Off the west coast of Finland on a thickly wooded island, Europe’s most advanced nuclear reactor is taking shape. The reactor, being built by France’s Areva for its Finnish customer, the utility TVO, is western Europe’s latest generation, pressurized water reactor.
However, at more than €2.6-billion ($3.54-billion) over budget and five years late, the project is hardly the best poster child for Europe’s ambitions at a time when atomic power is under scrutiny following the crisis in Japan in the spring.
Some ten months after the devastating events at Japan’s Fukushima plant, the nuclear industry is still coming to terms with the repercussions.
The accident has sparked new doubts about the safety risks associated with nuclear energy, raising questions about its role in the global energy mix as governments re-examine their plans for new plants and introduce stringent new safety tests.
In Europe, the German government’s decision to bring forward its phase-out of nuclear power from 2034 to 2022 has been among the most radical responses so far and has already prompted its leading utilities, RWE and Eon, to warn of additional costs.
Switzerland has said it will build no new plants nor extend the lifetime of existing ones.
In the UK, meanwhile, while reviewing its safety regulations, the government has insisted it will continue with its ambitious program to build eight new reactors by 2025.
In China, which until the accident was leading the nuclear “renaissance” with 27 reactors under way and 51 planned, the government immediately suspended approvals for new plants but has not stopped construction.
Even before Fukushima, new construction was overwhelmingly centred in non-OECD countries. The accident has had an even more “polarizing effect” on countries, says Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, former chairwoman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and a nuclear consultant.
“Fukushima is having a resounding effect in those countries where they wanted to hear it. Countries that never wanted to pursue nuclear power or who came at it reluctantly are using the event as a way to back out gracefully,” she says, citing Germany and Switzerland among examples.
Even as some countries continue to progress their plans, the resultant delays from additional safety checks, coupled with higher costs, has already prompted changes in estimates of the role nuclear power will play in the global energy mix.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) earlier this month cut its forecast for nuclear power’s share of total primary energy demand for 2035 from 8 per cent to 7 per cent as a result of Fukushima. The agency also warned of higher construction costs as a result of the uncertainties.
About 432 nuclear reactors are in operation today around the world, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry grouping. Another 63 are under construction and 502 more are planned or proposed, creating a market that could be worth thousands of billions of dollars over the coming decades.
In the aftermath of Fukushima, those hopes still remain alive but have been drastically cut back. The industry knows it needs to regain the public’s trust. It cannot afford another accident.