On the second anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude Great Tohuku Earthquake that killed more than 25,000 people and set off the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s (TEPCO’s) devastated Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 4 were in cold shutdown and set to be abolished. All Japan’s nuclear reactors remain shuttered for safety inspections, and the rattled nation has yet to finalize a future energy roadmap. Meanwhile, as panelists at the IHS CERAWeek noted, the world’s global nuclear sector seems to have made a slow but determined recovery.
It’s been two years since the rare and complex 3-minute temblor generated a series of giant tsunami waves that disabled offsite power supplies to the four Daiichi reactors on the eastern coast of Honshu Island, causing substantial core meltdown. Embattled TEPCO marked the occasion with an apology "for the anxiety and inconvenience caused"—the same apology that has begun every update since the March 11, 2011, Fukushima accident. Units 1 to 4 have been in cold shutdown since December 2011, it notes, and the utility is implementing mid- to long-term countermeasures, drafted with the government, for decommissioning the four units. Among measures slated for later this year are attempts to extract spent fuel from the most damaged of the plant’s seven storage pools. Melted fuel is expected to be removed from the reactors starting in 2021 and decommissioning is to be completed within 30 or 40 years.
Of Japan’s 50 viable nuclear reactors, meanwhile, only Kansai Electric Power’s Ohi Units 3 and 4 are operational. At least nine other nuclear power plants may go online in 2013 if their stress test reports are approved. But that still means Japan will rely on fossil fuels for 93% of its energy this year, remaining vulnerable to risks in the supply of those fuels from the Middle East and elsewhere. The island nation that has no energy resources of its own and is not connected to international power grids posted another record trade deficit of $1.74 billion in 2012, blaming the gap on surging imports of liquefied natural gas and a weaker yen
And its long-term energy outlook is just as bleak: The Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment, Japan’s latest draft energy policy, calls for a complete phase-out of nuclear power generation by the 2030s, but the Cabinet has not approved this strategy. A landslide victory in mid-December saw power in the country’s Lower House shift back to the nationalist-conservative party whose leader, the newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has rejected a total nuclear phase-out and instead endorsed a much-protested option to build more nuclear plants that are safer.
But the country has made major strides on the safety front, identifying and addressing shortcomings in its regulatory regime. Under the new system, the independent body regulating the nuclear power sector is the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which falls under the Ministry of Environment. It will be overseen by the Nuclear Safety Investigation Committee (NSIC). Under the previous system, the sector was regulated by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.
The Worst Is Behind Us
"The worst elements of the accident are behind us and we are now in the post-accident phase," said International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano last week in a statement on the second anniversary of the Fukushima accident. Amano, who was reappointed as head of the international nuclear watchdog on March 6, chronicled in a speech to members of the Institute of Security Studies earlier in February how the catastrophe had completely altered the trajectory of global nuclear power.
Just three years ago, "Dozens of countries were thinking about introducing nuclear power and many of the 30 or so existing users planned to build additional plants," he said. The Fukushima Daiichi accident caused "profound public anxiety and damaged confidence in nuclear power," he said. "Some people predicted that nuclear power would go into decline. However, the evidence suggests that will not be the case."
Nuclear power around the world "looks set to continue to grow more steadily, although more slowly than we expected before the Fukushima Daiichi accident," Amano said. About 437 nuclear power reactors are currently operational worldwide. An estimated 67 new reactors are under construction and dozens of others are being proposed. IAEA projections—based on member state data—suggest that number could increase by 80 or 90 reactors over the next 20 years. "It could even double," Amano said, pointing out that a number of countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Poland, and Vietnam had taken steps to introduce nuclear power to secure future energy supplies.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by these countries will be related to cost, Amano said. "The costs of construction can be considerable, although these may be offset by lower and more stable fuel costs during operation." Disposal of nuclear waste may also be seen as a major challenge for the future of nuclear power, but "waste disposal is not a technical challenge but more an issue of public acceptance. The nuclear industry has managed waste successfully for more than half a century," Amano said.
Fukushima’s legacy has become, and will remain, a much more intense global focus on safety, Amano concluded. Months after the accident, member states adopted an IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, and over the past two years, virtually all member states with nuclear plants have conducted stress tests to assess how well facilities would withstand extreme events, he noted. And since then, "[m]any practical steps have been taken, such as equipping plants with portable diesel generators and building higher protective walls."
An Industry Perspective
At last week’s IHS CERAWeek 2013, panelists at a session titled “Global Nuclear Outlook” echoed what became a theme for the five-day conference in Houston, Texas: The nexus for new builds has moved eastward and is centered on China. With about 29 new reactors in various stages of construction and 31 more planned, China is becoming a self-sufficient reactor designer and builder of nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, though some countries have considered phasing out nuclear power altogether, others with established nuclear fleets like France, the U.S., and the UK are contemplating politically sensitive lifetime extensions in lieu of costly new builds. "I think the lifetime extension issue is more lively in these countries than it is in many other countries because of the age of their fleets," panelist Stephen Kidd pointed out. Kidd is acting director of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an international trade association that represents about 200 member companies from more than 40 countries.
Compared to three years ago, the U.S. has seen a general slowdown in new nuclear plant development, affirmed Jeff Merrifield, a former commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who now serves as senior vice president at the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., a company that recently acquired the Shaw Group. And in the post-Fukushima era, the U.S. nuclear power sector could see stricter safety measures, like one proposed for its 31 boiling water reactors that could cost as much as $45 million for each plant. But the U.S. sector is also poised to see some milestones, such as the concrete pouring (expected over the next two weeks) for two new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia.
Potential opportunities for U.S. nuclear companies are mostly concentrated abroad—particularly in Saudi Arabia, Merrifield said. The energy-intensive Middle East is seeing tremendous support for nuclear power, spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates, where construction of four South Korean–designed reactors is planned by 2020, he noted.
Asked how nuclear power would fare in the U.S. in the face of the shale gas boom, Director of Nuclear Power and Support for Duke Energy Steve Nesbit reiterated a point made earlier that day by Duke CEO Jim Rogers that nuclear reactors generated up 70% of the nation’s non-carbon power. Proposed U.S. nuclear power new builds were plagued by the economic downturn in 2009, which reduced power demand forecasts, he said. "The outlook for [nuclear power in the U.S.] is cloudy—but I think it’s cloudy for … all different forms of generation right now," he said.
Another panelist, Joseph Zwetolitz, president of Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) Nuclear Energy, suggested that dilemma could be resolved by small modular reactors (SMRs), for which B&W, with federal support, is leading the charge to commercialize by 2021. SMRs could allow operators to scale generation to demand, he said, and at lower costs than conventional nuclear reactors.
The U.S.—more than its global counterparts—is also grappling with how it would store future spent nuclear fuel, the panelist suggested. As former NRC Commissioner Merrifield and Duke’s Nesbit criticized the Obama administration’s decision to abandon long-standing plans to store nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain permanent repository in Nevada—calling it "ugly" politics—the WNA’s Kidd pointed out that Sweden and Finland are making strides toward building new repositories, with two communities in Sweden even competing to host a repository site.
That was, perhaps because, as Duke’s Nesbit suggested, "both Sweden and Finland have set up corporate organizations to deal with this problem. It’s not a government agency working this. It’s a company owned by the utility companies. Canada has taken a similar approach, and they’ve had some good success lately in their siting efforts."
The best thing the U.S. could do to deal with its nuclear waste dilemma is to follow the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission and establish a government corporation that would "run on real business principles, rather than as a government agency," Nesbit said.
—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)
Note: This story was originally published on Monday, March 11, 2013.