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China's nuclear power plans: safety and security challenges

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

China is pushing ahead with ambitious plans to expand nuclear power, but the risks are daunting.

China's State Council published the 'Energy Development Strategy Action Plan, 2014-2020' in November. The plan envisages an expansion of nuclear power from 19.1 gigawatts (GW) of currently installed capacity to 58 GW by 2020, with another 30 GW under construction by then. It says that efforts should be focused on promoting the use of large pressurised water reactors (including the AP1000 and CAP1400 designs), high temperature gas-cooled reactors, and fast reactors.1

Ambitious targets for renewables have also been set: 350 GW of hydro capacity by 2020, 200 GW of wind power capacity, and 100 GW of solar capacity. 1 Thus the renewable target of 650 GW greatly exceeds the 58 GW nuclear target. In 2013, for the first time, China added more new renewable capacity than new fossil and nuclear capacity.2

Chinese authorities have a history of failing to meet nuclear power forecasts:

  • In 1985, authorities forecast 20 GW in 2000 but the true figure was 2.2 GW (11% of the forecast).3
  • In 1996, authorities forecast 20 GW in 2010 but the true figure was 8.4 GW (42% of the forecast). 3
  • In late 2012, China revised its plan to have 50 GW of nuclear capacity installed by 2015 down to 40 GW − and the true figure will be around half that.4

The Economist noted in a December 6 article that plans for a massive nuclear expansion should be taken with "a big pinch of salt" and added: "It is true that China is the brightest spot in the global nuclear industry, but that is mostly because prospects in other places are bleak."5

Claims by industry bodies − such as the World Nuclear Association's forecast of 150 GW of nuclear capacity in China by 20306 − should also be taken with a pinch of salt.

In 2010, Chinese officials forecast 130 GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2020 − more than double the current forecast. And the State Council Research Office's 2011 forecast of 70 GW by 2020 has been reduced to 58 GW.2

It is unlikely that the 58 GW target can be reached by 2020. It assumes no closures of the 22 operating reactors, completion of all 27 reactors (29 GW) under construction, and completion of 10 GW that has yet to begin construction − all in the space of six years.


The South China Morning Post noted in a September 2014 article that "China will have to overcome some big hurdles, including conflicts of interest among large state-owned companies, technological uncertainties in new-generation power plants and public concerns about nuclear safety." The newspaper quotes a China Institute of Atomic Energy expert who argues that a shortage of scientists and engineers poses a "major challenge".7

Plans for inland nuclear plants have been delayed by public opposition (especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster), water shortages and other problems. Even the latest plan calls for nothing more than feasibility studies regarding inland plants.

A 2011 report from the State Council Research Office stated that nuclear development would require new investment of around US$150 billion (€121b) by 2020, on top of the costs of plants already under construction. The Office noted that new nuclear projects rely mainly on debt, funds are tight, and "investment risks cannot be discounted". Supply chain problems and bottlenecks could result in delays and further cost increases, the report noted.8

Safety first?

Numerous insiders have warned about inadequate nuclear safety and regulatory standards in China. He Zuoxiu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said last year that "to reduce costs, Chinese designs often cut back on safety".9

Li Yulun, a former vice-president of China National Nuclear Corporation, said last year that Chinese "state leaders have put a high priority on [nuclear safety] but companies executing projects do not seem to have the same level of understanding."10

Cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011 highlighted the secrecy of the bidding process for nuclear power plant contracts in China, the influence of government lobbying, and potential weaknesses in management and regulatory oversight. Westinghouse representative Gavin Liu was quoted in a cable as saying: "The biggest potential bottleneck is human resources – coming up with enough trained personnel to build and operate all of these new plants, as well as regulate the industry."11

In August 2009, the Chinese government dismissed and arrested China National Nuclear Corporation president Kang Rixin in a US$260 million (€209m) corruption case involving allegations of bid-rigging in nuclear power plant construction.12


In 2011, Chinese physicist He Zuoxiu warned that "we're seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front" for a rapid expansion of nuclear power. Qiang Wang and his colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences noted in 2011 that China "still lacks a fully independent nuclear safety regulatory agency"13, and they noted that China's nuclear administrative systems are fragmented among multiple agencies; and China lags behind the US, France, and Japan when it comes to staff and budget to oversee operational reactors.14

The 2011 report by the State Council Research Office recommended that the National Nuclear Safety Administration "should be an entity directly under the State Council Bureau, making it an independent regulatory body with authority."8

China's nuclear safety agency is still not independent. And there are other problems: salaries for regulatory staff are lower than in industry, and workforce numbers remain relatively low. The State Council Research Office report said that most countries employ 30−40 regulatory staff per reactor, but China's nuclear regulator had only 1000 staff.8

In 2010, an International Atomic Energy Agency team carried out an Integrated Regulatory Review Service mission and said the review provided "confidence in the effectiveness of the Chinese safety regulatory system."8 Which just goes to prove that the IAEA sometimes says the silliest things − and in the process implicitly endorses and encourages sub-standard practices.

