on, do you see that nuclear chasm getting wider?

ST: That depends what happens with electricity reform. The British system is in some flux at the moment. There's a white paper coming out on what market reforms might be needed to allow us to get security of supply and enough low-carbon generation in. That's just going to take away from markets and some people fear that the nuclear tail is going to 'wag the market reform dog', in other words you'll get reforms which are designed to allow nuclear to proceed.

I can't conceive that we'll go back to the good old days of monopoly in utility that had pretty much carte blanche to do what it liked. But there could be a great deal more security of income for companies, which would reduce the cost of borrowing, and if the construction costs were controllable, if it did stop going up and preferably started going down a little bit, then that could be a way back for nuclear.

I don't see the British model, the competitive electricity model, being taken up by many countries now that Britain seems to be on the verge of abandoning it, or going to a much less aggressively competitive form.

PT: Do you think nuclear projects are simply too risky and expensive for governments with stretched budgets?

ST: Yes, I would say so. The problem is we have so little experience with Generation III+. I mean, two projects [Flamanville and Olkiluoto] is no basis for making a judgement either way. But for both of them to go that badly wrong is no basis for optimism.

The people that make decisions on nuclear projects now are banks and credit rating agencies. They are agnostic on nuclear power, they just see risk, and Olkiluoto looks like risk.

"It seems the more experience there is with Generation III+, the more nervous everyone is getting."

PT: Do you think European organisations are looking at developing projects in the East for the proof of concept of modern nuclear power before investing themselves?

ST: I think Russia and China are still quite opaque, it's still quite difficult to know what's going on.

Maybe EDF, from its involvement with the Guangdong nuclear project, would have a better view of the Chinese process and can assess whether it's a model that can be transplanted to here.

As for Russia, there's very little experience recently. It's only in the last 18 months that they've started to build anything new, it's only been the hangover plants from the mid-80s that they've tried to finish.

PT: What developments can you see coming with the next generation of reactors in the next 20 or 30 years?

ST: It seems the more experience there is with Generation III+, the more nervous everyone is getting and we're going backwards rather than forwards. So you started with ESBWR and going back to ABWR, which is a 1980s design. So the bias seems to be more and more conservative. And if this promise of simpler, safer and cheaper was really an illusion, then you need to look at different designs.

I don't know whether any vendor would have the courage to invest the sort of money you'd need to develop Generation IV, because I've seen very little progress with Generation IV in the 10 years that it's been around.

I think if anything it's almost gone backwards with the pebble bed reactor being abandoned [announced in South Africa in September 2010], which was the nearest thing to Generation IV. So I can't see vendors investing the money they need to develop new reactors and I certainly can't see any utility having the courage to put a serious amount of money into Generation IV, so it looks a bit of an impasse at the moment.

Arena International is hosting the European Nuclear Supply Chain event in London on 17-18 November.