On the Yellowcake Trail Part Three: Status of Nuclear Reactors Today

Anna Tilman

"Say it with flowers" by Otto Schade. Photo by Gary Knight CC, cropped from original

This article is part of a series – On the Yellowcake Trail – that tracks all aspects of uranium in Canada, from mining and milling to processing and use, throughout its eighty-year history. The series begins with the history of uranium in Canada, from its initial discovery to the rapid development of mines that placed Canada as the prominent world leader in uranium production. Each mine has a story and each story has a common thread and legacy.

download the complete series as a PDF

Reality check

The nuclear energy industry has a dream of a new renaissance – but their dream could be our nightmare. Already there are large quantities of long-lasting highly radioactive waste at reactor sites sitting in cooling pools of water with nowhere to go. A nuclear renaissance would only make this desperate problem even worse.

Despite all the reports about leaks, shutdowns (temporary and long-term), construction woes, and financial costs, nuclear power proponents continue to portray it as safe, reliable and cheap. Worst of all, they portray it as the solution for climate change.

A reality check on the status of the world nuclear industry, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shows that as of August, 2009, 435 nuclear reactors were operating, generating about 14% of the world’s electricity. Fifty-two units are categorized as “under construction,” and many of these units have been in this stage for more than 20 years. About 90% of these nuclear power plant projects are concentrated in Eastern Europe and Asia, 16 in China alone.

While new plants have come on the grid every year since commercial use of nuclear energy began in 1954, no new nuclear plant was connected to the grid in the year 2008. The most recent nuclear plant to come on line was Cernavoda-2 in Romania in 2007, a CANDU reactor that took twenty-four years to build.

This is a far cry from the nuclear industry’s peak year in 1979, when 233 reactors were being built. Even after the explosion at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine in 1986, 120 new reactors came on line.

What this boils down to is an aging fleet of nuclear power plants in the world, whose average age is 25 years, with 9 facilities 40 years or older. Considering that the average age of the 123 units that have already closed down is a mere 22 years, just to maintain the same number of plants currently operating in the world would require one plant to be built every 19 days for the next 10 years. Clearly the industry is entering a steep decline, not a renaissance.

Life beyond sixty?

The nuclear industry estimates the lifespan of a nuclear power plant to be forty years. However, the nuclear plants that have shutdown so far have an average age of only twenty-two years. Despite this clear evidence, the nuclear industry, especially in the US, is claiming that the lifetime of reactors can be extended to 60 years and beyond. Since too few plants are being built to replace the existing ones, the only way to prevent a decline is to keep the old ones creaking along, regardless of safety and reliability. So far, only two operating reactors in the world have exceeded a 40-year lifespan, and these two reactors (in the UK) are scheduled to close in two years. Even in those plants, generation was temporarily suspended due to a fire.

Nuclear plants are not like any other plants. If something goes wrong, it can cause a major disaster. So what magic potion does the nuclear industry have in mind to boost the ages of these plants without compromising safety and reliability? Will they be able to prove that that they can do this to the regulatory agencies that must authorize such extensions? This is unknown territory.

Where are the nuclear workers?

A major issue facing the industry is a declining experienced workforce. In many countries where nuclear plants have been in operation for several years, the most experienced staff is approaching retirement and too few recruits are entering into the field to replace them.  Even France, where 80% of the electricity is nuclear-generated, is facing a shortage of skilled workers.  The President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has stated that CNSC is “facing many of same issues as the rest of the nuclear industry,” including a 10% annual turnover and 23% of the workforce eligible to retire in the next five years.

Since most of the proposed expansion is likely to occur in countries that do not have experience with nuclear power plants, the lack of a skilled workforce, combined with regulatory regimes that will likely be more lax, is very disconcerting.

The big fish… and the up-and-coming ones

Out of the thirty-one countries presently using nuclear energy, six countries dominate the field, the US, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, and South Korea. These “big fish” generate two-thirds of the world’s nuclear energy. Canada is positioned seventh, along with the Ukraine, which has plans for two new nuclear plants.

The US, with 104 nuclear plants in operation, is the world’s biggest nuclear power.  Almost all the reactors were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1977, there have been no new construction starts in the US, partly because natural gas generation was considered more economical, and construction schedules for nuclear plants were frequently extended. The partial melt-down of Three-Mile Island in 1979 has effectively nailed the coffin on newly built plants for the last thirty years.

In 2001 George W. Bush launched the Nuclear Power 2010 program with the  objective  to “complete construction and deploy multiple commercially viable new nuclear plants by 2010.”  It is now obvious that no new plant will be up and running in the US by 2010. Only one unit (in Texas) is currently planned to operate before 2015. In the nuclear industry, things just don’t work out as expected.

Trouble in finland

The “big six” countries, as they are known, have had their share of nuclear woes. But if serious consideration is ever given to a nuclear renaissance, the experience in Finland alone should provide the strongest possible deterrent.

The largest nuclear construction site in Europe is in Olkiluoto, Finland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Olkiluoto is also the site for a final repository for Finland’s spent fuel. The project is managed by the French-owned AREVA, the largest nuclear builder in the world.  This project was meant to showcase Areva’s newly designed Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR). But it is turning out to be a major fiasco in every way.

The reactor is more than three years behind schedule, and the start-up date gets pushed further into the future. There are major construction problems ranging from inappropriate materials to an inexperienced workforce. There are legal disputes between Areva and the Finnish utility (TVO). There are cost overruns, putting the project more than 50% over budget from the original estimate of about $4.5 billion. If this is a state-of-the-art project, then what can be expected from ones that aren’t?