The Economist argued on December 6: "[T]he headlong rush to nuclear power is more dangerous and less necessary than China's government admits. One of the main lessons of Fukushima was that politicised, opaque regulation is dangerous. China's rule-setting apparatus is also unaccountable and murky, and ambitious targets for a risky technology should ring warning bells."15

Nuclear technology options

The Economist points to risks arising from China's approach to nuclear technology options:

"China's approach to building capacity has added to the risk of an accident. Rather than picking a single proven design for new reactors from an experienced vendor and replicating it widely, the government has decided to "indigenise" Western designs. The advantage of this approach is that China can then patent its innovations and make money out of selling them to the world; the downside is that there are now several competing designs promoted by rival state-owned enterprises, none of which is well tested.

"China should slow its nuclear ambitions to a pace its regulators can keep up with, and build its reactors using the best existing technology − which happens to be Western. That need not condemn it to more sooty, coal-fired years. The cost of renewable energy is dropping quickly and its efficiency is rising sharply. Last year, over half of all new power-generation capacity installed in China was hydro, wind or solar. If China wants to accelerate its move away from coal, ramping up those alternatives yet more would be a lot safer."15

Liu Baohua, the head of the nuclear office at the National Energy Administration, recently said that key technology and equipment being deployed in China's nuclear program is "still not completely up to standard". Liu said: "The third-generation reactors now under construction still have problems with the pumps and valves, and with the inflexibility of the design. ... We are working to resolve these problems and the overall situation is still under control." He said more needed to be done to improve the regulatory framework and to train nuclear personnel.16

The '12th 5-year Plan for Nuclear Safety and Radioactive Pollution Prevention and Vision for 2020', produced by the Ministry of Environment and endorsed by the State Council, said that China needed to spend US$13 billion (€10.4b) to improve nuclear safety at over the three years to 2015. The document states that "China has multiple types of nuclear reactors, multiple technologies and multiple standards of safety, which makes them hard to manage."8

China continues to build large numbers of 'Generation II' reactors which lack the safety features of more modern designs. The State Council Research Office report said that reactors built today should operate for 50 or 60 years, meaning a large fleet of Generation II reactors will still be in operation into the 2070s, when even Generation III reactors may have been superceded.8


The EPR reactors under construction at Taishan illustrate some of the problems and risks associated with China's nuclear program. "It's not always easy to know what is happening at the Taishan site," Stephane Pailler from France's Autorite de Surete Nucleaire (ASN) said in an interview this year. "We don't have a regular relationship with the Chinese on EPR control like we have with the Finnish," she said, referring to Finland's troubled EPR reactor project.

Philippe Jamet, one of ASN's five governing commissioners, testified before the French Parliament in February. "Unfortunately, collaboration isn't at a level we would wish it to be," he said. "One of the explanations for the difficulties in our relations is that the Chinese safety authorities lack means. They are overwhelmed."17

In March, EDF's internal safety inspector Jean Tandonnet noted problems evident during a mid-2013 visit to Taishan, including inadequacies with large components like pumps and steam generators which were "far" from the standards of the EPR plants in Finland and France.17

Tandonnet urged corrective measures and wrote that studies "are under way on tsunami and flooding risks."17 has assessed nuclear plants most at risks from a tsunami. Globally, it found that 23 nuclear power plants with 74 reactors are in high-risk areas. The riskiest country is China − of the 27 reactors under construction, 17 are located in areas considered at risk of tsunamis.18

Little information has been published about the Taishan reactor project − and the same could be said about many others. Albert Lai, chairman of The Professional Commons, a Hong Kong think tank, said this year that the workings of China's nuclear safety authority are a ''total black box'' and ''China has no transparency whatsoever.''17

Insurance and liability arrangements

The Economist recently noted that Communist leaders are "keenly aware that a big nuclear accident would prompt an ugly − and, in the age of viral social media, nerve-wrackingly unpredictable − public backlash against the ruling party."5

The backlash would be all the more virulent because of grossly inadequate insurance and liability arrangements. Chinese authorities are slowly developing legislation which may improve the situation. Currently, liability caps are the lowest in the world. Nuclear plant operators must have insurance that covers financial losses and injuries up to 300 million yuan (US$48.5m; €39m). If a legitimate claim exceeds that amount, the central government may provide up to 800 million yuan (US$129m; €104m) extra.19

Closing the fuel cycle, increasing the risks

China's attempt to develop a closed fuel cycle will increase safety and security risks as discussed in an October 2014 paper by Hui Zhang, a physicist and a research associate at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.20

In 2010, China conducted a 10-day hot test at its pilot reprocessing plant, where it is also building a pilot MOX fuel fabrication facility. The China National Nuclear Corporation plans to build a medium-scale demonstration reprocessing plant by 2020, followed by a larger commercial reprocessing plant.

