Nuclear Power - Future of The Industry

Future of The Industry

See also: List of prospective nuclear units in the United States, Nuclear power in the United States, Nuclear energy policy, and Mitigation of global warming

As of 2007, Watts Bar 1 in Tennessee, which came on-line on February 7, 1996, was the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to go on-line. This is often quoted as evidence of a successful worldwide campaign for nuclear power phase-out. However, even in the U.S. and throughout Europe, investment in research and in the nuclear fuel cycle has continued, and some nuclear industry experts predict electricity shortages, fossil fuel price increases, global warming and heavy metal emissions from fossil fuel use, new technology such as passively safe plants, and national energy security will renew the demand for nuclear power plants.

According to the World Nuclear Association, globally during the 1980s one new nuclear reactor started up every 17 days on average, and by the year 2015 this rate could increase to one every 5 days.

There is a possible impediment to production of nuclear power plants as only a few companies worldwide have the capacity to forge single-piece reactor pressure vessels, which are necessary in the most common reactor designs. Utilities across the world are submitting orders years in advance of any actual need for these vessels. Other manufacturers are examining various options, including making the component themselves, or finding ways to make a similar item using alternate methods. Other solutions include using designs that do not require single-piece forged pressure vessels such as Canada's Advanced CANDU Reactors or Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors.

China has 25 reactors under construction, with plans to build more, while in the US the licenses of almost half its reactors have been extended to 60 years, and plans to build another dozen are under serious consideration. China may achieve its long-term plan of having 40,000 megawatts of nuclear power capacity four to five years ahead of schedule. However, according to a government research unit, China must not build "too many nuclear power reactors too quickly", in order to avoid a shortfall of fuel, equipment and qualified plant workers.

The U.S. NRC and the U.S. Department of Energy have initiated research into Light water reactor sustainability which is hoped will lead to allowing extensions of reactor licenses beyond 60 years, in increments of 20 years, provided that safety can be maintained, as the loss in non-CO2-emitting generation capacity by retiring reactors "may serve to challenge U.S. energy security, potentially resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to an imbalance between electric supply and demand."

Following the Fukushima I nuclear accidents, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035. Platts has reported that "the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants has prompted leading energy-consuming countries to review the safety of their existing reactors and cast doubt on the speed and scale of planned expansions around the world". In 2011, The Economist reported that nuclear power "looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky", and that "it is replaceable with relative ease and could be forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works".

In early April 2011, analysts at Swiss-based investment bank UBS said: "At Fukushima, four reactors have been out of control for weeks, casting doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety . . .. We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power".

In 2011, Deutsche Bank analysts concluded that "the global impact of the Fukushima accident is a fundamental shift in public perception with regard to how a nation prioritizes and values its populations health, safety, security, and natural environment when determining its current and future energy pathways". As a consequence, "renewable energy will be a clear long-term winner in most energy systems, a conclusion supported by many voter surveys conducted over the past few weeks. At the same time, we consider natural gas to be, at the very least, an important transition fuel, especially in those regions where it is considered secure".

In September 2011, German engineering giant Siemens announced it will withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry, as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and said that it would no longer build nuclear power plants anywhere in the world. The company’s chairman, Peter Löscher, said that "Siemens was ending plans to cooperate with Rosatom, the Russian state-controlled nuclear power company, in the construction of dozens of nuclear plants throughout Russia over the coming two decades". Also in September 2011, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said the Japanese nuclear disaster "caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence in nuclear power".

In February 2012, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of two additional reactors at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, the first reactors to be approved in over 30 years since the Three Mile Island accident, but NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko cast a dissenting vote citing safety concerns stemming from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and saying "I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened". One week after Southern received the license to begin major construction on the two new reactors, a dozen environmental and anti-nuclear groups are suing to stop the Plant Vogtle expansion project, saying "public safety and environmental problems since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor accident have not been taken into account".

The nuclear reactors to be built at Vogtle are new AP1000 third generation reactors, which are said to have safety improvements over older power reactors. However, John Ma, a senior structural engineer at the NRC, is concerned that some parts of the AP1000 steel skin are so brittle that the "impact energy" from a plane strike or storm driven projectile could shatter the wall. Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is concerned about the strength of the steel containment vessel and the concrete shield building around the AP1000. Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear engineer commissioned by several anti-nuclear groups, released a report which explored a hazard associated with the possible rusting through of the containment structure steel liner.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has referred to the European Pressurized Reactor, currently under construction in China, Finland and France, as the only new reactor design under consideration in the United States that "...appears to have the potential to be significantly safer and more secure against attack than today's reactors."

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