Despite Good Intentions, Nuclear Continues to Sink

April 3, 2017

New York Times:

Westinghouse Electric Company, which helped drive the development of nuclear energy and the electric grid itself, filed for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday, casting a shadow over the global nuclear industry.

The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South. Now, the future of those projects, which once seemed to be on the leading edge of a renaissance for nuclear energy, is in doubt.

“This is a fairly big and consequential deal,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “You’ve had some power companies and big utilities run into financial trouble, but this kind of thing hasn’t happened.”

Westinghouse, a once-proud name that in years past symbolized America’s supremacy in nuclear power, now illustrates its problems.

Many of the company’s injuries are self-inflicted, such as a disastrous deal for a construction business that was intended to control costs and instead precipitated the events that led to the filing on Wednesday. Over all, Toshiba has been widely criticized for overpaying for Westinghouse.

Don’t throw anything.  Sorry it’s true, but here’s the deal.
Nuclear power was essentially done in the US as of about 1977, due primarily to economic issues – no one wanted to risk the huge cost increases that were cropping up in that era’s build out of pressurized water reactors.

That, you may remember, was two years before the melt-down of Three Mile Island, (TMI) subsequent bad press, and widespread public opposition blossoming around the country.
Love it or hate it, the nuclear industry sowed the sees of its own demise when it went ahead, in the 1960s, with a generation of untested large nuclear designs based on simple faith that engineers could do what they said they could. This included relying on safety systems that had never been tested in the real world.

The first indication that this would be a problem cropped up in 1971, when scale-model testing of emergency core cooling systems failed miserably – raising concerns among large utilities, who already had many large projects, based on that design, well underway.
It was, of course, exactly that cooling system that failed at TMI – and any argument about post-accident body counts misses the point entirely.  The accident burned up 2 billion dollars worth of equipment in 20 minutes, and saddled the utility, ratepayers, and taxpayers with enormous decommissioning costs and a decade-long cleanup mess that raised red flags world wide on technology.

In subsequent years, nuclear proponents have argued that it was wrong-headed opposition to nuclear power that sunk the industry.  After all, they said, look how great nuclear power was doing in sensible countries like the Soviet Union, Japan, and France.
History has not been kind to that reasoning.


Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima (TVO) has started fresh legal action against French nuclear group Areva to avoid further delays at its Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor in Finland, company spokesman said.

The project, almost a decade behind its original schedule, is nearly complete, but TVO wants assurances that a restructuring of plant supplier Areva won’t cause further delays and that the plant would be ready to begin production in 2018 as planned.

“We have asked for this several times but have not received the necessary assurances,” he said by phone, adding that TVO is now seeking assurances through a case filed in Nanterre Commercial Court, in France.

TVO and Areva are already claiming billions of euros from one another at the International Chamber of Commerce’s arbitration court because of delays and cost overruns on the project which was originally due to start operation in 2009.

Hindustan Times:

Nuclear power growth is falling victim to larger factors. The first factor is the increasingly poor economics of nuclear power across the world. Skyrocketing construction costs, made worse by the post-Fukushima safety upgrades, and reliance on massive government subsidies are making nuclear power uncompetitive.

A second factor is the dire financial state of the foreign companies that were planning to build nuclear power plants in India — Toshiba-Westinghouse and Areva. Their very survival is at stake today. France’s state-owned Areva needs a government-led €5 billion bailout to stay afloat. It is also set to be split, with its reactor unit being sold to EDF, also state-owned.

For Toshiba, the US nuclear market is proving to be its graveyard. On the brink of disintegration, Toshiba has posted a $6.2 billion nuclear-business loss, mainly from its US subsidiary, Westinghouse. Its 2006 blunder in acquiring Westinghouse has been compounded by its 2015 purchase of nuclear plant builder CB&I Stone & Webster. Now Toshiba is jettisoning its lead role in projects to build nuclear plants in India and Britain, a move that would leave it merely as a nuclear equipment supplier.