Hui Zhang notes that the pilot reprocessing plant lacks an integrated security system. He notes that the 2010 hot test revealed problems: "Although reprocessing operations stopped after only ten days, many problems, including safety and security issues, were encountered or identified. These included both a very high amount of waste produced and a very high measure of material unaccounted for or MUF."

If the closed fuel cycle plans proceed, the long-distance shipment of MOX fuels and metal plutonium fuels will pose major security concerns.

Hui Zhang argues that "China has no convincing rationale for rushing to build commercial-scale reprocessing facilities or plutonium breeder reactors in the next couple of decades, and a move toward breeders and reprocessing would be a move away from more secure consolidation of nuclear materials."

China ranks poorly in the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index − it is in the bottom fifth of the countries ranked. The NTI summarises: "China's nuclear materials security conditions could be improved by strengthening its laws and regulations for the physical security of materials in transport to reflect the latest IAEA nuclear security guidelines, and for mitigating the insider threat, particularly by requiring personnel to undergo more stringent and more frequent vetting and by requiring personnel to report suspicious behavior to an official authority. China's nuclear materials security conditions also remain adversely affected by its high quantities of weapons-usable nuclear materials, political instability, governance challenges, and very high levels of corruption among public officials."21


1. WNN, 20 Nov 2014, 'China plans for nuclear growth',
2. World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 2014,
3. ACF, 2012, 'Yellowcake Fever: Exposing the Uranium Industry's Economic Myths',
4. Keith Bradsher, 24 Oct 2012, 'China Slows Development of Nuclear Power Plants',
5. 6 Dec 2014, 'Promethean perils',
6. World Nuclear Association, 9 December 2014, 'Nuclear Power in China',
7. Stephen Chen, 14 Sept 2014, 'China plans to be world leader in nuclear power by 2020', South China Morning Post,
8. World Nuclear Association, 9 December 2014, 'Nuclear Power in China',
9. He Zuoxiu, 19 March 2013, 'Chinese nuclear disaster "highly probable" by 2030',
10. South China Morning Post, 7 Oct 2013, 'China nuclear plant delay raises safety concern',
11. Jonathan Watts, 25 Aug 2011, 'WikiLeaks cables reveal fears over China's nuclear safety',
12. Keith Bradsher, 15 Dec 2009, 'Nuclear Power Expansion in China Stirs Concerns',
13. David Biello, 16 Aug 2011, 'China's nuclear ambition powers on',
14. 22 June 2011, 'China needs improved administrative system for nuclear power safety',
15. 6 Dec 2014, 'China's rush to build nuclear power plants is dangerous',
16. Reuters, 5 Dec 2014, 'China's new nuclear technology not yet fully up to standard, energy official says',
17. Tara Patel and Benjamin Haas, 20 June 2014, 'Nuclear Regulators 'Overwhelmed' as China Races to Launch World's Most Powerful Reactor',
18. Oil Price, 4 Nov 2014,
19. 26 April 2014, 'What if China has a Fukushima?',
See also WNN, 16 Sept 2014, 'Insurers can help improve the image of nuclear',
20. Hui Zhang, 8 Oct 2014, 'The Security Risks of China's Nuclear Reprocessing Facilities',
21. NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, 2014,

Rosatom BOO boys in Bangladesh

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The foundation stone has been laid at the Rooppur nuclear power site after Russia and Bangladesh signed an agreement on the construction of the country's first nuclear power plant. The agreement covers the design stage of the project, which is expected to take about two years to complete and will form the basis for obtaining further licences and starting construction of the plant.[1,2]

Two 1,000 MWe reactors are planned for Rooppur, based on a modified version of the NPP-2006 VVER pressurised water reactor. The site is on the eastern bank of the river Ganges (in Bangladesh it is called the Padma River), 160 kms from Dhaka. Site preparation is expected to begin in early 2014, with construction beginning in 2015. The project is expected to take around five years, with the first unit beginning operation in 2020 and the second in 2022.[1,2]

