Katherine Tweed’s Scientific American article contrasting the ongoing boom in nuclear reactors in Asia with stagnation in the West makes a convincing contrast. (South Korea isn’t mentioned in the article–it should be.) I do wonder if China’s state-directed push will continue without consequences, and whether or not the current West lull might yet be temporary. Non-oil energy may be useful.
More than a decade ago a contract was signed to build the world’s first third-generation European pressurized reactor (EPR) in Finland. The cutting-edge, 1,600-megawatt nuclear power plant, Olkiluoto 3, which its French maker Areva boasted as the most advanced safety design of the time, is still under construction today. There have been various setbacks as well as endless finger-pointing between Areva and the Finnish utility TVO, which are locked in court battle over expanding costs. Now the reactor might not be completed until at least 2017, if at all, with a price tag of $11 billion, more than double its original estimate.
The Olkiluoto 3 situation is not unique. Another Areva EPR in Flamanville, France, is also behind schedule and over budget. A recent government deal for two new EPRs in the U.K. has also come under fire.
The prospects for a nuclear power revival are no better in the U.S. Although the technology has never been cheap, cost overruns and delays are plaguing the handful of next-generation pressurized water reactors currently being built, the first since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Even before that event, a study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the cost of new nuclear plants, globally, doubled from 2002 to 2009. The third-generation reactors have safety features that should prevent a meltdown similar to Fukushima’s but political controversy, along with the high price tag means that new nuclear complexes in the U.S. and Europe could be in the single digits instead of dozens originally planned less than a decade ago.
Ironically, the experience has been markedly different in Asia. Two of Areva’s EPRs are expected to come online in China next year. China and South Korea are building the third-generation reactors with fewer construction delays and cost overruns than their Western counterparts. “They’ve been single minded about it,” says Tony Roulstone, course director for nuclear energy at the University of Cambridge. “And that single-mindedness has its advantages.” China and other Asian countries have been building nonstop for the last 30 years whereas the multiyear gap in the U.S. has resulted in a loss of construction knowledge. China also seems to have the advantage of endless manpower, and the state owns the country’s largest nuclear firm.