2001: a reversal of fortunes?30 November 2001
The year 2001 is likely to be looked back upon as a pivotal one for nuclear power. NEI reviews some of the stories that have made 2001 such an extraordinary year for the industry.
It was a great year for nuclear power. But how, in such a short space of time, did the gloom that has dominated the industry for several years transform into such optimism? Here, we look at some of the year's stories that are likely to influence the future role of nuclear worldwide.
The Bush factor
President George W Bush's controversial US election victory is perhaps the biggest single factor responsible for the change in mood within the nuclear power industry.
President Bush entered office when energy was high on the agenda. As the White House began putting together an energy plan, key members of the nuclear industry made the case for nuclear power. It was not long before Vice President Dick Cheney began to discuss nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuels. Mr Cheney was widely quoted as saying on national television: "If you want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions then you ought to build nuclear power plants because they don't emit any carbon dioxide; they don't emit greenhouse gases." Mr Cheney also received several standing ovations at the Nuclear Energy Institute's annual conference in May, as he described the administration's strategic energy plan which calls for nuclear plant relicensing, plant upratings and new construction.
Enormous capital investment in all forms of energy, including nuclear, was seen by the government as a key to the nation's future. Even the public agreed. In the west of the country, public support for building new nuclear plants rose from 33% to 52% as a result of the energy crisis in California.
But the initial euphoria in the industry did not last long. A major cause for concern was the realignment of the US Senate on 5 June, after Vermont Senator James Jeffords defected from the Republican Party. Jeffords' decision to become an independent meant the Democrats had a 50-49 majority. Before his move the 100-member Senate had been divided 50-50 between the political parties, but the Republicans had effective control because of Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking vote. Soon after the realignment, the new Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (Democrat - South Dakota) said: "The Yucca Mountain issue is dead," as long as Democrats are in the majority. It will not be long before we know if he was right.
In fact, much progress has been made this year on the Yucca Mountain project, and it is likely that its fate will be decided soon. The US nuclear industry is hopeful that, with a majority of legislators in favour of the repository - including both Republicans and Democrats - opponents will be unable to use Senate rules to bottle up legislation. While Democrats may have gained procedural control of the Senate, the upper chamber is still populated by the same lawmakers as before. Hence, once legislation reaches the Senate floor - if it reaches the Senate floor - it makes little difference which party controls the chamber.
Another major setback for nuclear came when President Bush disowned the pledge that he would regulate emissions of carbon dioxide, and later the USA withdrew its support for the Kyoto protocol. However, there are some indications that the country is taking the issue of carbon dioxide emissions seriously. In August a bill was introduced that would accelerate research on renewables and nuclear energy. Under the legislation, an Office of Applied Energy Technology & Greenhouse Gas Management within the Department of Energy would be created. Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) said: " We need to get beyond the hyperbole over the merits of the Kyoto Protocol, which is largely a political document rather than a serious attempt to solve a real global issue."
The terrorist threat
Just as the USA began talking about building new nuclear plants, the anti-nuclear lobby were presented with a golden opportunity to revive public fears of nuclear power. There is no need to review here the state of near frenzy over the security of nuclear facilities that several countries have entered into, following the terrorist attacks in the USA on 11 September.
The fear of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities will have to be addressed by the industry. Even if the USA does come out of Afghanistan claiming it has achieved its objectives, the possibility that nuclear sites may be targeted can never be ruled out. Allaying public fears over this issue is yet another hurdle that the industry has to overcome.
On the other hand, many people are beginning to see that security of supply is now a priority. At the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) recent conference on nuclear safeguards and terrorism John Ritch, director-general of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), said: "Viewed in a broader perspective, the current sense of terrorist danger - and the larger and more ominous fear of a clash of civilisations - is likely to strengthen an argument that can only (be) to the benefit of nuclear power: the importance of energy security." On page 47, Exelon Chairman and Co-CEO Corbin McNeill also argues this point.
The rest of the world
All eyes are on the USA, but developments in other countries are also contributing to the nuclear debate. The importance of some stories may - sometime in the future - also be looked back on as pivotal points.
At the moment, the development of nuclear power within western Europe - much like the situation in the USA - really only amounts to an optimistic outlook. The exception is Finland, the first country in the world to approve a high level waste repository. Finnish parliament voted 159 to 3 with 37 absentees and one abstention in favour of the repository, to be located at Eurajoki, near the Olkiluoto plant.
Although the government said there was no link between the repository and a new build in the country, the decision can only support any arguments in favour. Earlier in the year, the Loviisa town council agreed that it would be happy to host the country's fifth nuclear reactor.
On the whole, the government and people of Finland are supportive of nuclear power. Could this be a uniquely Finnish trait, or should policy, education and good public relations take the credit for this unusual state of affairs? If the rest of the world looks to the USA for a lead on nuclear power development, then perhaps the USA would benefit from following the Finnish example.
Should we ever begin to think that politics is beginning to become less of an issue within the industry, we only need look towards the Czech Republic. The country shares a border with Germany, with the Green Party forming part of the coalition government; another country to border the Czech Republic is Austria, the government of which is formed by a coalition that includes the far-right Freedom Party.
