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The nuclear power industry is at a standstill.

Most construction programs are coming to a close, as rising costs and concern over safety spell the end of the nuclear age.

THE NUCLEAR power industry is being squeezed out of the global energy marketplace, according to a survey by the Worldwatch Institute in collaboration with World Information Service on Energy in Paris and Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.

Between 1991 and 1992, total installed nuclear generating capacity declined for the first time since the 1950s, when the industry began. There were 421 nuclear plants in commercial operation worldwide in January, 1992, 10 fewer than at the peak in January, 1989. These nuclear plants were providing less than 17% of the world's electricity.

While nuclear proponents have tried to use concern about global warming as a pretext for reviving the industry, there has been no response from the private sector thus far. Nuclear energy would be an exceedingly expensive way to displace coal-fired power. To offset even five percent of current global carbon emissions would require that nuclear energy be nearly doubled from today's level--at a cost exceeding one trillion dollars. This seems inconceivable, given the current state of public opinion and economics.

There were 49 nuclear plants under active construction at the beginning of 1992, one-quarter as many as a decade ago. Most are nearing completion so that, by the year 2000, the world will have, at most, 360,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity--only 10% above the current figure of 325,942 megawatts. This is less than one-tenth the forecast made by the international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the time of the first oil price hike in 1974.

Unless there is an immediate turnaround in orders, nuclear power may be declining by 2000. Nearly one in six plants that have been built already are closed. Some 76 reactors, with a total generating capacity of 17,150 megawatts, have been retired, after an average service life of less than 17 years. Dozens more could be decommissioned in the next few years, nearly canceling out reactors coming on line.

These new figures contradict the rosy assessments put out each year by the IAEA in Vienna. Its statistics released in April, 1992, include serious inaccuracies, such as overstating the number of reactors under construction by 27. Included on the IAEA's construction list are two plants in Iran that were bombed during the Iran-Iraq war and have not been worked on since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Work also has stopped on most of the plants listed as under construction in the former Soviet Union.

Ever since Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the nuclear industry has insisted that vigorous construction programs would resume. Instead, rejection of nuclear power has spread from the U.S. to Western Europe, Latin America, and the Far East. Most recently, the wave of democracy that has swept Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States has led to the cancellation of dozens of plants.

In Western Europe, nuclear expansion plans have been stopped everywhere except France. Among the nations where construction has ceased entirely are Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Italian voters decided in November, 1987, to block the expansion of the country's already stalled nuclear program. In June, 1990, the parliament approved a measure to dismantle the nation's three formerly operating units.

No new nuclear plants have been ordered in the former West Germany since the mid 1970s, and no additional ones are under construction. The political deadlock over nuclear power resulted in the 1989 abandonment of the partially built Wackersdorf reprocessing facility in Bavaria, as well as the permanent closure of the brand new Kalkar breeder reactor during 1991.

Even the French nuclear program is in jeopardy, due to public opposition and the failing financial health of the state utility responsible for its nuclear power production. The country's construction pipeline is emptying, with just six plants under active construction. (Two of these--at Civaux--do not have official government approval yet.) The last official reactor order was in 1987, and an active debate on nuclear construction is under way within the once unified French government.

In the U.S., it has been 14 years since a nuclear plant has been ordered and 19 years since one was ordered and not subsequently canceled. Between 1972 and 1990, 119 nuclear plants were canceled by utilities, representing 130,792 megawatts of generating capacity, well above the nation's total current nuclear capacity. At the beginning of 1992, only one nuclear plant still was under active construction in the U.S. and two more being built in Canada.

In the Third World, there only were 18,394 megawatts of nuclear plants in operation--six percent of the world total. Some of them were seriously over budget, behind schedule, and plagued by technical problems. As a consequence, there have been only a handful of Third World orders in the last decade.

Chernobyl's toll

During the past few years, nuclear programs in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union also have begun to come unglued. With some 300,000 Byelorussians, Russians, and Ukrainians being treated for radiation sickness, public opposition overwhelmed plans for nuclear expansion. Political changes have unleashed a torrent of criticism, which has focused on the potential for serious accidents such as Chernobyl.

In January, 1986, three months before the Chernobyl disaster, the U.S.S.R. was operating 51 reactors with a total capacity of 28,000 megawatts and had official projections to reach 58,672 megawatts by 1990, according to IAEA statistics. Since Chernobyl, the Soviets managed to bring into commercial operation a mere 11 plants. Construction was halted on the majority of projects under way and/or planned.

By the beginning of 1992, just two electric-generating facilities and two units for heat production were under active construction, according to Anatoly Zemskov, chief of the Information and Public Affairs Department in the Russian Federation's Ministry of Energy and Fuel. Today, the independent countries of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Lithuania have a combined total of 45 operating reactors, with 34,083 megawatts of generating capacity. Many of these, including some of the 15 Chernobyl-type plants still in service, are slated to be closed in coming years.

The toll of Chernobyl only has begun to be tallied. The Ukrainian government asserts that the accident already has caused 6,000-8,000 deaths despite previous official claims of 31 fatalities. Still to be answered are questions of what to do about the temporary sarcophagus built around the damaged reactor and the millions of acres of heavily contaminated land. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, official government estimates put the cost of cleanup and resettlement at $120,000,-000,000 by 2000, while a study by the Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering concluded that it would reach $358,000,000,000.

In eastern Germany, all commercial nuclear plants were closed upon unification after it was determined that they were unsafe. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, numerous nuclear plants under construction have been canceled, including two each in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. As concern about deteriorating equipment and discipline grows, pressure to shut additional operating reactors mounts.

In Japan, 42 nuclear reactors provide 27% of the country's electricity. Since Chernobyl, however, nuclear power has been facing increasingly stiff public opposition. The nation has been unable to find new sites for power plants for five years. The government's current plan envisions 80 nuclear reactors by 2010, a goal that already seems out of reach, even to some Japanese utility executives.

The international trend away from nuclear power is propelled by the serious accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, rapid cost escalations, and rising concern about a healthy environment. Nuclear technology has performed poorly in many countries and often has failed to live up to the high safety standards that its inherent dangers demand. People particularly are concerned about the possibility of accidents and a continuing failure to develop safe means to dispose of nuclear wastes. Opinion polls in most nations find majorities against the construction of additional reactors.

Furthermore, costs have risen to the point that nuclear power no longer is competitive with other sources. New nuclear plants in the U.S. produce electricity at more than 12 cents a kilowatt-hour, while natural gas facilities come in at around six cents a kilowatt-hour, and wind and geothermal energy run six to eight cents. Meanwhile, efficiency improvements cost even less to pursue--from two to six cents a kilowatt-hour saved.

The old market niche that nuclear power once held in effect is gone. This is particularly clear in Britain, where pro-nuclear Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did in the country's nuclear industry by privatizing electric power in 1989. The government found that nuclear reactors could not be given away, let alone sold at a profit, as it was revealed that costs massively had been understated. As a result, the private power industry has turned to natural gas and renewable energy for additional capacity.

Although most countries do not have formal policies requiring the phaseout of nuclear power, most construction programs are coming to a close, as rising costs and concern over safety have dried up the supply pipeline. In 1990, for the first time since the dawning of the commercial nuclear age in the mid 1950s, a full year passed without construction starting on a new reactor anywhere in the world.

There are many practices of the immediate post-war era that will not survive into the 21st century. These include casual disposal of toxic wastes, production of cars without pollution controls, and nuclear weapons testing. Difficult as this may seem to nuclear supporters, the large-scale commercial use of nuclear power appears likely to join this list.
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Author:Flavin, Christopher; Lenssen, Nicholas
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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