Is there really a strong nuclear industry out there?

8 February 2005

Those opposed to nuclear power often make reference to a very powerful ‘nuclear industry’ which has awesome powers at its disposal to promote its case. In reality, we can see that nuclear is rather different from other energy technologies and the structure of the industry and its supporting professional and trade associations means that it is not quite the monster that is popularly depicted. Indeed, those fighting the case for nuclear often feel that they are fighting with at least one hand tied behind their backs.

Firstly, as was discussed in my article in the July 2004 edition of Nuclear Engineering International, nuclear lacks a critical mass of strong, powerful companies with good public images to stand up for it. In the oil and gas sector, there are several huge companies such as Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil that devote considerable resources to maintaining a high public profile. Although the activities they engage in may be environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable in the longer term, the recognition and tacit approval they receive as strong corporate beasts means that this tends to be ignored or generally forgotten. With nuclear power, all the revenue comes from the sales of electricity by the companies running the 440 commercial reactors around the world. Although most of these are very large organisations with high public profiles, they generally have little firm commitment to nuclear as they are multi-fuel generators, with oil, coal and gas-fired plants as well – and often also some hydro and renewables. In some cases they appear to indicate that nuclear technology was foisted on them in the past by public policies and they have had to bear the brunt of problems ever since. Most will speak up in favour of nuclear, saying how important it is for the world’s energy future, but without showing any inclination to invest in new plants to make sure that this actually happens.

On the supply side of the nuclear fuel cycle the position is little better. Only Areva stands out as a substantial international company, with interests in many different areas and countries. As more of its shares become marketed to the general public during 2005, this should give a major boost to the nuclear sector because more financial analysts and commentators will focus on their various activities. The marketing campaign it has adopted over the past few years appears to have been very successful – by first achieving recognition of the Areva name and only then beginning to associate it with the range of fuel cycle activities, which then can be explained to the audience. Although consolidation has taken place within the separate areas of the fuel cycle, such as uranium mining and fuel fabrication, the companies which are strong in particular areas, such as Cameco, USEC and BNFL are still small compared with the big boys involved in coal, oil and gas. And while huge contracting companies such as Bechtel and Fluor are not attached to any particular technology, neither are the vendors of key plant components such as GE, Siemens and Doosan. Although there are a host of consulting companies who find work analysing and advising companies involved in nuclear, those totally committed tend to be small.

This gives those financial institutions and their investors that may believe strongly in the future of nuclear a significant problem. There are very few companies they can invest in, unlike the case if they are bullish about coal, oil or gas. The recent upsurge of interest in uranium has brought forward a host of very small junior companies, which are inherently risky as investments, but Cameco has remained the only major stock to invest in directly – others such as Rio Tinto and WMC are involved in many other metals too.

The nuclear industry as it stands is therefore much more fragmented than other energy sectors. Yet this is nothing compared with the various societies, institutes and associations supporting the industry and its people. Despite the huge amount of international trade and specialisation that supports the industry, these are still mainly organised at the national level. There is some basis for this: energy policy is still very much a national decision and regional or fully multinational policies are still in their infancy, but it hardly helps to establish a strong and overwhelming case for nuclear within the world’s energy future.

In most major countries, there are two types of organisation servicing the nuclear sector. The first are professional societies of nuclear engineers and scientists, such as the American Nuclear Society (ANS), the British Nuclear Energy Society (BNES) and the Canadian Nuclear Society (CNS). These have large numbers of individual members who work in companies throughout the nuclear fuel cycle and in universities and research institutes. There are also nuclear branches and divisions of general engineering associations, such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Secondly, there are organisations devoted to lobbying on behalf of the industry, such as the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) in London and the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) in Toronto. These are supported by local companies and mainly concentrate their influence at the local and national levels. In some countries, the professional and lobbying organisations are combined, for example in France with SFEN and in China with CNS. There is a degree of international co-operation with both professional and lobbying organisations, such as the societies in the Pacific region combining every two years for a Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference, while the larger societies attract participation from overseas at their meetings. In Europe, Foratom lobbies the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg on behalf of all the European industry, but the European Nuclear Society, which formerly brought the individual national societies together, is now much weaker.


Most will say how important nuclear is for the world’s energy future, but without showing any inclination to invest in new plants

At the international level, the industry has the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). WNA was formed from the old Uranium Institute in 2001 and runs working groups of members to advance industry knowledge and positions whilst engaging with the international governmental organisations in the UN and OECD systems on behalf of the industry. WANO was formed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and concentrates on advancing nuclear safety with every plant throughout the world.

While all of these organisations do good work on behalf of the industry, the overall structure is somewhat chaotic and is certainly far from optimal in both servicing the industry’s needs for good meetings, better information-sharing to conduct its business and successful lobbying on its behalf. The crazy structure of industry conferences and meetings exemplifies this. Each organisation organises its own events and in some cases relies on these for revenue. Although there is a degree of cooperation with respect to timing and coverage, this has proved insufficient to prevent significant overlaps and timing clashes. Industry executives complain that there are far too many conferences that they and their staff should attend, taking up too much travelling time and expense. Alternatively, the absurd situation of May 2005 arises, where three major conferences, ICONE in Beijing, ICAPP in Seoul and the NEI Assembly in Washington all occur on the same dates. This shows the need for at least some consolidation and better planning. As there are also nuclear conferences promoted by private organisations such as AIC and IBC at irregular intervals, plus other relevant events promoted by UN organisations such as the IAEA, IPCC and UNFCCC, the lack of focus and common sense is even clearer.

The first stage in addressing this serious weakness in the industry is to fully understand the industry structure and particularly the characteristics and workings of all its fellow professional and lobbying organisations. It is clear that change is underway in many of these for a number of reasons. Companies are now more tightly manned and are less willing to give time to employees to engage with their professional societies. An aging nuclear workforce is also a big factor, and today’s young professionals are less willing to carry on individual memberships far on beyond their student days. This is having a major impact on the national nuclear societies and branches of the professional engineering associations. The lobbying organisations also have to cope with industry consolidation, and their smaller numbers of active paymasters need to be convinced that the present structure is optimal or at least workable – which it clearly isn’t.

From WNA’s standpoint, we have made a major effort at conference consolidation by merging our former Mid-Term Meeting in the spring with the NEI’s old Fuel Cycle meeting, held at the same time. This worked well in Madrid in 2004 and further success is anticipated in San Antonio this April 2005. WNA has also decided to lend its support to two major annual international meetings in more specialist areas, namely the ICONE conference covering nuclear engineering and the WM Conference on waste management. The hope is that these will become bigger and better with increased industry support and that other organisations may merge their overlapping events into them. Our hopes may be forlorn, however, as many bodies are over-defensive about their events – they fail to recognise the weakening and aging attendances and are sometimes frightened to reach out beyond their national boundaries.

It is clear that today’s structure of companies and representative organisations within the nuclear industry is the result of a complex history. Indeed a strange accident of history. Yet it needs to change if nuclear is to constitute a ‘proper’ industry and one as strong and powerful as our opponents contend (and we sometimes pretend). The industry itself, on both generation and supply sides, needs to carry on consolidating into a smaller number of more powerful international companies, which can minimise unit costs by engaging in international trade that is as free as practicable. In turn, the other organisations that support it need to be ready to change too and must not get left behind. They should be ready to look in an adventurous way at how they currently conduct their business, to see how both they and their members can prosper rather better.

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