Friday, March 30, 2012

The Future of Nuclear Power:

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The past couple of weeks have been intense. I have been pleasantly surprised to see not one, but multiple signs that political leaders around the world appear to have a more balanced view of nuclear power safety. But at the same time, we have seen two recent announcements about withdrawals from on-going projects.

The negative announcements involve projects in the United Kingdom and Bulgaria. In the case of the former, the German firms RWE npower and E.ON announced that they will not go ahead with developing nuclear power plants in the UK, specifically, at Wylfa in North Wales and Oldbury-on-Severn in Gloucestershire. In the case of the latter, Bulgaria announced that it is abandoning plans to build a nuclear power station at Belene. In both cases, there have already been indications that there may be ways to resuscitate the projects. Therefore, these announcements are certainly serious setbacks, but for the moment, the final verdict is not in.

On the plus side, within a few days, a number of government leaders have made statements indicating varying degrees of support for nuclear power--or at the very least, acknowledgement of its necessity at the present time.

I'll start with President Obama, whose speech on March 26, 2012, in Seoul, Korea, included the following:

This brings me to the final area where we’ve made progress—a renewed commitment to harnessing the power of the atom, not for war, but for peaceful purposes. After the tragedy at Fukushima, it was right that nations moved to improve the safety and security of nuclear facilities. We’re doing so in the United States.

As we do, let’s never forget the astonishing benefits that nuclear technology has brought to our lives. Nuclear technology helps make our food safe. It prevents disease in the developing world. It’s the high-tech medicine that treats cancer and finds new cures. And, of course, it’s the energy—the clean energy—that helps cut the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change. Here in South Korea, you know this. As a leader in nuclear energy, you’ve shown the progress and prosperity that can be achieved when nations embrace peaceful nuclear energy and reject the development of nuclear arms.

With rising oil prices and a warming climate, nuclear energy will only become more important. That’s why, in the United States, we’ve restarted our nuclear industry as part of a comprehensive strategy to develop every energy source. We’ve supported the first new nuclear power plant in three decades. We’re investing in innovative technologies so we can build the next generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants. And we’re training the next generation of scientists and engineers who are going to unlock new technologies to carry us forward.

President Obama was delivering his message on the world stage, but it certainly should be a signal of his intentions for the US.

At the regional level, there have been a variety of positive messages from several countries:

At the state level in the US, Gov. Jerry Brown of California is reported as saying that he would give serious consideration to a proposal for a nuclear power plant if one should cross his desk. There are no such proposals floating around right now, but nevertheless, it is a welcome sign that a state official can get beyond the daily images of the Fukushima accident and acknowledge that nuclear power can have a roll to play.

On the other side of the pond, in the UK, the leaders of several local government councils around Dungeness have called for a "new look" at a third nuclear power plant on the Dungeness site. The issue at Dungeness is complicated by habitat considerations, but the locals recognize the positive impact Dungeness has had on the local economy, and believe that new power can be implemented safely and in an environmentally-responsible manner.

And finally, looking across the Pacific at the country which should rightly have the most concern about nuclear power following the Fukushima accident, we are seeing that some of the governors and mayors in Japan are willing to consider the restart of nuclear power plants in their jurisdictions. Of greatest significance was the fact that "nine mayors were willing to approve restarts on condition of added safety assurances or steps." All the governors who responded to the survey (11 of 13 with nuclear power plants in their prefectures) and eight other mayors are reported as saying that they "wanted safety assurances and/or a complete investigation of the accident."

While all of the above are statements and not final decisions, they are signs that the political leaders in several countries and at several different levels of government are taking a realistic and pragmatic stance in their considerations of nuclear power.



  1. I really like your blog reporting for its level presentation of the situations, and your accurate assessments thereof. This blog post, better than any other this week, seems to sum up the worldwide see-saw effect occurring with nuclear energy's future. Thank you!

  2. Oldbury Power Station, a 434MW, twin nuclear reactor station, was decommissioned in 2012. At the time it was the world's oldest operating nuclear power reactor and the UK's first nuclear power station to use pre-stressed concrete pressure vessels instead of steel.

    The plant entered service in 1967. Magnox Electric was the licensee and was responsible for the day-to-day management and operations of the power station.