Nuclear power may be on the verge of a global renaissance just over a decade after the Fukushima disaster placed its future in doubt. The global shortage of gas in the face of the Ukraine war, with western buyers shunning Russia and Putin weaponising energy supplies, and a widespread wind drought this summer are leading governments around the world to re-evaluate the role of nuclear power.

This is a positive step – the idea that countries that are not blessed with either high levels of sunshine or hydro could rely on renewable energy without some form of long-duration storage was always unrealistic. Very low wind generation across a large number of markets in both Europe and the US this summer is highlighting the need for zero carbon generation that is not dependent on the weather. Nuclear is the obvious choice.

Japan to accelerate its nuclear re-start…

After the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011, Japan ordered the closure of all of its nuclear reactors while their safety was re-assessed. Japan now imports 90% of its energy while before 2011 30% of its electricity needs were met through nuclear power. The country has 33 reactors that are operable, but as of June this year, only 10 had been authorised to re-start following new regulations implemented in the wake of the disaster.

Last week Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that the country will now explore the construction of new nuclear power stations, as well as seeking to re-start a further seven of its existing reactors from next summer onwards. 17 reactors have applied to re-start, of which seven have regulatory approval but are yet to re-open due to required upgrades or lack of local support – a sensible first step would be to accelerate the re-opening of these reactors. The Prime Minister has also instructed officials to consider extending the lifespan of existing reactors beyond the current maximum of 60 years.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster

The Great East Japan earthquake of Friday 11 March 2011 measured 9.0 on the Richter Scale. It was a rare and complex double quake giving a severe duration of about 3 minutes, and caused a large tsunami which did considerable damage. Eleven reactors at four nuclear power plants in the region were operating at the time and all shut down automatically when the earthquake hit. Subsequent inspection showed there was no significant damage to any from the earthquake itself. Fukushima Daiichi units 4, 5 and 6 were not operating at the time, but were affected – the main problem initially centred on units 1-3, while unit 4 became a problem on day five when hydrogen from unit 3 travelled along shared ducts and caused an explosion.

Electricity from grid or backup generators was able to run cooling pumps at eight of the eleven reactors, and achieved “cold shutdown” within about four days of the earthquake. The other three units, at Fukushima Daiichi, lost power about an hour after the earthquake when the site was flooded by the tsunami, which disabled 12 of 13 backup generators onsite and also the heat exchangers for discharging reactor waste heat and decay heat to the sea. These units lost the ability to maintain proper reactor cooling and water circulation functions. Electrical switchgear was also disabled.

Three Tepco employees at the Fukushima plants were killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami, but there were no immediate fatalities from the nuclear accident, and so far it does not appear that there have been long-term fatalities that can be linked with certainty to the disaster (ie rates of cancers in survivors do not appear to be statistically different to those for the general population).

The tsunami countermeasures implemented when Fukushima Daiichi was designed and sited in the 1960s were considered acceptable given the scientific knowledge and experience at the time, with low recorded run-up heights for that coastline. However, around 18 years before the 2011 earthquake, new research emerged about the potential for a large earthquake and major tsunami of over 15 metres at the Daiichi site (the 2011 tsunami reached 15 metres in height) but no action was taken either by plant operator Tepco, or by the Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency which allowed the plant to operate without additional countermeasures such as moving the backup generators to higher ground, sealing the lower part of the buildings, or having some back-up for seawater pumps.

….while Germany continues to dither

Shortly before the Fukushima disaster, Germany decided to continue with its nuclear programme, allowing lifetime extensions for its reactors, however there had been strong opposition from the Green Party. After the disaster, the Greens successfully applied pressure for the decision to be reversed, and the country began a schedule of closures despite the fact that a 15-metre tsunami is extremely unlikely to occur anywhere close to any of Germany’s nuclear reactors. This is also a bizarre choice in the context of the now derided Energiewende, and has prolonged the country’s reliance on coal for electricity generation – exiting both nuclear and coal at the same time being unfeasible. Germany is the world’s largest producer of lignite, and despite plans to migrate to renewable generation, 2021 saw the smallest amount of new wind capacity added at just 1.65 GW.

German generation mix 2021

At the end of 2021, Germany shut down half of its remaining nuclear power stations, Brokdorf (1,410 MW), Gundremmingen (1,288 MW), and Grohnde (1,360 MW) with the last three, Emsland (1,329 MW), Isar (1,410 MW) and Neckarwestheim (1,310 MW) which together meet around 6% of the country’s electricity needs, due to close by the end of this year.

There have been widespread calls for these closures to be delayed, both within Germany where a recession is now expected, and from neighbouring countries who fear the stress on their own electricity systems due to the need to export to Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said delaying their closures “can make sense”.

However, not everyone agrees – Germany’s Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said that extending the lives of these reactors would be “madness” while her Green Party colleague, Economy Minister Robert Habeck has said that the reactors would only save 2% of gas use and so are not worth keeping open.   

There are practical barriers to both extending the lives of these reactors and potentially re-opening the three that closed in December. One is that their operating permits are expiring, and safety tests have not been carried out in anticipation of closure. Fuel supplies have also been run down, and there have been suggestions that the lead time for new fuel rods could be as much as 18 months, although industry experts have said fuel could be conserved for winter use, and sourced from elsewhere.

The German government has said it will wait for the outcome of a new “stress test” of the country’s electricity grid before making a decision.

