Iran and the Nuclear Eventide Home Tour

Some of you asked for something completely different.

Iran proudly switched on its first civilian nuclear reactor at Busheyr in 2011. It justifies its nuclear enrichment programme as needed for the development of civilian nuclear power. The USA, Israel, Europe and the IAEA do not believe this. Iran has turned down offers from Europe and Russia to guarantee supplies of reactor fuel and in 2010 announced it had achieved enrichment up to 20%, allegedly for a special reactor to manufacture medical radioisotopes, but well above the typical 2-3% enrichment of power reactor fuel. To the outside world, the objective of Iran’s enrichment programme must plainly be to allow to build atomic weapons if it chooses. I’ll go along with the CW.

But that’s not how the Iranian public sees it. According to Wikipedia:

Interviews and surveys show that the majority of Iranians in all groups favor their country’s nuclear program. Polls in 2008 showed that the vast majority of Iranians want their country to develop nuclear energy, and 90% of Iranians believe it is important (including 81% very important) for Iran “to have a full fuel cycle nuclear program.”

Polls on nuclear weapons give more mixed signals. Remember that officially, for both domestic and foreign consumption, the government claims not to be developing them. So a very large number of Iranians believe their government’s story that the enrichment is to develop civilian nuclear power. Their opinions matter in this strange constitutional theocracy: Ahmadinejad was re-elected President in 2009, with plenty of irregularities but a convincingly large majority. Iran is far from North Korea.

It’s time to open Iranian eyes to the hopelessly geriatric state of nuclear power in the world.
One, the economics of nuclear power have steadily been getting worse. Reactor construction costs keep going up, not down. This partly because construction times have lengthened. From the well-informed anti-nuclear World Nuclear Report:

Worldwide, it took an average of 13.8 years to build the seven units started up in 2011 and 9.5 years for the five reactors that began operating in 2010. The reactors switched on in 2011 took an average of 13.8 years to build.

Meanwhile, both fossil energy (combined-cycle gas turbines) and renewables have been making giant strides in cutting costs, making the economic and environmental case for nuclear power hopeless. (There only remains the thin environmental argument that you need some zero-carbon reserve capacity to cover the intermittency of massive amounts of wind and solar. However, the technical alternatives are coming along nicely – hot salt and compressed air storage, and geothermal -, with negligible risks.)

Two, the safety issues have not been solved. Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) were exceptional events, but they were also very serious, and each left deep scars on the population and on élites. Any policymaker responsible for building a nuclear reactor is putting his career on the line. Add that public opposition has largely prevented long-term solutions to high-level waste disposal. In the US, this has meant leaving most of it on the surface in cooling ponds near reactors, about the riskiest system imaginable short of tipping it into the nearest river.

The result of these two factors can be seen in the ageing reactor park. A chart of power reactor starts, also from World Nuclear Report:

The peak year for reactor construction starts was 1978, 34 years ago. The mean age of operating reactors is 27 years (ibid, Figure 6). They have a 40-year design life, but that doesn’t mean much. With old equipment, what usually happens is that the inspections and refits get more frequent and expensive, until they are no longer worth it and the machine is scrapped. The industry is extending the lives of reactors, but the same logic applies. An increasing number of old reactors reach the end of their economic life every year. As a result, since 2000 the industry has globally been switching off more reactors than it has switched on, and net operating capacity has plateaued (ibid, Figure 3). Its demography is that of Italy not Iran.

What are the prospects of a “nuclear renaissance”? The mini-boom that started around 2006 was stopped in its tracks by Fukushima. No new reactor has been started since. Even China froze all its reactor construction sites for a safety review that lasted 15 months, which looks the real thing not cosmetic.

The corporate lobby for the industry is shrinking too. ABB was the first of the industrial heavyweights to head for the door in 2000. Following the German govenment’s decision to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power, Siemens quit the nuclear business last year. GE has put its nuclear interests into a joint venture with Hitachi – quite unlike its booming wind business. Toshiba took over the Westinghouse nuclear business in 2005 from its British owner BNFL. The French Areva soldiers on – but is developing an insurance sideline in concentrating solar power. So there are now just three power reactor design teams in the OECD: two Japanese and one French, based in countries where political support for nuclear power is ebbing.

Nuclear boosters have to rely on India and China. China has resumed work on its 15 reactors under construction, but the tea-leaves do not suggest a rosy future. Significantly, no new nuclear development plan has been released. There seems to have been a struggle within the oligarchy (with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the pro-nuclear, anti-renewables side – odd for a geophysicist), but targets for solar and wind get revised upwards, not for nuclear. The current targets (government page in Chinese, readable with Google Translate), are for 100 GW of wind capacity by 2016, 200 GW by 2020; 21 GW of solar by 2015, 50 GW by 2020; biomass 13 GW by 2015, 30 GW by 2020. For nuclear, the target is 40GW by 2015 – i.e. completing all the current reactors under construction. For 2020, the only target is 1GW of advanced capacity, that is one Chinese-designed reactor (the current designs have so much foreign IP they can’t be exported) .

I read this as saying the Chinese nuclear industry has been put on notice. If they screw up on the current construction, then they are chop suey. And they probably will, going by international experience. The safety regulators almost certainly have the upper hand and will not allow short cuts – a Chinese Fukushima would threaten the régime. Meanwhile, the Chinese solar and wind industries seem quite capable of rolling out any target you like: it’s just mass production of straightforward devices, with at worst constant returns to scale.

I haven’t dug into India, but in a democracy the political pressures for quick results after the recent giant power cut affecting 600 million Indians work even more strongly against nuclear reactors. India has 7 under construction; I bet this won’t increase, not with wind and solar entrepreneurs credibly promising capacity in months, not years (see this video of a turbine being erected in four days, and this record for solar). Solar microgrids also fit perfectly into a Gandhian story of village self sufficiency.

My idea? A group of post- and non-nuclear countries should arrange for Iranian journalists a nice free study tour of the worldwide nuclear eventide home. By post-nuclear, I mean countries that have firmly decided to phase out nuclear power and not replace existing plants when they are shut down: Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland. Non-nuclear are those that have closed down all their reactors, or have a firm policy not to start: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Malaysia, Norway and others.

The junket should take in:

If this is propaganda, it’s still fair. I don’t mind if the journalists are also exposed to the tired jam-tomorrow hype of the elderly flacks for the nuclear industry. I reckon they are quite bright enough to draw the conclusion that nuclear power is about as modern as steam locomotives, jukeboxes, tailfins on cars, and Elvis Presley; and to start doubting their government’s line on uranium enrichment.

The junket should throw in a renewables tour. Iran is a large country, with sunny deserts for solar and wind, high mountains for hydro, tectonic zones for geothermal, and a reasonably educated workforce quite capable of deploying renewable energy sources on a large scale. It already has almost as much renewable capacity installed as Britain (mostly hydro). All it needs is for the green transition to catch the public imagination.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]