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Nuclear power's annus horribilis

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

This year will go down with 1986 (Chernobyl) and 2011 (Fukushima) as one of the nuclear industry's worst ever ‒ and there's still another six months to go. Two of the industry's worst-ever years have been in the past decade. And there's plenty more bad years ahead as the trickle of closures of aging reactors becomes a flood.

Here we review the first half of the year, with an emphasis on developments in the past month. We won't dwell on Westinghouse's bankruptcy protection filing and the profound problems facing its parent company Toshiba (see Nuclear Monitors #841, #843, #845), or the glacial attempts to resurrect Japan's nuclear power industry (just five reactors are operating, compared to 54 before the Fukushima disaster).

In January, the World Nuclear Association anticipated 18 power reactor grid connections this year. The projection has been revised down to 141 and even that seems more than a stretch. There has only been one grid connection in the first half of the year according to the IAEA's Power Reactor Information System.2

The number of power reactors under construction is on a downward trajectory; 59 reactors are under construction as of May 2017 ‒ the first time since 2010 that the number has fallen below 60.3

Pro-nuclear journalist Fred Pearce wrote on May 15: "Is the nuclear power industry in its death throes? Even some nuclear enthusiasts believe so. With the exception of China, most nations are moving away from nuclear ‒ existing power plants across the United States are being shut early; new reactor designs are falling foul of regulators, and public support remains in free fall. Now come the bankruptcies. ... [T]he industry is in crisis. It looks ever more like a 20th century industrial dinosaur, unloved by investors, the public, and policymakers alike. The crisis could prove terminal."4

Suvrat Raju and M.V. Ramana wrote on June 7: "By all accounts, nuclear power has had a bad year. In March, Westinghouse, the largest historic builder of nuclear power plants in the world, declared bankruptcy, creating a major financial crisis for its parent company, Toshiba. The French nuclear supplier, Areva, went bankrupt a few months earlier and is now in the midst of a restructuring that will cost French taxpayers about €10 billion. Its reactor business is being taken over by a clutch of companies, including the public sector Électricité de France, which is itself in poor financial health. In May, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced that it expects the share of nuclear electricity in the U.S. to decline from about 20% in 2016 to 11% by 2050. The newly elected Presidents of Korea and France have both promised to cut the share of nuclear energy in their countries. And the Swiss just voted to phase out nuclear power."5

South Africa: An extraordinary High Court judgement on April 26 ruled that much of South Africa's nuclear new-build program is without legal foundation. The High Court set aside the Ministerial determination that South Africa required 9.6 gigawatts (GW) of new nuclear capacity, and found that numerous bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements were unconstitutional and unlawful.6 President Jacob Zuma is trying to revive the nuclear program, but it will most likely be shelved when Zuma leaves office in 2019 (if he isn't removed earlier). Energy Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said on June 21 that South Africa will review its nuclear plans as part of its response to economic recession.7

South Korea: South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in said on June 19 that his government will halt plans to build new nuclear power plants and will not extend the lifespan of existing plants beyond 40 years.8,9 Speaking at a ceremony to mark the closure of the Kori‒1 power reactor in Busan, Moon said: "We will completely re-examine the existing policies on nuclear power. We will scrap the nuclear-centered polices and move toward a nuclear-free era. We will eliminate all plans to build new nuclear plants."10

"The Fukushima nuclear accident has clearly proved that nuclear reactors are neither safe, economical nor environmentally friendly," Moon said. "South Korea is not safe from the risk of earthquakes, and a nuclear accident caused by a quake can have such a devastating impact."11

The Moon government aims to begin by shutting down aging reactors and to eventually phase out the rest over the next 40 years. The role of coal-fired power plants is to be reduced, with gas and renewables to replace nuclear and coal. "So far, the country's energy policy focused on low prices and efficiency. But this should change now with our top priority on public safety and the environment," Moon said.12 Yang Yi-wonyoung, head of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movement, said: "A bumpy road is also ahead for Korea. But small steps starting from closing older nuclear reactors and investing in green energy will help Korea change."13

