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Did Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima kill nuclear power?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green – Nuclear Monitor editor

Several experts have recently commented on the impacts of nuclear disasters on the growth of nuclear power ‒ all of them downplaying the impact of accidents and emphasizing economics instead.

Commenting on the March 1979 Three Mile Island accident, Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute writes:1

"Three months earlier, on Christmas Day 1978, Business Week's scathing 10-page cover story described how nuclear power's US sales had collapsed ‒ and it faced in Europe and Japan "the most serious crisis in its 30-year history" ‒ for lack of a market. US orders had plummeted from 41 in 1973 to zero in 1978; 40 per cent of their cancellations occurred before 1979, leaving many others teetering on the brink and cancelled soon thereafter. Similarly, orders in the past decade so dwindled that global nuclear capacity shrank in two of the three years before the Fukushima disaster.

"The nuclear industry blames Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima for scaring off the public. But capital markets had already fled to better returns and lower risks in renewable competitors that got [US]$380bn of investment last year (more than 10 times nuclear's), produce more electricity, and enjoy public enthusiasm. Any remaining pockets of nuclear enthusiasm rely on theology not economics and on conscripted not voluntary investment."

Physicist Frank von Hippel commented on the Chernobyl disaster in Scientific American:2

"Superficially, it is reasonable to leap to the conclusion that fear generated by the Chernobyl disaster turned the public against nuclear power ‒ so strongly that even now, three decades later, there is serious doubt that it will ever be a major alternative to climate-threatening fossil fuels. In the 15 years before the Chernobyl accident, an average of about 20 new nuclear power reactors came online each year. Five years after the accident, the average had dropped to four a year. But the full story is more complex."

von Hippel notes that widespread public concern was not the only reason for the sharp drop in nuclear construction post-Chernobyl:

"Such worries contributed to the drop in new plant construction post-Chernobyl, but there were other reasons. One was that the growth of electric power consumption in developed countries slowed dramatically at around the same time because the price of electricity stopped falling. In 1974 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was projecting that the U.S. would require the equivalent of 3,000 large nuclear power reactors by 2016. Today it would take just 500 such plants to generate as much electricity as we consume on average ‒ although more capacity would be required for times of peak consumption.

"Another factor is that, contrary to the claims of boosters in the 1950s that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter," it is quite expensive. Fuel costs are low, but construction costs are huge, especially in North America and Europe ‒ [US]$6 billion to $12 billion per reactor. This expense has been driven in part by more stringent safety standards but also by the fact that, with fewer plants being built, there are fewer construction workers qualified to build them, resulting in costly construction delays for corrections of mistakes. …

"On the scale needed to shift human energy use away from fossil fuels, therefore, nuclear power has become a helpful but relatively marginal player. Chernobyl damaged its prospects, but it was not the only reason for the technology's decline."

Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:3

"Fukushima did not undermine a budding nuclear renaissance. For economic reasons, there was none. The 30-plus reactors that had applied for licenses in the United States in 2008-09 had shrunk by two-thirds before March 2011. The cost overruns at Olkiluoto and Flamanville were well underway and owed nothing to events in Japan. But Fukushima did tilt many nations away from the needed governmental benevolence sharply."

Projections for global nuclear growth have fallen sharply since Fukushima ‒ the IAEA's current 'low' estimate for nuclear capacity in 2030 is down 29.5% from the pre-Fukushima low estimate, while the high estimate for 2030 is down 21%4 ‒ but as the above authors point out, Fukushima isn't the only reason for the retreat.

Lovins is a nuclear critic whereas von Hippel and Bradford are nuclear-neutrals. How do nuclear advocates explain the stagnation of nuclear power and the failure of the nuclear renaissance to materialize? There are plenty of explanations, including blaming (or crediting) anti-nuclear campaigners ‒ often dramatically overemphasizing the impact of anti-nuclear campaigners. Many of the explanations emphasize economics and boil down to the failure of governments to provide sufficient subsidies. Some explanations concentrate on the difficulty of financing capital costs.

Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd is one of a small number of nuclear advocates who speaks openly and honestly. Kidd writes:5

"[T]here is no unique financing mechanism that the relevant institutions can come up with to rescue a nuclear project that has questionable returns or too high a degree of risk for investors. This is the real problem: nuclear projects have largely become too expensive and risky to offer lenders the degree of assurance they require. ... Even with government incentives such as loan guarantees, fixed electricity prices and certain power offtake, nuclear projects today struggle to make economic sense, at least in the developed world. ... World interest rates are currently low, which removes one disadvantage of capital intensive projects. These low rates indicate that there is funding available but a possible shortage of viable projects."

A recent column in the Financial Times illustrates how safety concerns and economics have come together in the mess that is the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR):6

"When French and German scientists began in the mid-1990s to design a new reactor, they were also seeking to engineer public opinion. The fruit of their work, the European Pressurised Reactor, was designed to be safer than any that had gone before. ... It is those very safety features, say critics, that are responsible for making the EPR, in the words of Greenwich University energy expert Steve Thomas, "a bastard to build". Projects to construct EPRs in France and Finland have been fraught with difficulty, although another in China appears to be progressing better. ...

"Today, the Finnish plant on Olkiluoto Island is nine years behind schedule and €5.2bn over budget. The project is led by Finnish utility TVO, which has fallen out so badly over costs with main contractor Areva that the two companies have gone to court. The protracted difficulties in Finland helped bring Areva to its knees, prompting January's plan to sell its reactor business to EDF. This has added more stress to EDF, whose finance director Thomas Piquemal resigned this month, saying Hinkley Point could sink the company. ...

"The sheer bulk required by the EPR's design also caused problems once a project to build one in France finally got under way after the avidly pro-nuclear Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Mr Chirac as president in 2007. The project at Flamanville on the Channel coast is, unlike its Finnish cousin, led by EDF. But it has fared little better. It is six years behind schedule and €7.2bn over budget."

The U.S. has been spared the EPR fiasco. A total of seven EPRs were planned at six sites in the U.S.7 Four EPR construction licence applications were submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) but all four applications have been abandoned or suspended. In February 2015, Areva asked the NRC to suspend work on EPR design certification until further notice.8

But nuclear power's economic problems are just as acute in the U.S. A recent article in Power Magazine quoted New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter saying that "nuclear energy is toast" and is "dropping dramatically as a share of global electricity", and nuclear economics are "dismal".9

A recent article published by the U.S. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers asks whether nuclear power's 'death spiral' has begun in the U.S.10 It begins: "U.S. nuclear power plant operators are fighting a war on two fronts: Crashing prices for natural gas and accelerating market penetration of renewable energy have both contributed to dramatic drops in wholesale power price levels ‒ in some states, they've fallen by more than two-thirds over the past decade. This has left nuclear power, whose operating costs are pretty much fixed, with few options other than surrender."

The IEEE article quotes former NRC chair Gregory Jaczko: "It's been a widely held belief that nuclear is incredibly cheap to operate. That was the case 10 years ago, when nuclear plants were cash cows. That's not the case today, especially as the plants age."


1. Amory Lovins, 21 March 2016, 'Capital markets had already fled from nuclear',

2. Frank von Hippel, 1 April 2016, 'Chernobyl Didn't Kill Nuclear Power',

3. Peter A. Bradford, 20 March 2016, 'When the Unthinkable is Deemed Impossible: Reflecting on Fukushima',

4. IAEA series: 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates',

5. Steve Kidd, 11 June 2015, 'Nuclear myths – is the industry also guilty?',

6. Tom Burgis, Kiran Stacey and Michael Stothard, 20 March 2016, 'EDF's nuclear troubles rooted in caution',

7. Beyond Nuclear, February 2015, 'Epic Fail: Électricité de France and the “Evolutionary Power Reactor”',

8. World Nuclear News, 6 March 2015, 'US EPR plans suspended',

9. Aaron Larson, 23 March 2016, 'Is Nuclear Energy "Toast"?',

10. Peter Fairley, 25 Mar 2016, 'Has U.S. Nuclear Power's Death Spiral Begun?',