The project follows Russia's BOO model − build, own and operate.[3] Under the terms of the construction deal, Russia's state-run Rosatom nuclear energy corporation will build, operate and provide fuel for the plant in addition to taking back the spent fuel for long-term management and permanent disposal in Russia. Russia will also train workers to operate the plant.[2,4]

Abdul Matin, a former chief engineer with the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and author of the book 'Rooppur & the Power Crisis', warns about conflicts of interest: "An ideal feasibility study is usually prepared by an independent consultant in order to correctly assess the technical and economic viability of a project without any bias or prejudice so as to help all the stakeholders in the process of decision making. ... NIAEP-ASE, being a subsidiary of ROSATOM, the likely supplier and builder of the proposed nuclear power plant at Rooppur, cannot by any definition be classified as an independent consultant. Under such circumstances, the credibility of the feasibility study and EIA prepared by them may be questioned."[5]

Abdul Matin also discusses conflicts of interest regarding financing: "The economic feasibility will prepare a reasonable estimate of the capital cost of the nuclear plant which will form the basis of negotiations between the BAEC as the owner and ROSATOM as the supplier and builder. The conflict of interest is obvious in this case. While estimating the capital cost of the nuclear plant, will NIAEP-ASE try to keep it as low as possible in the interest of its employer BAEC or will it inflate it to maximize the profits of its parent company? Will it be possible for NIAEP-ASE to impartially evaluate the safety aspects of a nuclear power plant designed, supplied and built by its parent company [Rosatom]? Under such circumstance, is there any guarantee that the conflict of interest will not lead to a compromise on the safety aspects of the nuclear plant at Rooppur?"[5]

Russia has agreed to provide US$500 million to finance preparatory work and to provide future loans to finance construction of the reactors.[1] According to the World Nuclear Association, "a future loan of about $1.5 billion is expected for the nuclear build proper" or, more cryptically, "a second loan of over $1.5 billion for 90% of the first unit's construction".[6]

Implausible capital costs of US$2 billion per reactor have been cited. Quamrul Haider, a physics professor at Fordham University, New York, notes that "it would be foolish to expect a good and a safe reactor at such a bargain price."[7] Dr A. Rahman, a nuclear safety specialist with over 32 years of experience in the British civil and military nuclear establishments, notes that the capital cost for VVER-1000 reactors in China is US$4.5 billion with cheap Chinese labour and locally available technology. Dr Rahman opines: "It seems the Bangladesh Government is either deliberately misleading the public, or indulging on wishful thinking or just hallucinating!"[8]

Quamrul Haider notes that the estimated construction time of 4−5 years is "far-fetched" [7] while Abdul Matin notes the first reactor is "most unlikely to be in operation before 2023" − three years later than the planned 2020 start-up date.[9]

Claims that the reactors will operate for 60 years with options to extend by another 20 years [4] are also far-fetched.

Dr Rahman warns about water supply for reactor cooling. He notes that India built the Farakka Barrage just 40 kms upstream on the Padma River, resulting in lean summer months from January to June, insufficient for even normal riverine trade and transport. "The remaining water available during the summer months is totally inadequate to supply cooling water for even one 1000 MWe plant, let alone two plants," Dr Rahman says.[8]

Dozens of scientists, engineers, academics, doctors and other professionals have signed a statement expressing concern about the safety and economic viability of the proposed nuclear power plant at Rooppur. They express concern at:

  • "woefully inadequate" water supply for reactor cooling;
  • "outdated, unsafe and discarded" VVER reactor technology;
  • implausible claims from a government minister and the Chair of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission that capital costs will amount to just US$2 billion per reactor;
  • the lack of technical expertise or skilled manpower in Bangladesh to undertake such a complex project, and the lack of industrial infrastructure;
  • the lack of an institutional and regulatory framework to undertake such a complex project and the consequent safety implications, and Rosatom's insistence that responsibility for ensuring safety lies with the licensee, the Bangladesh government; and
  • the lack of consideration of technical issues associated with the storage, transportation and disposal of radioactive materials and waste.[10]


The professionals state: "Given these shortcomings and insurmountable impediments, the Bangladesh government should seriously consider abandoning this project. ... When advanced countries like Germany, Italy, Switzerland have all given up nuclear power plants and with Japan is tapering down nuclear power production after the Fukushima disaster, Bangladesh seems to be charging ahead recklessly."[10]

The pro-nuclear NEI Nuclear Notes blog has a much more optimistic take on the mismatch between a dangerous, complex technology and the lack of technical and industrial infrastructure in Bangladesh: "One benefit of nuclear energy that does not get much play is the way its deployment can lead to rapid industrialization in developing nations – maybe a better way to put this is, it can help bring about an industrial revolution."[11]