Kori‒1 was permanently shut down at midnight on June 18 after reaching the end of its 40-year lifespan, the first South Korean nuclear power plants to be closed permanently. Moon said on June 19 that he aims to close the Wolsong-1 reactor ‒ grid connected in December 1982 ‒ "as soon as possible after reviewing electricity demand."14

The fate of the partially-built Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors remains in doubt.8 Moon said that the decision will be made "after reviewing how much of the construction has been completed, how much we will need to pay in compensation when halting it, and how much electricity is in reserve."14 On June 27, the government said it will suspend construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6 while it decides whether they should continue or be scrapped. The government said it will form a committee that will spend about three months investigating the options.15

Cancelling planned reactors will be less fraught than closing operating reactors and stopping partially-built reactors. Already there is movement in that direction ‒ in the aftermath of Moon's election on May 9, KHNP halted preparations for two planned reactors, Shin-Hanul 3 and 4.14

President Moon Jae-in's comments on June 19 attracted worldwide media coverage but important questions remain unanswered. A detailed energy roadmap needs to be established and implemented to turn the President's vision into reality. The future of South Korea's aspiration to become an exporter of reactor technology remains in doubt ‒ an early test for the President is potential South Korean involvement in the NuGen reactor project in the UK.16 There are no clear, credible plans to manage the nuclear waste produced by South Korea's reactors.

South Korea's plan to develop reprocessing / pyroprocessing technology and fast neutron reactors remains in doubt. The President has reportedly pledged to reconsider the research program on pyroprocessing technology.17

Lami Kim wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on 27 June 2017:17

"The nonproliferation community may hail the Moon administration's nuclear-free energy policy, as some view South Korea as a potential nuclear aspirant given the nuclear threats coming from its northern neighbor. The country's advanced nuclear industry intensifies such concern. South Korea is the world's fifth largest nuclear electricity producer, generating more than 30 percent of its electricity with nuclear power.

Furthermore, South Korea's research on pyroprocessing, if successful, may allow the country to retain a stockpile of fissile materials for building nuclear weapons. ... Moon's promise to reconsider the pyroprocessing program and to phase out nuclear power may send a signal that Seoul is no longer pursuing a strategy of "nuclear hedging" that lies somewhere between nuclear pursuit and nuclear rollback, and is instead abandoning any future capacity to build nuclear weapons."

Taiwan: Taiwan's Cabinet reiterated on June 12 the government's resolve to phase out nuclear power. The government remains committed to the goal of decommissioning the three operational nuclear power plants as scheduled and making Taiwan nuclear-free by 2025, Cabinet spokesperson Hsu Kuo-yung said.18

France: The French nuclear industry is in crisis, its "worst situation ever" according to former EDF director Gérard Magnin.19 The French industry faces multiple serious problems domestically, and its EPR export ambitions are "in tatters" as Bloomberg noted in 2015.20 EDF and Areva would both be bankrupt if not for the largesse of the French state. Vast, as-yet unfunded expenditure looms for reactor upgrades and possible lifespan extensions, decommissioning and waste management.

French environment and energy minister Nicolas Hulot said on June 12 that the government plans to close some nuclear reactors to reduce nuclear's share of the country's power mix. "We are going to close some nuclear reactors and it won't be just a symbolic move," he said. Share prices in utility EDF fell in response to the minister's comments.21

In what Reuters described as a "major blow" for EDF, the French nuclear regulator ASN is expected to rule that the cover of the reactor vessel EDF is building in Flamanville may not be able to function for more than a few years and EDF may have to replace it soon after the reactor's scheduled start-up in 2018.22 Areva's Creusot Forge foundry, which made the pressure vessel cover, is currently closed following the discovery of manufacturing flaws and falsification of documentation, and is awaiting ASN approval to restart.22

Switzerland: Voters in Switzerland supported a May 21 referendum on a package of energy policy measures including a ban on new nuclear power reactors.23 Thus Switzerland has opted for a gradual nuclear phase out and all reactors will probably be closed by the early 2030s, if not earlier.