Other than this reactor in Finland, the only nuclear reactor currently being built in Western Europe is in Flamanville, France. It is a clone of the Finnish reactor, and not surprisingly, it is encountering similar problems – construction issues, delays, and budget overruns.

The escalating costs that plague the industry should prevent the construction of any new reactors. Only very generous government subsidies, and government protection against legal liability, have kept the nuclear industry alive. No other industry is so heavily subsidized.

Canada’s reactors

Canada has a supreme place in the nuclear industry. It is the world’s largest uranium producer, supplying about 23% of the global market, and exports more than 85% of its uranium.  It was one of the early investors in nuclear power, and began developing a new design of heavy water reactor in 1944. This set the development of the Canadian reactor program down a unique path, with the adoption of the CANDU – CANadian Deuterium Uranium – reactor design.

The key differences between the CANDU reactors and the more widely adopted light water reactors are that they are fuelled by natural uranium (as opposed to enriched uranium), can refuel without shutting down, and are cooled and moderated by heavy water. While the CANDU saves costs in enrichment, these savings are partially offset by the cost of producing heavy water.

The first commercial CANDU reactors began operation in Pickering, Ontario, in 1971. Sixteen reactors are located in Ontario, and one each in Quebec and New Brunswick. Nuclear power provides 14.8% of Canada’s electricity, and 53% of Ontario’s electricity.

Throughout their history, the Canadian reactors have been plagued by technical problems, leading  to  cost overruns, and reduced power  generation. The initial estimate for Darlington Station in Ontario, Canada’s last-built nuclear plant, was $5 billion, and it nearly tripled to $14 billion or more, a cost passed on to Ontario’s taxpayers.

In August 1997, Ontario “temporarily” shut down its oldest seven reactors to allow a significant overhaul to be undertaken. Four reactors were shut down at the end of 1997, and three others were closed in March 1998. An eighth reactor had already been shut down in October 1995.

At the time, it was the largest single shutdown in the international history of nuclear power – over 5,000 MW of nuclear capacity, one third of Canada’s nuclear plants. As of May 2009, only four of the eight reactors had returned to operation. Two more are scheduled to come back on line later in 2009 or early in 2010. Two other reactors have been retired from service.

Proposals for constructing new plants, whether by government or private interests, are encountering substantial local opposition.

Ontario has shelved its plans to build two new units at Darlington, partly because of the cost (over $26 billion), but also because the economic recession has lowered electricity  demand. Bruce Power, a private company, has cancelled plans to build nuclear plants at Nanticoke, Ontario (the site of the largest coal plant in North America, on the shores of Lake Erie) in the face of strong local opposition. But it has moved westward to Alberta in search of a willing host.

New Brunswick is investigating the option of adding a second nuclear reactor at its Point Lepreau site. Meanwhile, a $1.4 billion refurbishment project on the existing reactor, which  has been off-line since April 2008, is running behind schedule by eighteen months and over budget by  $1.6 billion.

Any new CANDU reactor would have to undergo a thorough regulatory review, and its costs are still impossible to estimate.

Presently 34 CANDU reactors are operating in seven countries, as well as 17 ‘CANDU derivative’ reactors in India, with more being built. 12 CANDU units have been exported to South Korea (4), Romania (2), India (2), Pakistan (1), Argentina (1) and China (2).

Nuclear: the answer to climate change (not)

Despite all the operational problems encountered by the nuclear industry in the last two years alone, especially in France, Germany, and Japan, nuclear energy was seriously considered as a means to address climate change and energy security at the G8 meeting in July 2008. The World Nuclear Association, along with other international bodies such as the OECD, remains completely confident nuclear power will be back on the agenda, but many factors mitigate against that:

  • A new nuclear reactor is a very expensive proposition, requiring government subsidies and insurance guarantees, and a skilled workforce. Cost overruns and long lead times, coupled with uncertainties as to completion dates, are inherent in the building of any nuclear reactor. Many billions are needed for decommissioning and legacy wastes.
  • The price of nuclear energy in the U.S. is approximately twice that of natural gas and unlikely to decrease. The costs of wind and solar, on the other hand, are now comparable with nuclear energy and rapidly falling as energy efficiency improves and economies of scale kick in.
  • Once running, power plants are huge water consumers, and particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and flooding. Excessive heat in rivers and lakes can close a facility for safety reasons.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced by burning fossil fuels in every stage of the nuclear chain – from the mining, milling, refining and enriching of uranium, to making fuel bundles for the reactors. On top of all that, the construction of nuclear power plants requires a lot of steel and cement, both derived from energy-intensive processes. When one also factors in the energy required to cool the spent fuel rods, and the emissions from all the transportation required throughout the nuclear chain, nuclear energy is anything but carbon neutral.

For high quality uranium ores, the CO2 produced by the full nuclear chain has been calculated to be about one half to one third of an equivalent-sized gas-fired power station. For low quality ores, the CO2 produced is equal to that produced by an equivalent gas-fired power station.

A white elephant

In 1954 Lewis Strauss, Head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, proclaimed that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” The reality has in fact been the reverse. No plant has been built without incurring long lead times and cost overruns. The true financial cost has been hidden by extensive government subsidies, limits on liability for accidents, and not adding the costs for waste storage and plant decommissioning to pricing structures.

When one also weighs in the harm from radiation exposure to long-term health and the environment, and the lack of any safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, the industry is truly a white elephant.


Select Sources:

Mycle Schneider et al, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009

World Nuclear Association information library, World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements 

Institute for  Energy and Environmental Research, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free:  A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, by Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D

J.W. Storm and P. Smith, Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance


Anna Tilman is an independent researcher and member of the board of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health

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