Many previous plans for nuclear power in Bangladesh have been abandoned. The first such proposals date back to 1961. A 70 MWe nuclear power plant proposal was approved in 1963; 140 MW in 1966; 200 MW in 1969; and 125 MW in 1980, with proposals and offers from the US, Belgium, Sweden, USSR and France. Plans for a 300 MW reactor were developed in 1980/81. Feasibility studies were carried out in 1987 and 1988. By the 1990s, proposals for a 300−500 MW reactor were under consideration.[12]

In 1999 the then government expressed its firm commitment to build a nuclear plant at Rooppur, and in 2005 it signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. In 2007 the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission proposed two 500 MW nuclear reactors for Rooppur by 2015. In April 2008 the government reiterated its intention to work with China in building the Rooppur plant and China offered funding for the project. In May 2009 a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Russia − the genesis of the current project.[6]

[1] WNN, 3 Oct 2013, 'Celebrations herald Bangladesh nuclear plant'
[2] WNN, 2 Nov 2011, 'Russia agrees to build Bangladeshi nuclear',
[3] Geert De Clercq, 14 May 2013, 'Rosatom offers emerging nations nuclear package: paper',
[4] BBC, 2 Oct 2013, 'Bangladesh nuclear power plant work begins',
[5] Abdul Matin, 1 July 2013, 'Feasibility study on Rooppur NPP and conflict of interest',
[6] World Nuclear Association, accessed Oct 2013, 'Nuclear Power in Bangladesh',
[7] Quamrul Haider, 26 Oct 2013, 'Capital cost of a nuclear power plant',
[8] A. Rahman, 19 July 2013, 'Nuclear fascination and misinformation',
[9] Abdul Matin, 23 Oct 2013, 'How to repay Russian credit for Rooppur?',
[10] 30 June 2013, 'Concerns over the Safety and Economic Viability of the Proposed Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP)',
[11] NEI Nuclear Notes, 2 Oct 2013, 'How Bangladesh Is Moving Forward',
[12] Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, accessed 6 Nov 2013,

(Written by Nuclear Monitor editor Jim Green.)

Water and Power Plants

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

This is a summary of a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report released in July 2013 − 'Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World'. The report is posted at or use this shortcut:

The power sector is built for a water-rich world. Conventional fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants require water to cool the steam they generate to make electricity. At some power plants, a lot of the water they withdraw gets evaporated in the cooling process; at others, much of the water is discharged back to its source (albeit hotter). The bottom line: Most power plants need a huge, steady supply of water to operate, and in hot dry summers, that water can become hard to secure. 

As climate change brings extreme heat and longer, more severe droughts that dry up − and heat up − freshwater supplies, the US electricity system faces a real threat. Shifting to less water-intensive power can reduce the risk of power failures and take pressure off our lakes, rivers, and aquifers.

The phrase "energy-water collision" refers to the range of issues that can crop up where our water resources and the power sector interact. The UCS report provides some recent examples of each type of collision:

  • Not enough water: Heat and drought in Texas in 2011 caused water levels in Martin Creek Lake to drop so low that Martin Creek Power Plant had to import water from the Sabine River to cool its coal-fired plant and keep it operating.
  • Incoming water too warm: During a 2006 heat wave, incoming Mississippi River water became too hot to cool the two-unit Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota, forcing the plant to reduce output by more than 50%. In the first such case in northern New England, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was forced to reduce its power production by as much as 17% over the course of a week in the Summer of 2012 due to high water temperatures and low flow in the Connecticut River. One of the two reactors at the Millstone nuclear plant, Connecticut, was shut down for 11 days in mid-July 2012 as its water source, Long Island Sound, got too warm − this was the first open-water collision on record and signals that even plants on large bodies of water are at risk as temperatures increase.
  • Outgoing water too warm: To prevent hot water from doing harm to fish and other wildlife, power plants typically aren't allowed to discharge cooling water above a certain temperature. When power plants bump up against those limits, they can be forced to dial back power production or shut down. Alabama's Browns Ferry nuclear plant, on the Tennessee River, has done that on several occasions in recent years − cutting its output during three of the past five summers, for example, and for five consecutive weeks in one of those years (2010). In the Summer of 2012, four coal plants and four nuclear plants in Illinois each sought and received "thermal variances" from the state to let them discharge hotter water than their permits allow, even amidst extensive heat-related fish kills and tens of millions of dollars in fisheries-related losses.


