Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Future of Nuclear Power - Switzerland Bans New Plants

News that a direct vote in Switzerland (using its famous system of binding national referenda) has agreed to ban construction of any new nuclear plants.

Nuclear currently provides roughly one third of Switzerland's electric power, so this is a big shift, for a country that is not an obvious place for solar or wind, and that already uses a lot of hydro power.

Nuclear power SHOULD play a big role in the transition away from fossil fuels around the world, but the set backs keep coming.  One might support a major role for nuclear in Switzerland and the U.S. midwest, but oppose it in earthquake/tsunami prone zones such as Japan and California. One might support shutting down older reactors, but still want to encourage construction of newer, safer models, repleat with "passive safety" features that would prevent a Fukushima-type or Chernobyl-type disaster. Environmentalists still see a crucial role for nuclear power in transition to a low carbon dioxide emission future and in keeping global warming below 2 degrees celsius (or, if that is impossible, at least as close as possible).

But economics seem to be dooming the nuclear business.

-- Areva, the major French player, has had a financial disaster in Finland, with a decade long delay and an increase in cost of over 300% (so far -- not done yet).

-- Toshiba, the largest Japanese player, has had a disaster in the U.S., with its subsidiary Westinghouse, likely to drag the entire company into or near insolvency, with its life turning on whether it can get an attractive price for its flash memory business.

Of course, the Japanese domestic market is dead, post-Fukushima

The U.S. market is dead because of cheap natural gas and wind.

The French have decided to shift away from nuclear. The Germans are winding it down.

The U.K. is going forward with the new Hinkley Point C plant, at a cost of 18 billion pound Sterling (!), but only with massive government support.

And still, there is no real long-term waste storage solution, 60 years after the industry has started to operate commercial plants!

Developing countries such as China and India must be watching and learning from these developments.