UK: Horizon Nuclear Power's plan to build two Advanced Boiling Water Reactors in Wylfa, Wales, has hit a hurdle. Japanese conglomerate Hitachi said on June 8 that it will curtail its financial risk in the project by divesting itself of the local subsidiary that will build and operate the reactors.24 If Hitachi cannot attract partners to invest in Horizon, which it acquired in 2012 as a wholly-owned subsidiary, before construction is due to start in 2019, the project will be suspended. Hitachi is prepared to reduce its stake in Horizon to as low as zero according to Nikkei Asian Review.25 In addition to new investors, the Wylfa project is dependent on government subsidies including a guaranteed price for the electricity generated, Hitachi said.26

Hitachi recently booked a massive loss on a failed investment in laser enrichment technology in the US. A 12 May 2017 statement said the company had posted an impairment loss on affiliated companies' common stock of 187.8 billion yen (US$1.68 billion) for the fiscal year ended 31 March 2017, and "the major factor" was Hitachi's exit from the laser enrichment project.27 Last year a commentator opined that "the way to make a small fortune in the uranium enrichment business in the U.S. is to start with a large one."28

Wylfa is not the only nuclear new-build project in the UK in trouble. The only project with any momentum is Hinkley Point, based on the French EPR reactor design. The head of one of Britain's top utilities said on June 19 that Hinkley Point is likely to be the only nuclear project to go ahead in the UK. Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive officer of SSE, an energy supplier and former investor in new nuclear plants, said: "The bottom line in nuclear is that it looks like only Hinkley Point will get built and Flamanville needs to go well for that to happen."29

Tim Yeo, a former Conservative politician and now a nuclear industry lobbyist with New Nuclear Watch Europe, said the compounding problems facing nuclear developers in the UK "add up to something of a crisis for the UK's nuclear new-build programme."30 The lobby group pointed to delays with the EPR reactor in Flamanville, France and the possibility that those delays would flow on to the two planned EPR reactors at Hinkley Point; the lack of investors for the proposed Advanced Boiling Water Reactors at Wylfa; the acknowledgement by the NuGen consortium that the plan for three AP1000 reactors at Moorside faces a "significant funding gap"; and the fact that the Hualong One technology which China General Nuclear Power Corporation hopes to deploy at Bradwell in Essex has yet to undergo its generic design assessment.31

Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote on March 28:32

"The costs of nuclear energy just keep on rising. If we could, we would stop this madness. Nuclear power, in its second lease of life, is once again proving a massively expensive, ongoing liability for virtually all involved. ...

"In Britain, the costs of Hinkley Point have escalated from an initially anticipated £5.6bn back in 2008 to £24.5bn at the last estimate. An internal assessment last year by the Department of Energy and Climate Change was more startling still, putting the total lifetime costs at closer to £37bn. EDF, the prime contractor and operator, originally estimated that the plant would generate electricity at £45 per megawatt hour. In the event, the UK Government has had to agree a "strike price" of a ruinous £92.50, or more than double the current wholesale price for electricity, inflation proofed and guaranteed for 35 years.

"And that's just the half of it; events this week have demonstrated that it is perhaps the back end costs of decommissioning, clean-up and disposal of spent fuel we should be worrying about most. ... Back in 2005, the UK's nuclear decommissioning costs were estimated at £55.8 billion; by 2008, this had risen to £73.6 billion, and by 2015 it had reached an eye-watering £117.4 billion. It is a fair bet that as more becomes known about the costs and risks of decommissioning, even this latest number will prove woefully short. ...

"In committing to new nuclear, we seem to have joined a runaway train, with no hope of getting off. Has not the time finally arrived for a fully fledged rethink of the merits of Britain's nuclear energy strategy?"