Nuclear power cycle

The nuclear power cycle uses water in three major ways: extracting and processing uranium fuel, producing electricity, and controlling wastes and risks. Reactors in the US fall into two main categories: boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurised water reactors (PWRs). Both systems boil water to make steam (BWRs within the reactor and PWRs outside the reactor); in both cases, this steam must be cooled after it runs through a turbine to produce electricity.

Like other thermoelectric power plants, nuclear reactors use once-through and/or recirculating cooling systems. Once-through systems withdraw enormous amounts of water, use it once, and return it to the source. Recirculating (or closed-loop) systems circulate water between the power plant and a cooling tower. About 40% of nuclear reactors in the US use recirculating cooling systems; 46% use once through cooling. Recirculating cooling systems withdraw much less water than once through systems but they consume much of what they do withdraw, typically operate less fuel-efficiently, and cost more to install. Dry (air) cooling is not currently used in nuclear power generation due to high costs (although World Nuclear News reported on 17 April 2013 that an air cooling system is to be constructed for Loviisa's two pressurised water reactors in Finland.)

Boiling water reactors and pressurised water reactors use comparable amounts of water to produce a unit of electricity. Nuclear plants as a whole withdraw and consume more water per unit of electricity produced than coal plants using similar cooling technologies because nuclear plants operate at a lower temperature and lower turbine efficiency, and do not lose heat via smokestacks.

In addition to cooling the steam, nuclear power plants also use water in a way that no other plant does: to keep the reactor core and used fuel rods cool. To avoid potentially catastrophic failure, these systems need to be kept running at all times, even when the plant is closed for refueling.

During an accident, 10,000 to 30,000 gallons (38,000−114,000 litres) of water per minute may be required for emergency cooling.

Low-carbon power is not necessarily water-smart. Electricity mixes that emphasise carbon capture and storage for coal plants, nuclear energy, or even water-cooled renewables such as some geothermal, biomass, or concentrating solar could worsen rather than lessen the sector's effects on water. That said, renewables and energy efficiency can be a winning combination. This scenario would be most effective in reducing carbon emissions, pressure on water resources, and electricity bills. Energy efficiency efforts could more than meet growth in demand for electricity in the US, and renewable energy could supply 80% of the remaining demand.

Further reading:

  • Synapse Energy Economics, paper prepared for the Civil Society Institute, Sept 2013, 'Water Constraints on Energy Production: Altering our Current Collision Course',
  • Benjamin Sovacool, January 2009, 'Running On Empty: The Electricity-Water Nexus and the U.S. Electric Utility Sector', Energy Law Journal, Vol.30:11, pp.11-51.
  • Benjamin Sovacool and Kelly Sovacool, 2009, 'Identifying future electricity–water tradeoffs in the United States', Energy Policy, 37, pp.2763–2773.

Belgium: next nuclear domino to fall

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Eloi Glorieux, Energy Campaigner Greenpeace Belgium

In the early 1960,  the Nuclear Research Center (SCK) in Mol accommodated the very first PWR in Europe. In the late 1960, without any political or public debate, the Belgian government decided at one singe minister council meeting to launch a nuclear power program. Just like France, the intention was to build up a 100 percent nuclear electricity system. In the small and very densely populated country, it was not easy to find suitable sites. Finally, two sites were selected:  Doel, near the Schelde river, at only 11 km from the city of Antwerp with half a million inhabitants; and  Tihange, near the Meuse river at only 3 km from the city of Huy.

In 1975, the three first reactors were connected to the grid: Doel 1 and Doel 2 (500 MW each) and Tihange 1 (1.000 MW). All of them were second generation PWR's from US and French design. Between 1982 and 1985 four more 1.000 MW reactors were build: two at Doel and two more at Tihange. The construction works for the eight Belgian nuclear reactor were stopped in 1986, due to the Chernobyl disaster. From that moment onwards the consecutive federal governments put a moratorium on new reactors.  

Turning point: 2003 nuclear phase-out law
The elections of 1999 brought a political earthquake. The Christian democrats moved, after many decades of power, to the opposition and a coalition of liberals, social democrats and greens took over. The greens managed to get the nuclear phase-out into the governmental agreement and on the initiative of the green energy secretary of state the parliament voted with a vast majority in 2003 the nuclear phase-out law.

