A great menace weighs upon nuclear power: without public subsidies, it’s not profitable. And in the United States, Obama has begun to shut off the valve.
It would be naive to think that suddenly, under President Obama, the American administration will become outwardly antinuclear. It is not opposed to the construction of new reactors and, more generally, no plan has been mentioned that doesn’t envision the U.S. with its 103 reactors still in service.
Yet the future of the nuclear industry is very murky in this country, as it is elsewhere on the planet. Certainly this affair will play out in the coming years or decades, but the tendency is towards a clear, irreversible decline of the atom. Thus, in his rescue plan for facing the world financial crisis, Obama allocated to the nuclear industry 50 million dollars for renewable energies. This seized thunderously upon the moment.
Additionally, on June 13, 2009, in a grand dispatch titled “Revival Plan: Winners and Losers,” the Associated Press listed the winners: “Alternative energy: no less than 50 million dollars [is] devoted to the reinforcement of energy efficiency and to renewable energy programs” (1).
And as for the losers: “The nuclear energy sector: it aspires to uncouple 50 million dollars in federal loan guarantees under the guise of carbon energy thriftiness, but was excluded from [being one of] the beneficiaries of the rescue plan. The victory thus goes to environmentalists.”
Better still, beyond the rescue plan, it’s a general option of the Obama administration to give priority to renewable energies. As a result, American physicists see themselves fading away and losing a large chunk of public aid promised by Bush in favor of the atom. And, in truth, the costs now appear: without important public subsidies, nuclear power is not profitable.
Thus, on April 23, the AmerenUE society canceled an EPR reactor project planned for Missouri (2). Certainly, to save face, it is merely being called a temporary renunciation, but this decision is founded on a given economic principle: nuclear energy is too expensive.
And on the 15th of May, it was Exelon’s turn to annul two projects for reactors planned in Texas and to explain that the plans were now in question. And again for the same reason - too expensive! (3)
To try to stop this downward spiral, Areva and American groups Duke Energy and Unistar Nuclear Energy announced on June 18 that they are “entering into negotiations for an EPR nuclear reactor project in Ohio.” But discussions do not build the reactors, nor do they finance them.
Nevertheless, one must note that public aid has always existed in the U.S. for nuclear power. Thus, the AFP noted that, “Areva was delighted that the Department of Energy had preselected four central projects in order to obtain 18.5 million in guaranteed federal credits.” Yet, there is still two or three years to go and there has been talk of 30 new reactors in the United States. And then only talk of 18, and then down to 12. If the new reactors are actually built, they will count themselves on the fingers of two hands ... or maybe even on just one.
During this time, the safety authority in the U.S., the NRC, extended the lifespan of those reactors already in service; certain ones are now authorized to go to the venerable age of 60 years. We thus pass on - despite the fact that this is already a grave situation - an additional risk of catastrophe with these old reactors. In any case, the U.S. nuclear industry does not gain time. Sooner or later, it will be necessary to close these reactors by the dozen. The decline of the atom in the United States is inevitable.
This is to say that if the nuclear risk is immense, then its part in energy is very weak. The atom represents 20 percent of electricity used in the U.S. This is less than four percent of the total energy consumed. Now, Obama has announced an ambitious program aimed at energy efficiency in order to reduce rampant wastefulness. There has in fact not been any difficulty in quickly passing by the wretched four percent represented by nuclear power.
Throughout the rest of the world, the situation is comparable: the 430 reactors currently in service cover only two percent of the world’s consumption of energy. This is much less than renewable energies, which for their part and with shocking increases are already at 15 percent.
As a case in point, in 2008, dams worldwide produced more energy than nuclear power: 3200 vs. 2600 TWh. And according to Le Monde, since February 6, no less than 1200 large dams - those more than 15 meters high and whose reservoirs contain at least three million cubic meters of water - are under construction and will increase hydroelectric capacity worldwide by 19 percent (4). Comparatively, the some 30 nuclear reactors currently being constructed - the majority in China - are practically negligible.
This phenomenon is incredible. Renewable energies are being developed in extraordinary fashion. Even China has announced that, from 2020 on, windmills will produce more energy than nuclear energy (5). This trend will accelerate and with the clear choices in front of Obama, one can say that the question of nuclear power can be posed as: even if yes, we have the ability, must we use it?
This leaves only then the questions of how to finance the dismantlement of the stations and how to deal with the storage of radioactive waste for the coming millennia. The nuclear industry is leaving for both the current and future generations a veritable time bomb. All the more reason now for restraint and to halt their activities.
(4) Attention: it is not the idea here to promote these “grand barriers” that effectively assert these environmental problems. It is the idea to record that nuclear power is completely marginalized.