Writing in the Financial Times on May 26, Neil Collins said that "nobody outside the industry now thinks the future of electricity generation is nuclear fission."33 On the UK nuclear program, Collins said: "EDF, of course, is the contractor for that white elephant in the nuclear room, Hinkley Point. If this unproven design ever gets built and produces electricity, the UK consumer will be obliged to pay over twice the current market price for the output. ... The UK's energy market is in an unholy mess ... Scrapping Hinkley Point would not solve all of them, but it would be a start."33

The UK National Audit Office report released a damning report on June 23.34 The Audit Office stated: "The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy's deal for Hinkley Point C has locked consumers into a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits ... Today's report finds that the Department has not sufficiently considered the costs and risks of its deal for consumers. ... The government's case for the project has weakened since it agreed key commercial terms on the deal in 2013. Delays have pushed back the nuclear power plant's construction, and the expected cost of top-up payments under the Hinkley Point C's contract for difference has increased from £6 billion to £30 billion."35

And on it goes. Hinkley is one of the "great spending dinosaurs of the political dark ages" according to The Guardian.36 It is a "white elephant" according to an editorial in The Times.37

EDF said on June 26 that it is conducting a "a full review of the costs and schedule of the Hinkley Point C project" and the results will be disclosed "soon". The start-up date is expected to be pushed back from 2025 to 2027 and costs to rise by €1‒3 billion.38 In 2007, EDF was boasting that Britons would be using electricity from Hinkley to cook their Christmas turkeys in December 2017.39

Sweden: Unit 1 of the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden has been permanently shut down.40 It was to be shut down on June 29, but an abnormal event on June 17 led to an automatic shut down and the reactor will not be restarted. Unit 2 at the same plant was permanently shut down in 2015. Ringhals 1 and 2 are expected to be shut down in 2019‒2020, after which Sweden will have six operating power reactors.

Oskarshamn also houses a third reactor and its fate will be decided later this year by owners Uniper SE and Fortum Oyj.41 The workforce at the plant is to be cut by one-third, from 880 to 600.41

Ambjörn Pernius, chief operating officer at Oskarshamn-2, said the driving force is to carry out decommissioning and waste management as efficiently as possible, thereby increasing the likelihood of continued operation of the Oskarshamn-3 reactor.42 Of course, the risk is that staff cuts and the efficiency drive will compromise the quality of decommissioning and waste management operations, and the safe operation of the one remaining reactor.

Russia: Rosatom deputy general director Vyacheslav Pershukov told the Technoprom-2017 forum in Novosibirsk in mid-June that the world market for the construction of new nuclear power plants is shrinking, and the possibilities for building new large reactors abroad are almost exhausted. He said Rosatom expects to be able to find customers for new reactors until 2020‒2025 but "it will be hard to continue."43

Rosatom is diversifying into new areas: small hydropower and wind generation, nuclear medicine, construction of nuclear science and technology centers, equipment for gas and petrochemical and thermal power generation, composite materials, etc. Rosatom's strategy is for revenue from new business areas to be at least 30% of total revenue by 2030.43

USA: Exelon said on May 29 that the one operating Three Mile Island reactor will be permanently shut down in September 2019 if the State of Pennsylvania does not bail out the uneconomical generator.44 The reactor hasn't been profitable for the past five years according to Exelon.45 Already over 40 years old, the reactor has failed to auction its expensive power on the electric grid for three years straight, denying Exelon power sales out to 2021.46

State bailouts are propping up aging reactors in New York and Illinois, but a proposed nuclear bailout in Ohio is meeting stiff opposition. The nuclear debate in the US is firmly centered on attempts to extend the lifespan of aging, uneconomic reactors with state bailouts. The fate of Westinghouse and its partially-built AP1000 reactors are much discussed, but there is no further discussion about new reactors ‒ other than to note that they won't happen.