The 2003 phase-out law stipulates that all seven commercial nuclear power reactors will be decommissioned after 40 years of operation. This gives the following calendar:
Reactor                                start-up          closure

Doel 1 (500 MW)                   1975                2015

Doel 2 (500 MW)                   1975                2015

Tihange 1 (1.000 MW)           1975                2015

Doel 3 (1.000 MW)                1982                2022

Tihange 2 (1.000 MW)           1983                2023

Doel 4 (1.000 MW)                1985                2025

Tihange 3 (1.000 MW)           1985                2025

However, in order to get the liberals to vote the law, a paragraph was added, stating that the lifetime of the reactors could be extended if the security of supply would be endangered.

The nuclear lobby at its best
After the federal elections of June 2003, a few months after the phase-out law was voted, a new government of liberals and social democrats, but without greens, was formed. This new government confirmed the phase-out law in its governmental agreement, but did nothing to initiate replacement capacity. Electrabel (now taken over by GDF-Suez) and the Nuclear Forum started an unseen PR-offensive. The elections of 2007 brought the Christian democrats back in power in a conservative coalition with liberals and Flemish nationalists. One of the first statements of the new prime minister Leterme was that he would go for a ten years lifetime extension of the three oldest reactors and twenty years for the four other reactors. In October 2009 prime minister Van Rompuy, who succeeded Leterme, signed a draft protocol with GDF-Suez CEO, Mestrallet, in which they agreed to extend the lifetime of Doel 1, Doel 2 and Tihange 1 with ten years in exchange for a yearly nuclear tax of 250 million euro. This was a gift to the French multinational, because the Belgian energy regulator, CREG, calculated the windfall profits for GDF-Suez at 2,1 billion euro. This protocol, however, had no legal basis as long as the 2003 nuclear phase-out was not changed. So the government prepared a new law proposal. But in March 2010, before the new law had been presented to the parliament, the government fell. At the elections, the voters reshuffled the political cards so drastically, that it finally took more than one and a half year before a new government with full competences to change the law could be formed (a government-of-current-affairs is not entitled to change the law).

Fukushima created a new awareness
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima created a new awareness, not only in the public's mind, but also within the political parties. An opinion poll showed that 66% of the citizens wanted the nuclear power stations to close as foreseen in the 2003 phase-out law, only 21% opposed.  76% preferred investments in renewables over lifetime extension of nuclear reactors. October 2011 brought a breakthrough in the political impasse and finally, in December, after more than one  and a half year, a new government of social democrats, christian democrats and liberals was formed. 

The governmental agreement stipulates that the 2003 nuclear phase-out law will be respected, but the exact closing date of the three oldest reactors would depend on the availability of replacement capacity. Within six months, i.e. by May 2012, a study will be made about when the replacement capacity will be ready to come on line. It will than, depend on the government to decide whether to stick to the original decommissioning calendar (2015 for the three oldest reactors) or to extend the lifetime of (some of) those reactors with a couple of years. Because they agreed to respect the principle of the phase-out, an automatic lifetime extension of ten years, as wanted by GDF-Suez Electrabel, is out of the question. GDF-Suez Electrabel plays it very hard by blackmailing the government. They threaten to disinvest in Belgium and to withdraw their administrative center out of the country. They also oppose the governmental decision to increase the nuclear tax from 250 to 510 million euro.

A lot now will depend on the political decision of the new secretary of state responsible for Energy, the christian democrat Wathelet, who has always been a rather pro-nuclear guy.

There is already enough replacement capacity
The three oldest reactors  produce some 16% of the electricity in Belgium. A report on energy efficiency commissioned by Greenpeace shows that there is an unused electricity saving potential that can be realized on the short term at low cost, covering 2/3 of the capacity produced by the three oldest reactors. The Dutch electricity producing company Eneco declares that it has all the environmental and construction licenses for the construction of two steam and gas plants with the capacity of Doel 1 and Doel 2. However, they will not start the construction as long as they are not sure that the oldest nuclear reactors will be closed in 2015.  As a matter of fact, it is the government itself who can determine whether or not there will be enough replacement capacity. If they would take right now the clear decision that the three oldest reactors will be closed in 2015 and not one year later, other electricity companies would be eager to establish themselves on the Belgian market. As long as the door for a lifetime extension of even only a few years is kept open, nobody will move.

Source and contact: Eloi Glorieux, Energy Campaigner Greenpeace Belgium. Haachtsesteenweg 159, 1030 Brussels, Belgium.
Tel: +32 475 982093
Mail: eloi.glorieux[at]


Crack in Florida reactor containment signals hidden danger in PWR's

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Beyond Nuclear

A large crack was discovered early in October 2009 in the outer containment wall of the Crystal River Nuclear Power Station during a scheduled refueling and maintenance outage. It is the latest in a series of alarming discoveries signaling the hidden deterioration in the “defense in depth” design concept of passive safety systems for US reactor containment structures which is very difficult, if not impossible, to catch by visual inspections.

