Westinghouse chief executive officer Danny Roderick pulled out his iPhone and opened a quickly accessible YouTube trailer for the new documentary, Pandora’s Promise, a pro-nuclear film that premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival and has opened in commercial theatres.
The documentary, by Oscar-nominated director Robert Stone, features several former anti-nuclear activists who have come full circle – now arguing that expansion of the industry they once vilified is critical in the effort to avert catastrophic climate change. Not surprisingly, Pandora’s Promise has provoked a storm of protest from the cast’s former colleagues, who still vehemently oppose nuclear power over safety concerns, waste issues and high front-end costs.
Mr. Roderick is a large, gregarious man with an engineering background, experience in running nuclear plants and a salesman’s gift of gab. And he talks a lot about climate change.
For a generation, it has been the nuclear industry’s calling card – that only large-scale reactors can provide steady, base-load power that does not emit greenhouse gases. And with U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge this week to heighten the battle against climate change and reduce the U.S.’s reliance on carbon-intensive, coal-fired power, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co. sees an opportunity to restart a renaissance that was promised a decade ago but has fizzled.
“Here is the issue that came out loud and clear from his speech: there is going to start to be a penalty on carbon,” Mr. Roderick said in an interview. “Any time you hear those words, that is an important thing for nuclear. If you want a renewable program to operate properly, you have to have base-load nuclear.”
But the industry faces an uncertain future, despite an emissions advantage over fossil fuels like coal and gas.
In the U.S. and Canada, the nuclear industry is confronting the shale gas boom. Low-cost natural gas has not only replaced coal-fired power in North America, but as utilities close aging nuclear plants or delay construction of new ones, natural gas has become part of the discussion. With the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant still in the public’s mind, and the issue of how to permanently dispose of highly radioactive waste still unresolved, the industry faces the twin challenge of persuading the public that nuclear power is both safe and economical.
The Westinghouse CEO took the reins last September and was in Toronto this week to promote his company’s bid to sell two of its new-generation AP1000 reactors to Ontario. Westinghouse is competing against Candu Energy Inc., the former Crown-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. unit that was sold for a pittance – $15-million – by the Conservative government to SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. two years ago.
While the Candu company has faltered without a sale in 20 years, Westinghouse – owned by Japan’s Toshiba Corp. – continues to sell and build reactors, with 16 units either under construction or about to start, including four in United States and 12 in China. In fact, the $5-billion (U.S.) company had its best sales year ever last year, Mr. Roderick said.
“While it’s not runaway growth, we’ve continued to be able to grow,” he said.
Globally, the nuclear industry’s fortunes have been mixed. In fast-growing Asia, China and India continue to build as they look for emissions-free electricity to power their populations into the middle class, while in Germany and Japan, plants have been shuttered and governments are not approving planned new reactors in reaction to Fukushima.
In the United States, the much-hyped renaissance has stalled. The federal regulator has received applications for 24 new reactors, but few are currently proceeding. Duke Energy recently scrapped plans for two of the six reactors while NRG Energy cancelled two reactors in Texas in 2011, saying they couldn’t compete with gas. California recently announced it will not refurbish its aging San Onofre plant, near San Diego.
Mr. Roderick plays down the threat from natural gas, blaming the economic downturn and tepid recovery for the lack of investment in new reactors. Utilities would be unwise to rely too heavily on natural gas, he said, noting historical price volatility and plans for massive increases in exports and domestic use that would drive up gas prices.
But nuclear is still politically challenged in the U.S.
In his speech this week, Mr. Obama gave only passing reference to nuclear expansion, which is unpopular with his environmentalist supporters. Instead, he laid out a three-point plan that relies on tougher regulation of coal plants and the abundance of low-cost gas; the expansion of renewable power, and greater energy efficiency.
The Westinghouse chief believes nuclear will find its place in that scheme.