Six reactors have been shut down over the past five years, and another handful will likely close in the next five years. How far and fast will nuclear fall:

  • Exelon claims that "economic and policy challenges threaten to close about half of America's reactors" in the next two decades.47
  • A January 2017 piece, written by a nuclear industry PR consultant and published by World Nuclear News, states that "as many as two-thirds of America's 99 reactors could shut down by 2030".48
  • Nuclear Energy Insider claims that 38 reactors will be shut down upon reaching their end-of-licence terms by 2035.49
  • According to Michael Shellenberger's pro-nuclear lobby group 'Environmental Progress', almost one-quarter of US reactors are at high risk of closure by 2030, and almost three-quarters are at medium to high risk.50
  • In May, the US Energy Information Administration released an analysis projecting nuclear's share of the nation's electricity generating capacity will drop from 20% to 11% by 2050.51 The projection assumes no new reactors other than the four AP1000 reactors under construction, and it makes heroic / absurd assumptions about the longevity of existing reactors (retirements of just 29.9 GW of nuclear capacity from 2018 through 2050).

Clearly there is some disagreement about how far and fast nuclear will fall in the US ‒ but fall it will. And there is no dispute that many plants are losing money. More than half of the country's reactors are losing money, racking up losses totaling about US$2.9 billion a year according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.52 And a separate Bloomberg report found that expanding state aid to money-losing reactors across the eastern US may leave consumers on the hook for as much as US$3.9 billion a year in higher power bills.53

US nuclear lobbyists continue going around in circles with their debate about how to rescue nuclear power. Essentially, one side favours industry consolidation to help build more conventional, large reactors; their opponents favour innovation and small reactors (NuScale is the flavor of the month ‒ a small modular reactor R&D project that hasn't yet collapsed).

The debate pits those impressed by the economies-of-scale offered by large reactors against those favoring the small, modular 'economy-of-the-assembly-line'. But they aren't mutually exclusive. Why not opt for modular, factory production of large reactors? That was the philosophy underpinning Westinghouse's AP1000 reactors ‒ and of course it went ruinously wrong with cost overruns of about US$13 billion, leading Westinghouse to file for bankruptcy protection on March 29.


1. World Nuclear Association, June 2017, 'Plans For New Reactors Worldwide',


3. World Nuclear Association, 2 May 2017, 'World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements',

4. Fred Pearce, 15 May 2017, 'Industry Meltdown: Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End?',

5. Suvrat Raju and M.V. Ramana, 7 June 2017, 'Nuclear power: Expensive, hazardous and inequitable',

6. David Fig, 28 April 2017, 'Court ruling on Zuma's nuclear deal is a marker of South Africa's political health',

7. Alexander Winning, 21 June 2017, 'South Africa to review nuclear plans in response to recession',

8. Nikkei Asian Review, 19 June 2017, 'South Korea's President Moon says plans to exit nuclear power',

9. AFP, 19 June 2017, 'S. Korea to scrap all plans to build new N-reactors',

10. 20 June 2017, 'Korea's first nuclear power reactor turned off for good',

11. Justin McCurry, 19 June 2017, 'New South Korean president vows to end use of nuclear power',

12. Song Jung-a, 19 June 2017, 'South Korea steps back from nuclear power',

13. Kim Da-sol, 'South Korea's energy industry at crossroads', 11 June 2017,

14. Mark Hibbs, 22 June 2017, 'Moon's Phase-Out: What does it imply?',

15. Jane Chung and Hyunjoo Jin / Reuters, 27 June 2017, 'South Korea to suspend construction of two nuclear reactors while decides fate',

