Nuclear’s False Friends: France and China
Everyday i check my Google news filters to see what is happening in the field of nuclear reactors worldwide. What strikes me doing this is the nuclear PR machine has figured out how to wire the mainstream media (MSM) echo chamber for the result it prefers. Some silly press release about Westinghouse winning a uranium fuel contract will be reported far and wide. Yet somehow most of the US MSM missed that Switzerland is phasing out of nuclear and that 95% of Italians voted against nuclear power in a binding referendum.
If you go a step further in and read the comments on these nuclear news stories, you will often hear nuclear power should be expanding worldwide (especially Thorium reactors) and that two exemplary national models they US should follow are France and China.
France: Nuclear boosters love to point at France. With 75% of it’s electricity from 58 reactors and very low retail electricity prices, it totally makes sense. Starting with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, the French made it national policy to dramatically increase their energy independence by building out a major nuclear fleet. And build they did.
While nuclear proponents continue to celebrate this choice, they are living in the past. Recently Reuters is reporting that nuclear power in that country has been capped at 63.2 GW by the government. Practically, this means new built reactors can only come online after old ones are replaced. Specifically, the sole domestic French reactor under construction is at Flamanville. Like all other EPR reactors in the west, it is years behind in completion and more than 100% over budget. This reactor can only come online when another reactor (in this case Fessenheim) is shut down.
France has no serious plans for the construction of new reactors. EdF is refocusing on maintaining the existing fleet. Areva is busy trying to sell reactors overseas (though it has abandoned the US). In fact, the current French plan is to drop nuclear as a fraction of the total energy supply to 50% by 2025. Instead of new reactors, France is investing in, wait for it … expanded renewables.
China: Nuclear boosters love China. China has 20 reactors running and is currently building 28 more. It has by far the most ambitions nuclear construction program in the world, with over 1/3 of all actively being build reactors globally. But before you cry out “let China lead the way,” let’s look briefly at two things: Reactor Safety and Chinese Renewables.
Reactor Safety: The most important conclusion from the special parliamentary panel of the Japanese government on the Fukushima meltdowns was that it was a human-made disaster. Specifically, the regulator of the reactors was far more concerned with the nuclear construction industry and its profits, than they were with public safety. Insufficiently high sea walls, inadequate evacuation plans, and insufficient liability insurance are just some of the results from this failed regulatory situation. These paved the way for the disaster.
China is worse, far worse. There is basically no independent safety inspection or regulation in China. At one of the only press conferences ever given by China’s nuclear regulator, which happened some months after Fukushima, they admitted that they had found 14 problems at the reactors in the county. No word about where they are, how severe the problems were, if there will be any disciplinarian action against staff or management for these failures. Since this March 2012 report, i have only seen one other report on the Chinese regulator. In this the French nuclear construction companies are complaining that the Chinese regulators are overwhelmed and don’t show up at all like they do in the West.
In the old Soviet reactor construction projects they used to tell the safety people they cant slow the project. When regulators instructed reactor operators to close plants, often communist party bureaucrats would overrule these instructions. This safety culture failure helped lead to Chernobyl and a myriad of other less reported nuclear disasters which have contaminated huge swaths of land. China has far less regulatory oversight than the old Soviet Union. The industry must basically regulate itself. Libertarians will be thrilled, the rest of us are legitimately concerned.
Chinese Renewables: While having slowed in recent months, the Chinese economy is still by most measures booming. And while they have the worlds most ambitious nuclear program, it is dwarfed by both each of two renewables program. The Chinese wind program (which is already the largest in the world) and their solar PV program (which is on target to be the largest in the world this year) are both already larger than their nuclear program and are growing faster. Bloomberg is reporting that 72% of new energy investment between now and 2030 in China will be real renewables. US safe energy and climate disruption activists would be thrilled with this level of commitment.
So when someone tells you we should follow the French and Chinese examples, you can respond by saying “by that, you mean prioritizing renewables over nuclear” and see if they agree.