The game has changed for the nuclear industry post-Fukushima, at least in the Western world, if not globally. After previous nuclear incidents, there usually was a pause while national bodies reviewed the reasons for the event and upgraded safety standards, but the Fukushima incident seems to be impacting Europe much like Three Mile Island did the US.
Germany, one of Europe’s biggest operators of nuclear power, used to run 17 reactors until Berlin closed four of them in July and committed to closing the rest by 2022. Belgium is looking to accelerate the closure of its seven plants and Switzerland is going the way of Germany. Even in France, where nuclear power generates more than 75 percent of electricity, the new socialist contenders for next year’s elections campaign on a platform that includes a drastic drop in nuclear-generating capacity to below 50%.
Who Benefits and Who Suffers?
As a result, not just generators are feeling the winds of change. Siemens pulled out of a technology joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom to develop new nuclear technologies. Recognizing that any new plants are likely to be in emerging markets, firms like France’s Aerva have started work on the Atmea, a smaller, cheaper reactor, in partnership with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries rather than relying solely on the firms’ technologically advanced but high-cost EPR reactor design, best suited to highly regulated markets within Europe.
Likewise, Rosatom, which since Fukushima has continued securing new orders from China, Vietnam, Belarus and Bangladesh, is seeking new technology partners that can help it develop safer, more robust systems without pricing itself out of a market which will soon be competing with Chinese as well as existing South Korean manufacturers. Although Rosatom has a monopoly over Russia’s 11 civilian nuclear power plants and accounts for one-fifth of new reactors under construction worldwide, Sergei Kirienko, Rosatom’s president, admitted last week that there is a risk of world demand for nuclear reactors collapsing after Fukushima, saying competition has been much tougher.
For now, Britain is holding to its ambitious program for 12 new reactors by 2025, needed (the conservative part says) as part of a wholesale restructuring of Britain’s electricity market aimed at helping the country meet tough carbon reduction targets, as well as keep the lights on. However, start dates keep slipping back and although some operators have committed to land purchases for the new sites, no one believes the first plant will be operational by the previously stated date of 2018. Nor are the conservative coalition partners the Liberal Democrats on board with the plans for nuclear power, much preferring to push for wind or renewable power plants in spite of growing evidence they cannot meet base-load requirements.
Not surprisingly, the share price of both nuclear power-generating companies and manufacturers of nuclear power plants has underperformed in an already falling market. The future is unlikely to be quite as dire as some currently fear, but clearly growth is not going to be coming from established nuclear-producing countries such as the US, Europe or Japan. It will come from emerging markets desperate to reduce reliance on coal-fired power generation — and for whom the level of technological sophistication won’t be required to be as high as it is for Europe.