16. Jhoo Dong-chan, 12 April 2017, 'Lawmakers impede KEPCO's reactor bid in UK',

17. Lami Kim, 27 June 2017, 'Has South Korea Renounced "Nuclear Hedging"?',

18. Ku Chuan, Huang Li-yun and Y.F. Low, 12 June 2017, 'Cabinet reaffirms goal of phasing out nuclear power by 2025',

19. Adam Vaughan, 29 Nov 2016, French nuclear power in 'worst situation ever', says former EDF director,

20. Carol Matlack, 17 April 2015, 'Areva Is Costing France Plenty',

21. Reuters, 12 June 2017, 'France to close some nuclear reactors, says ecology minister Hulot',

22. Geert De Clercq / Reuters, 26 June 2017, 'EDF may need to replace Flamanville reactor lid in few years-ASN report',

23. World Nuclear News, 22 May 2017, 'Swiss voters approve gradual nuclear phase out',

24. Nikkei Asian Review, 9 June 2017, 'Hitachi scrambles to divest UK nuclear risks after Toshiba fiasco',

25. Nikkei Asian Review, 9 June 2017, 'Hitachi scrambles to divest UK nuclear risks after Toshiba fiasco',

26. World Nuclear News, 12 June 2017, 'Hitachi stresses joint responsibility of UK project',

27. Hitachi, 12 May 2017, 'Hitachi Announces Recognizing Extraordinary Loss on Unconsolidated Basis',

28. Dan Yurman, 24 April 2016, 'Starts, Stops & In-between for New Nuclear Projects in U.S.',

29. Geert De Clercq, 19 June 2017, 'Hinkley Point likely to be only new UK nuclear plant: SSE CEO',

30. Jillian Ambrose, 1 April 2017, 'Can Britain's nuclear ambitions avoid a meltdown?',

31. NucNet, 27 Feb 2017, 'Former Minister Warns Of 'Real Danger' Facing UK Nuclear Projects',

32. Jeremy Warner, 28 March 2017, 'The costs of nuclear energy just keep on rising. If we could, we would stop this madness',

33. Neil Collins, 26 May 2017, 'Nuclear is rightly vanishing as an answer to our energy needs',
34. UK National Audit Office, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, 23 June 2017, 'Hinkley Point C,

35. UK National Audit Office, 23 June 2017, 'Hinkley Point C', Media Release,

36. Simon Jenkins, 23 June 2017, 'Hinkley Point is a terrible deal. May must show courage and cancel it',

37. The Times, 27 June 2017, 'Nuclear Options',

38. Reuters, 26 June 2017, 'France's EDF says still reviewing Hinkley Point costs',

39. Alexandra Topping, 15 Sept 2016, 'Your guide to Hinkley Point C – the UK's first new nuclear plant for 20 years',

40. World Nuclear News, 20 June 2017, 'Oskarshamn 1 enters retirement',

41. Jesper Starn, 7 June 2017, 'Dark Clouds Hang Over Nuclear Town Torpedoed by Green Energy',

42. Anna Orring, 13 June 2017, 'Målet: bli bäst på att avveckla',

43. RBC, 21 June 2017,

44. Exelon, 29 May 2017, 'Exelon To Retire Three Mile Island Generating Station in 2019',

45. Merrit Kennedy, 30 May 2017, 'Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant To Shut Down In 2019',

46. A.D. Crable, 24 May 2017, 'Three Mile Island nuclear plant again fails key power auction, decision whether to close 'to be made soon'',

47. John Siciliano, 19 June 2017, 'Spate of nuclear power plant closures could be start of full-fledged crisis',

48. Jarret Adams, 30 January 2017, 'What's really killing America's nuclear plants',

49. Nuclear Energy Insider, Aug 2016, 'Commercial Decommissioning: Similarities to DOE clean-up and opportunities for cross industry collaboration',

50. 'Environmental Progress', June 2017, Table: 'Nuclear At Risk by 2030, Under Construction and Planned',

51. Energy Information Administration, 12 May 2017, 'U.S. nuclear capacity and generation expected to decline as existing generators retire',

52. Jim Polson, 15 June 2017, 'More Than Half of America's Nuclear Reactors Are Losing Money',

53. Jonathan Crawford, 22 March 2017, 'U.S. Consumers May Be $3.9 Billion 'Losers' From Nuclear Aid',