Forward from Fukushima: Why Nuclear Power won’t be Going Anywhere

The Temelin Nuclear Power Plant lies in the South Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, not far from the Austrian border; its owners, the Czech power company CEZ Group opened three bids for expansion of the Temelin NPP in July of this year, and plan expansions of nuclear facilities in Slovakia and in eastern Czech Republic as well. CEZ is the largest power producer in central Europe and key player in the future of nuclear power in the region. In fact CEZ and the Czech Republic are a prime example of why nuclear power isn’t going anywhere. The message is clear: Fukushima is not Chernobyl.

Image courtesy of Senyx, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Nuclear energy has had an often troubled history, but its potential as a source of energy and income is incredibly alluring. Chernobyl is by far the most famous nuclear power disaster, and its effects on the development of nuclear power plants worldwide are undeniable. The international reaction to Chernobyl created a nuclear “ice age” which has only recently thawed. CEZ is only one of three parts reacting Fukushima: an energy producer. The other players – governments and the power plant builders – have their own stories, and when we look at all three, we see a picture that shows exactly why the Czech Republic will have nuclear power for the foreseeable future.

A big part of why governments won’t simply abandon nuclear power is that they can’t. The Czech prime minister, reacting to a question about Fukushima, said that the closure of Czech plants would “lead to economic problems bordering on economic catastrophe.”1 Nuclear power is no longer something held by a select few nations; indeed, it has provided a key asset to developing and emerging nations world wide seeking to ensure their energy independence.

The two NPPs operated by CEZ in the Czech Republic (Temelin and Dukovany) accounted for 33% of the Czech Republic’s energy generation in 2009 and 21% of the Czech Republic’s power generation capacity.2 Nuclear power offers low variable costs, meaning that in cases like the Czech Republic, it tends to be utilized before more traditional sources like coal, because it costs less to increase a NPPs power production. While CEZ operates a wide range of power generation facilities, their NPPs offer clear economic advantages and have become an integral part of the Czech economy.

Nuclear power development also puts CEZ in a position of great strength post-Fukushima. Companies that develop and build nuclear power plants operate in a competitive market, and in the wake of Fukushima, one that they are concerned might shrink. As a result, all of the major power plant builders are doing all they can to attract new customers and retain current ones. Only three days after the Fukushima disaster, Vladimir Putin traveled to Belarus to reassure the backers of $9 billion plan to build new NPPs there, saying “that Russia had a ‘whole arsenal’ of advanced technology to ensure ‘accident-free’ operation. Nuclear power is frequently an export that is of great importance to net exporter countries, and these nations often go to great lengths to ensure that their companies gain new contracts and preserve existing ones. In addition the introduction of China as a producer of nuclear power plants, as well as one of the most lucrative emerging nuclear markets (China has 13 operational NPPs with 27 additional plants under construction). It is believed that China will begin to export its nuclear power plants as early as 2014; this will include the third generation CNP1000 reactor which has technology on par with most of its potential competitors.1 What does this means for groups like CEZ? It’s a buyer’s market.

While CEZ and the Czech Republic provide a good window into the response of mid-sized nuclear power consuming nations, we can also take a more macroscopic view of the issue. Prior to Fukushima, the nuclear industry had been going though a “nuclear renaissance” and while some believe that this ended with Fukushima, there are strong arguments for its continuation. The “nuclear renaissance” can be seen as having two primary sets of causes. The first is restored faith in nuclear power after a considerable period of low faith in the aftermath of Chernobyl. The second is a matter of economics and society. Simply put, the places where lots of NPPs are being built are places where there are social and economic factors that support nuclear power.

In a quote for Reuters, Richard Clegg, Global Nuclear Director at Lloyd’s Register said “the global socio-political and economic conditions that appear to be driving the renaissance of civil nuclear power are still there: the price of oil, demands for energy security, energy poverty and the search for low-carbon fuels to mitigate the effects of global warming. “1 Like Mr. Clegg says, these factors have largely been unaffected post Fukushima, and these same factors that contribute to the desire of groups like CEZ to expand their nuclear power production. A majority of the 62 NPPs currently under construction are in the BRICS block of nations, nations for which many of the above factors are critically important. While there is no doubt that Fukushima, like Chernobyl, will impact the perception of nuclear power (as it  already has in France, Germany, Japan and Italy) the underlying factors that have contributed to the “nuclear renaissance” didn’t exist to the same degree at the time of Chernobyl, and the global demand for energy was less. That’s not to say some nations didn’t see nuclear power as an answer. CEZ’s Dukovany, put its four reactor units online between 1985-1987.The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986.

Image courtesy of Senyx, © 2008, some rights reserved.

There are lessons to be learned, in the aftermath of Fukushima about safe nuclear practices, but surrender is an option available only to a few privileged nations (and maybe not all of them.) Nuclear energy has much to offer, if we mind the lessons of the past. Russian atomic company Rosatom has been one of the voices of confidence in nuclear power that has not waivered in the wake of Fukushima. Rosatom director Sergei Kiriyenko said in a TV interview “the country that turns away from atomic energy today, will become dependent tomorrow on those who did not curtail it.” Rosatom is perhaps not exactly a paragon of industrial virtue but Mr. Kiriyenko is right, in that we cannot as humans burry our heads in the sand, we must work together to solve our collective challenges. And when it comes to energy, for now, part of the solution will be nuclear power.

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