A special inspection team from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was dispatched to the Crystal River on Florida’s west coast to look deeper into extent and root cause of the ½ inch (1.3 centimeters) wide horizontal crack that was discovered in the reactor’s 42-inch thick (106.7 centimeters) concrete containment wall. An official from the NRC estimated the crack to be at least 25-feet (7.62 meters) long. NRC’s Chairman Gregory Jaczko and Regional Director Luis Reyes made a tour of the cracked reactor on October 9 for a firsthand look.

Crystal River’s owner and operator, Progress Energy, reported the discovery to NRC on October 7, 2009 after maintenance workers began cutting a large hole through the concrete containment to provide passage for the removal and replacement of reactor’s worn steam generators. After cutting through the first 9-inches (22.9 centimeters) of the wall from the outside surface, workers found what was described as a “separation in the concrete” which is crisscrossed with steel reinforcing bars in the safety-related structure. The reinforced concrete containment shell is credited for safety by resisting and “containing” pressure-induced forces.

The Crystal River crack follows the April 2009 discovery of a hole that had corroded all the way through the steel inner liner of the containment system for the Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor at Beaver Valley station in Pennsylvania. The source of corrosion was determined to be a small piece of wet wood left behind from the original concrete pour decades earlier that bridged the inner wall of the concrete dome and the outer wall of the inner steel liner. The outer corrosion and through-wall hole was not discovered until a visual inspection found a blister in the paint on the inside of the reactor containment wall. When the paint and rust was removed, the inside wall of the concreted containment dome was visible through the hole. Similarly, NRC reports the same outside-to-inside corrosion-induced holes through inner steel liners for containments at the North Anna and Cook PWRs. The steel liner is credited for being leak tight to prevent the escape of radiation in the event of an accident.

In both cases, the deterioration in safety margins for the containment system components was not readily visible until the structure was compromised. The potential for the hidden convergence of corroded containment liners and cracks in containment walls is hard to ignore where it can be potentially revealed in the entire containment system failure during a nuclear accident.

The Crystal River reactor is a Babcock & Wilcox Pressurized Water Reactor similar in design to the notorious Three Mile Island Unit 2 that melted down in 1979 and the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio, which was discovered to be potentially weeks away from a core melt accident in 2002 due to leaking borated coolant corrosion that had eaten a deep cavity into the carbon steel head of the reactor pressure vessel. (see Nuclear Monitor 565, 22 March 2002: "Millimeters from disaster")

A NRC official was quoted to say “The discovery of this crack in the concrete does not appear to represent a major reduction in safety, and there are no immediate concerns because the plant is shut down.” The emphasis should be placed on the fact that the reactor is shut down. Progress Energy officials are now seeking to bring the reactor back on line by December 2009 but conceded that the outage might be extended depending on the findings and conclusions of the NRC special inspection. At present, neither the company nor the NRC were able to determine the cause of the crack or if it was present at the completion of the reactor construction 32 years ago. NRC did not know if the company would be required to fix the crack or allowed to bring the reactor back on line with the cracked containment. The NRC did acknowledge that it was looking into Crystal River’s crack for generic implications for reactors of similar design.

Crystal River’s has made application to NRC to extend its 40-year operating license by an additional 20 years.

Chief among public safety concerns voiced by nuclear power critics is whether or not more cracks are present and perhaps linked throughout containment and how containment integrity can be assured. Given that the crack was only discovered by workers destroying the containment wall to make a hole to replace the reactor’s steam generators, the watchdog community is eager to know how NRC and the industry plan to rule out further cracking and justify continued operations with uncertainty about any additional cracking in Crystal River and other PWR containments. The question arises whether or not an adequate analysis is even possible. One NRC containment specialist is quoted in an agency 2008 transcript to say, “It’s sort of difficult for us to do an independent analysis. It takes time. We’re not really set up to do it. The other thing you have to realize, too, for containment, which isn’t as true in the reactor systems area, is that we don’t have the capability.” In any case, the nuclear industry is likely to resist large scale non-destructive testing of its concrete containments to detect the presence of more cracking just as they have already resisted full scale ultrasonic testing measurements to determine remaining wall thickness on corroded steel liners in containments.

Beyond Nuclear, the public interest and safe energy group, has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of documents and photographs regarding the Crystal River containment crack.

Source and contact: Paul Gunter, Director Reactor Oversight Project, Beyond Nuclear. 6930 Carroll Avenue Suite 400, Takoma Park, MD 20912.
Tel: +1 301 270 2209

Crystal River 3