There is some hope that Olkiluoto 3 will open this winter after 13 years of delays…

A week ago, Finnish system operator Fingrid warned that the public should be prepared for the possibility of blackouts this winter, as imports from Russia are no longer available and imports from Sweden and Estonia may be limited by availability issues in those countries. However, there is hope that Olkiluoto 3, a new European Pressurised Water Reactor (“EPR”) that has been under construction since 2005 may finally open ahead of the winter.

The EPR technology had been a failure so far. Only two plants, at Taishan in China, have managed to open, and Taishan-1 was offline for over a year due to a problem in the fuel assembly, details of which have not been made public, however, it had previously been reported that a build-up of inert gases in the plant occurred due to issues with the casing around some of the fuel rods, the first of three containment barriers at the reactor. On 16 June 2021, China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration confirmed that the increase in the concentration of noble gases in the primary circuit was related to a few damaged fuel rods, estimating that five out of more than 60,000 fuel rods were affected. The reactor was finally re-connected to the grid on 16 August.

In July EDF confirmed that a modification to the fuel assembly has been designed for both Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C in the UK and it has submitted modifications to the French nuclear regulator for approval at Flamanville. Fortunately for Finland, Olkiluoto had a different fuel design.

“The proposed solution is also in operation at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland which has a different fuel design to Taishan,”
– spokesperson for Hinkley Point C

The issue is unlikely to result in specific delays at the British projects, but has the potential to further delay the opening of Flamanville C. Although Olkiluoto is not affected by this problem, its road to opening continues to face bumps, and just yesterday output fell to zero due to a turbine failure which is now being investigated. The plant had been due to open in 2009, and the latest target date is December this year, assuming this new problem does not cause further delays which the country can ill afford.

In addition to being delayed by 13 years, costs have ballooned from an estimated €3 billion originally, to over €11 billion, with Siemens and Areva paying buyer TVO over €1 billion in compensation for the delays and cost over-runs.

…but in France there is no good news for the beleaguered nuclear sector

In normal times, 70% of the electricity used in France is generated by nuclear power, but currently 32 of the country’s 56 reactors are offline pushing prices to record highs. Last week year ahead power prices reached €1,000 /MWh for the first time ever. Some are offline for routine maintenance, however a large number of the P4 and N4 reactors has been forced to shut down due to corrosion problems identified in April.

French and German electricity prices

Four reactors, each with a capacity of 1.3 GW have seen their re-start dates pushed back:

  • Penly 1 will not re-start until 23 January, a month later than previously announced
  • Cattenom 1 will re-start on 1 November instead of 14 September
  • Cattenom 3’s return is delayed from 8 October to 11 December
  • Cattenom 4 will re-start on 14 November instead of 10 October

In late July, French nuclear regulator, ASN approved EDF’s inspection and repair regime for the entire fleet of affected reactors, a programme that is expected to take 3 years to complete. The ongoing drought this summer has further reduced output due to lower availability of cooling water. Overall nuclear output for 2022 is now expected at the lower end of EDF’s forecast of 280 to 300 TWh.

As a result of these problems, France has switched from being a net exporter of electricity to a net importer, buying primarily from Britain and Germany. This year Sweden has overtaken France as the largest net electricity exporter in Europe, with most of its exports going to Finland and Denmark.  Sweden generates electricity primarily from hydro, nuclear and wind, which are all relatively cheap resources, but despite this, it has also seen rapid price rises due to its connections with other markets.

French electricity imports

French domestic energy prices are currently capped – gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase by 4% per year. According to French Minister of the Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60% for gas and 45% for electricity this year. These measures, implemented late last year had been due to expire in June, but have been extended to the end of 2022 with signs that there may be some form of support continuing into next year.

However, the cap is adding to the financial woes at EDF which is in the process of being fully re-nationalised, and has taken the bizarre step of suing the French government for €8.3 billion after being forced to sell electricity at a loss. Gas supplier Engie has been insulated by its vertical integration, having long-term gas supply agreements and a large LNG portfolio (the company’s share price has only dropped about 7% this year).

Nuclear power should be a key part of the energy transition

Although the current energy crisis is encouraging pro-renewables lobbies to claim that this intensifies the need for renewable generation, the lack of wind this summer has highlighted a need for reliable, non-intermittent low carbon generation. For most countries, the only viable option is nuclear, and even countries such as Norway and France with significant hydro resources have suffered from the effects of a dry year that has compounded the problems with gas and wind generation this summer.

In the US, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes a US$ 30 billion tax credit that could save dozens of reactors from early closure. Small modular reactors (“SMRs”) have also just received certification by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, paving the way for the first SMRs to open later this decade. There is a growing realisation in the country that the scale of electricity storage that would be needed to support a 100% renewables electricity system could be impossible to deliver, and that nuclear power could provide the solution.

It is important that Germany follows Belgium’s lead and delays the closure of its remaining reactors – in March this year, Belgium delayed its nuclear phase-out by a decade. It should also consider re-opening the reactors which closed in December. The premature closure of functioning power stations during a time of energy crisis is irresponsible, as is placing additional pressure on other countries such as Norway which has seen its electricity prices rocket since it opened interconnectors with Britain and Germany last year. Reservoir levels in the south of Norway are at lows not seen since the mid-1990s, putting exports at risk – Germany should do what it can to reduce its need for imports by making all of its generators including nuclear available for use throughout the winter.

When the dust settles on this energy crisis, policy-makers will be challenged to ensure their energy systems are not left so vulnerable again. The development of nuclear power is an important part of the solution to low carbon electricity grids.

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