The timing for the start-up of the Temelin nuclear plant, situated in south Bohemia - some 60km from both the Austrian and German borders - could hardly be worse. Drawing facts to the attention of politicians is rarely productive when political reputations are at stake, but nevertheless that is what Temelin operators CEZ has done, and continues to do. At one point, the usually restrained Frantisek Hezoucky, Executive Director of Temelin, was so incensed that he wrote an open letter to German Minister of the Environment - and outspoken critic of nuclear power - Jürgen Trittin (see NEI September 2001, p4). Predictably, Mr Trittin refused to respond, and has also not taken up Mr Hezoucky's invitation to visit the plant.
Throughout the year, any problems at the plant - most of which concern the Skoda Praha 1000MWe turbine - have been cited as proof that the plant is unsafe. Germany and, in particular, Austria have tried almost everything to shut down Temelin. CEZ has been repeatedly threatened with lawsuits, with high-profile US lawyer Edward Fagan having agreed to represent Austrian anti-nuclear groups for free. Much has been said - or, more often, shouted - but the threats have still not developed into action.
But the momentum towards a positive outcome remains. The State Nuclear Safety Office of the Czech Republic (SUJB) periodically allows the plant to increase its energy production. Trial operations are due to begin in February. On the political front, the Melk process is in its final stages. The agreement, which proposed that a commission of experts should assess Temelin's safety and environmental impact, was signed by Czech Premier Milos Zeman and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel a year ago. In a letter to Chancellor Schüssel and Premier Zeman, EU Enlargement Commissioner Günther Verheugen said that the safety assessment is finished and should be closed. There still remains the issue of the Czech Republic's application to enter the EU, and whether Germany and Austria would use the Temelin issue to block the energy chapter of the accession talks. Chancellor Schüssel and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have said that their countries would not delay the closing of the energy chapter, but their respective coalition partners are, not surprisingly, unhappy with this.
Westinghouse was celebrating when it won the contract to bring the I&C
systems of the two Soviet-built VVER-1000s in line with western safety standards. Recent events, with much of the criticism of the plant being directed at Westinghouse, may have caused the company to reassess just how lucky it was. Perhaps it won't be too long before they resume the celebrations once more.
Phasing out nuclear
Although Germany feels that Temelin ought not to go into commercial operation, it is happy to let its own nuclear plants run for another 20 years. German power companies E.ON, RWE, EnBW and HEW have signed an agreement with Chancellor Schröder over the shutdown of the country's 19 operating reactors. Stade KKS will be the first plant to be closed, in 2003, with the others following over the next 20 years or more.
The agreement is based on last year's compromise deal worked out between the industry and Jürgen Trittin. The opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, has said it would reverse the decision if it won next year's elections. Should the phase-out go ahead, the way in which the country both makes up for the lost generation and copes with commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will have repercussions for nuclear power's future around the world.
In a similar move, Belgium has also announced that it will phase out nuclear power. A bill, which should become law by the end of 2002, will wind down the sector over the next 40 years. The country relies on nuclear power even more heavily than Germany.
Public relations in Japan
Nuclear power companies and governments are beginning to realise that public support is essential for the industry. One country that is beginning to show that it takes public concerns seriously is Japan, a country that firmly believes nuclear power is essential. The Japanese nuclear industry is still healing the wounds caused by the Tokai-Mura criticality accident in 1999 and the news that BNFL falsified MOX fuel data on a shipment sent to Takahama.
Public confidence in the industry is growing once again, and the industry is demonstrating that it takes public opinion seriously. Tokyo Electric Power's (Tepco's) plans to load MOX fuel into its reactors have been set back as a result. A shipment of MOX fuel (from Belgonucleaire) was delivered to Kashiwazaki-Kariwa but the tiny farming village of Kariwa narrowly voted against loading the fuel in a referendum that was not legally binding. Tepco decided to take the views of the 1925 villagers (53.4%) into account, and agreed to postpone loading for another year. Tepco president Nobuya Minami said he is not abandoning the MOX project, and his company and the government will make further efforts to gain public acceptance for using MOX fuel.
In 1996, a majority voted against the construction of a nuclear plant involving Tepco, in a plebiscite held in the town of Maki in the Niigata Prefecture. Last year Chubu Electric Power was forced to abandon a plan to build a nuclear plant in the Mie Prefecture, as a result of strong opposition from the towns of Nanto and Kisei. In yet another setback for the industry, the small town of Miyama, also in the Mie Prefecture, has voted against asking a power company to build a local nuclear plant (see page 3). Although no actual plans were at stake in the referendum, the negative vote was, according to the Japanese Atomic Industrial Forum, a "severe blow".
One high profile dispute that has been resolved this year - at least for the time being - was over construction of the two Lungmen units. Last year Premier Chang Chun-Hsiung of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) halted construction without consulting parliament. A vote in the country's legislative Yuan at the end of January was won decisively by the opposition Kuomintang, by 134 votes to 70. Three members of the opposition voted with the minority government. Following the vote, the DPP agreed that construction could be resumed, heading off a political crisis. However, it is likely that the DPP agreed to the deal in the hope that, following the next elections, the party will increase its representation in the Yuan.