Can Nuclear Energy Come Back from the Grave?
From China to the United Kingdom, policymakers regard nuclear power as part of the solution to the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. But it remains to be seen whether the industry will finally establish itself as a major global electricity supplier, or again fail to live up to its promise.
LONDON – Nuclear power has been in decline since the Fukushima disaster in Japan more than a decade ago, but it may be poised for a comeback. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and soaring natural-gas prices have led some to argue that nuclear energy can help solve the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Is the industry back in business, or will this prove to be another false dawn?
Until recently, nuclear power’s prospects seemed poor. Plants built in the 1970s and 1980s are nearing the end of their working lives, while Germany and Japan decided to shut down theirs for political reasons. Of the relatively few new nuclear plants currently being built, many have been blighted by management failures and technical faults. The flagship EPR pressurized water reactors at Flamanville in northern France and Olkiluoto in Finland are, respectively, 13 and 12 years behind schedule. Hinkley Point in southwest England, which was supposed to have provided the power to cook Britain’s Christmas turkeys in 2023, may now be operational in 2027. Inevitably, all of these projects are massively over budget.
In the United States, no new commercial nuclear facility has opened since 1996. The combination of cheap domestic shale gas and subsidies for wind power has undermined the economics of existing plants and discouraged investment in new ventures. With the cost of alternative energy supplies falling, nuclear began to look excessively costly and risky. In many countries, staff with nuclear engineering skills are aging, and recruitment has been minimal over the past decade.