Nuclear power is perhaps the most complicated and technologically-advanced way of producing energy today. Given the complexity of systems and engineering that pervades the nuclear energy sector, it is natural for those of us in the industry to be focused on logical facts and hard data. Whether we are talking about a utility operating a nuclear power plant, a supplier producing into the nuclear fuel cycle, a regulator overseeing those facilities, or the many other services industries that support these activities, effective decision-making always must rely on data. This data can be related to safety, economics, or other factors, but no matter the situation, decisions in this industry are grounded in facts.
Unfortunately, there are many times that the nuclear industry is confronted with judgments that seem far removed from what most would consider logical based on the information at hand. In this regard, it is typically political decision-making that veers into the realm of the unexplainable. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, the fate of nuclear power remains far too often in the hands of politicians.
There are numerous recent examples of how political decisions have flown in the face of what would seem common sense to nuclear experts. It was not a surprise that several governments around the world had knee-jerk reactions to oppose nuclear power after the devastating Fukushima accident. It came as a shock, however, that one of the most advanced countries in the world with a stellar nuclear track record like Germany would completely phase-out its fleet of 17 reactors, which had been providing well over 20% of its electricity. As the final three reactors in Germany are now destined to close at the end of this year amid a massive energy crisis in Europe, the decisions of German politicians in 2011 are now coming to full bear. Expectations are that Germany’s carbon emissions will increase this year and into 2023 as carbon-free, baseload nuclear power is removed from the grid. Moreover, a poll in 2021 showed that 53% of Germans are “not entirely negative” about nuclear energy (UxW 35-50). Thus, it can be argued that Germany’s politicians have made decisions about nuclear power that fly in the face of reason and logic.
A similarly frustrating debate is now underway about the future of California’s remaining nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon. When the state and PGE reached an agreement in 2016 to close the plant by 2025, we in the industry knew that this seemed like a foolhardy decision. Since then, California’s electricity supply situation remains precarious, and based on current trends, it seems unlikely that it will be able to achieve its carbon reductions goals while also ensuring stable power supplies if Diablo Canyon shuts down as planned. Considering that the two PWRs at the site are some of the newest units in the U.S. and have a very good operating record, their closure in a few short years makes the politically-motivated push to end their lives early all the more questionable.
Sometimes, however, politicians do get it “right,” although it can often take them until the last second to figure things out. Last September’s vote in the Illinois legislature on a comprehensive energy and climate bill took far too long to get passed and occurred just in the nick of time to ensure that the four reactors at the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants kept running. A few other U.S. states, including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, have made similarly important decisions to provide subsidies to prevent early reactor closures -all of which notably only happened in the eleventh hour.
Rash political decisions that negatively impact nuclear power can also be seen in parts of Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In Japan, we see local political leaders, especially prefectural governors and mayors of cities and towns that host nuclear plants, playing kings as they decide the fate of various reactors. It may seem hard to believe, but some of Japan’s functional nuclear units may never produce another kilowatt even if they pass all regulatory hurdles if just one governor or mayor opposes it. Next door in South Korea, we see a similar back-and-forth driven by national politicians, as the once heavily pro-nuclear government switched to one pushing for a phase-out after the 2017 election of current President Moon Jae-in. If President Moon’s successor in the Democratic Party loses to the People Power Party candidate, the country’s entire nuclear policy could again do a full 180-degree U-turn back toward nuclear power. Meanwhile, politicians in Taiwan are hell-bent on making the island a “nuclear-free homeland” by 2025 with three of the six previously-operating units already shuttered.
While many of the examples above relate to how politicians can affect the ongoing operations of existing reactors, political leaders can also be quite critical when it comes to new reactor developments. Over the past decade, we have seen rapid about-faces by governments in Vietnam, Kuwait, and Italy, just to name a few, that led to new nuclear build projects being halted. On the other hand, political promotion of nuclear power has also been critical in pushing projects forward, such as in China, India, Turkey, UK, and, most recently, in France under President Macron.
National energy policies are important to determining the direction of all sources of power supply, but it seems as if nuclear is more directly affected than any other fuel. An operating reactor can either receive a second life or be banished to the dustbin seemingly at the flip of a switch by a single leader in position of authority. And since a single nuclear power plant is so large and impactful on the overall energy supply in a specific country or region, a decision to keep, kill, or add a plant can have huge ramifications. Moreover, once such a decision is reached, it is often nearly impossible to reverse course given the large number of resources and long lead times that are usually involved. It is for this reason that political leaders play such an outsized role for our industry. And while many politicians have proven to be thoughtful as they take all factors into account, history has proven that misguided or dogmatic politicians have taken the nuclear industry down paths from which recovery is difficult.
Ultimately, this situation is unlikely to change any time soon, and thus nuclear power will remain strongly influenced by the whims of politicians. The only proactive thing that can be done is to educate and publicize as much as possible about the potential negative impacts of political decisions before they become final. Nevertheless, the industry appears destined to be dictated by the future direction of political winds. Let’s just hope the wind blows the right way.
Postscript: As this cover story was written prior to the news yesterday of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of Russian political decisions and their impacts on the nuclear markets was not addressed. At this time, the situation in Ukraine remains far too fluid and difficult to predict, but UxC is continuing to closely observe all relevant developments and will address these topics in future Ux Weekly editions.
This article was originally published in the February 22, 2022 issue of the Ux Weekly.
Jonathan Hinze is President of UxC, LLC. He has been at UxC since 2006, during which time he has helped to expand the company’s products and consulting work in numerous ways. Mr. Hinze has nearly two decades of direct experience in the nuclear industry, and therefore has an extensive wealth of knowledge on the nuclear fuel cycle and reactor markets. One of his main areas of focus over the years has been nuclear reactor developments and global nuclear power forecasting as well as analyzing the future of the nuclear fuel markets and the reactor supply chain. His areas of expertise include an in-depth knowledge of the international nuclear marketplace, nuclear technologies, government policies, nonproliferation, and the strong interplay between all these forces on a domestic and international level. Mr. Hinze received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies from Haverford College and a Master of Arts in International Trade and Investment Policy from the George Washington University.