Again, the Times:

At the same time, Westinghouse was trying to install a novel reactor design, the AP1000. Using simplified structures and safety equipment, it was intended to be easier and less expensive to install, operate and maintain. Its design also improves the ability to withstand earthquakes and plane crashes and is less vulnerable to a cutoff of electricity, which is what set off the triple meltdown at Fukushima.

Nonetheless, it was inevitable that expansions at the Vogtle generating station in Georgia and the Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina would hit some bumps along the road to fruition, nuclear executives say. Not only was the design new, but, because nuclear construction had been dormant for so long, American companies also lacked the equipment and expertise needed to make some of the biggest components and construct the projects.

Indeed, that may ultimately have been at the root of the troubles. The contractor Westinghouse chose to complete the projects struggled to meet the strict demands of nuclear construction and was undergoing its own internal difficulties after a merger. As part of an effort to get the delays and escalating costs under control, Westinghouse acquired part of the construction company, which set off a series of still-unresolved disputes over who should absorb the cost overruns and how Westinghouse accounted for and reported values in the transaction.

Arguments abound for alternative designs, new technologies, standardization and mass production. China, we’re told, is moving ahead with nuclear development. I wish them well.
But in the meantime, we have a problem to solve, and the closest thing to a solution seems more and more like renewables that continue to outperform even the most optimistic projections of just a few years back.

I’ll duck behind my chair now.


22 Responses to “Despite Good Intentions, Nuclear Continues to Sink”

  1. Kaj Luukko Says:

    Olkuluoto 3 in Finland will however generate more lowcarbon electricity than all wind power plants in Denmark, doing so 24/7 without backups. Even the project was delayed, it’s will be done in the same time scale than renewables.

    Nuclear power is an essential part in the future energy mix. We have to figure out how to make it more profitable. Chinese are far more ahead all western countries.

    • schwadevivre Says:

      Olkuloto 3 is still not compete and has a planned capacity of 1600 MW. Denmark’s wind farms produced 5000 MW back in 2015.

      You also assume that the plant will function without interruption which does not happen in any tea-kettle style plant and also assumes no catastrophic failure of any one of the 3 plants. Note that Okuloto 1 has already had a minor leak.

      Of course you utterly ignore the vast cost over-run and years lost in construction time. You also ignore the fact that the deep repository still has to be built, on the assumption that it can be built fit for purpose.

      • Kaj Luukko Says:

        Yes, installed capacity of Denmark’s wind is 5000 MW, but the capacity factor is about 0,3 so the amount of energy generated is about the same than with a 1600 MW npp. I don’t want to make an argue wich one we should choose. The climate change problem is so severe that we cannot afford to eliminate a priori any carbon-free technologies.

        Please tell me about the minor leak in Olkuloto 1. I live within 200 km from the plant, never heard about it.

        It’s mandatory for Finnish nuclear companies to collect money to build the the deep repository and it is allmost done now. However, I don’t like the idea of burying any stuff that still have 95% of energy left. It should be stored and consumed in breeder reactors in the future. Breeders have capability to burn all U238 and transuranium elements leaving only fission products that will be harmless within 300 years.

        Now after Trump the climate leadership seems to go to China. They are actually doing a great job relying on all forms on low carbon technologies, from wind and solar to nuclear. Most of solar panels and a lot of of wind turbines installed in Europe comes from China. Looks like nuclear power plants will be as well in the future. Some of them will for sure be based on Westinghouse AP-1000.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      The last thing we need to do is make them profitable. Coal, oil and gas, even tar sands are profitable. War is profitable. Contrary to propaganda, crime is profitable, and of course that’s redundant considering those other statements.

      What we need to do is change the political-economic system enough that what’s profitable doesn’t matter and that what’s good for society and the Earth is what’s prioritized and what happens. Nuclear reactors are bad in every way imaginable–slow, expensive, higher carbon, intractable waste problems, destructive of democracy in several ways, increase inequality by being profitable-with-externalities, too demanding of water to be of much use in a world increasingly thirsty because of climate chaos. and on and on. Clean safe resilient renewable energy is better in every way–cheaper, faster, cleaner, more ecological, more democratical… better in every way. Nuclear can only slow our response to climate catastrophe.

      • funslinger62 Says:

        What you say is true of current nuclear technology. There are designs which could eliminate most, if not all, of those problems.

        While I agree that nuclear isn’t a viable option now, there is no reason to abort R&D on future designs.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Why are you ducking behind a chair? This is not a problem for anyone but the nuclear power folks, especially those engineers you spoke of that designed the PWR’s (and probably signed the Oregon Pwtition in large numbers). I hope that their pensions are all dependent on Westinghouse stock.

    The reason it’s not a problem is that the world has plenty of COAL and OIL and GAS to burn in generating plants, and President Pussy Grabber has assured us that coal IS clean and we’re going to put the coal miners back to work digging it up. ‘Muricans will ALWAYS have electricity to power their TV’s so they can watch all the ads and go out and SHOP (as well as suck up all the fake news).

  3. webej Says:

    Hmmm. Mentions renewables. No passing discussion of PWR alternatives in the article … as usual, nuclear is subsumed under the PWR/atomic bomb/waste paradigm.

  4. Martin Smith Says:

    “because nuclear construction had been dormant for so long, American companies also lacked the equipment and expertise needed to make some of the biggest components and construct the projects.”

    I think that is the problem with nuclear plant construction now. I think that if an American company submitted a bid to build a nuclear power plant, despite lacking the equipment and expertise to make large components and to actually construct the power plant, then that bid was fraudulent, and it should have been seen to be fraudulent before it was accepted, or at least incompetent.

    These aren’t what The Great Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.” If you don’t have the equipment and expertise to build what you’re bidding on, you are already in trouble.

    • Tom Bates Says:

      There is no part of a nuclear plant which is beyond the equipment and expertise to make the biggest components. Most of the plant is rather standard parts, the only actual large part is the containment vessel for the core. The generators and steam generators are rather standard designs.

  5. J4Zonian Says:

    And PS, typo: “Love it or hate it, the nuclear industry sowed the sees of its own demise”

    “sowed the seeDs of its own…” please. Feel free to delete this post after fixing.

  6. Tom Bates Says:

    Not all the world is filled with wackos. China for one is going to build hundreds of nuclear plants to replace all those coal plants which are polluting up the air over China. Other countries are going to be doing the same thing. The USA and Germany to name two are ruled by people who are insane when it comes to nuclear. That is not the case with many other countries around the world.

  7. Tom Bates Says:

    TMI failure had zero to do with design. The emergency water feed pump valve had been closed by workers during a test and not reopened so cooling water could not flow to the reactor when the regular pump failed. That was what caused the reactor to partially melt. As it heated up the steam forced water into the pressure tank and the operators than turned off the water flow which meant the reactor got even hotter. All mechanical parts fail at some point, when operators make things worse because they did not know what they were doing is when things happen that have bad consequences. In the end, aside from the cost, TMI harmed nobody. This same design has been operating for 50 years without any failure in other plants.

  8. dumboldguy Says:

    You know a thread is dying when Master Bates appears and starts spewing demented BS. The knee-jerk nuclear bashers have had their say here yet again, and we will just have to sit back and see what happens. Bates IS somewhat correct in saying that China (and Russia and South Kores) are not ready to give up on nuclear power. If they resurrect it, it will be another business in which America is LAST rather than first.

    • Tom Bates Says:

      Dum guy, you really are into calling people names when you have nothing to say. Simply because I happen to look at some older stories to see what people said and are saying does not make the story old. It simply means people like you are not making moronic statements.

  9. funslinger62 Says:

    “Nuclear will never happen on a large scale because it’s so expensive right now.”—Mark Z. Jacobson

    That’s an odd comment from a wind and solar supporter. It’s basically the same thing fossil fuel supporters said about wind and solar ten years ago. Never is a long time.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I think his point is that large scale deployment of renewables is underway, and the financial incentive to undertake nuclear programs is waning rapidly.

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