According to the Wall Street Journal, after decades of safety concerns, Western nations are betting big on nuclear power, but they’ve lost their reactor-building expertise.
Governments want carbon-free nuclear energy to combat climate change and reduce Russian oil and gas dependence. The U.S., France, and China support a new generation of safer, easier-to-build reactors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sped up the process.
Such ambitions are difficult in the West. After shunning nuclear energy for years, the nations that created the nuclear age lack managers and skilled workers with reactor-building experience. A handful of U.S. and European plants are years late and billions over budget. The projects bankrupted companies and exposed U.S. and European nuclear engineering weaknesses.
In France, a cutting-edge reactor at the Flamanville nuclear plant was expected to boost energy independence and produce nearly zero greenhouse gases.
2012 was the deadline for the reactor. Welders are still fixing mistakes discovered seven years ago, using soldering irons and robots to repair more than 100 substandard welds in the reactor’s cooling system.
Julien Collet, deputy director of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority, said quality was low.
Georgia Power is building two nuclear reactors, the first in more than 30 years. The project is late and over budget. Will Salters, a union official working on the Vogtle plant in Burke County, Ga., said they had to train welders and other workers to be nuclear workers. “We hardly had them in the country. All the ones we had were either retired or passed away. ”
After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the West stopped building new reactors. Antinuclear sentiment, including waste storage safety concerns, fueled environmental movements.
Fukushima’s 2011 meltdowns pushed nations away from nuclear power. The U.S. tightened regulations, and Germany will shut down its reactors this year.
These concerns are now secondary to slowing climate change. The International Energy Agency says global nuclear power capacity must double by 2050 for the world to reach net zero, where greenhouse gas emissions are so low they can be offset by forests and other natural means. Scientists say net zero is essential to meeting the Paris climate accord, which calls for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures.
The U.K., Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands have all announced plans to build new reactors. France, which generates 70% of its electricity from nuclear plants, is training thousands of workers in nuclear engineering and construction as part of a plan to build 14 new full-size reactors and other smaller ones.
France shut down 12 reactors due to unexpected piping corrosion, leading the country to rely more on gas-fired electricity just as Russia cut gas to Europe. French officials race to find the problem before winter.
Last year’s infrastructure law authorized $3.2 billion for advanced nuclear plants. Bill Gates’ TerraPower proposes a new type of reactor that would be easier to build because it wouldn’t operate at high pressures.
Other U.S. and European companies propose building small modular reactors to cut costs. Proponents say they’ll be easier to build because they can be assembled in factories, avoiding some of the manufacturing problems of larger on-site reactors.
New reactor designs use uranium more efficiently, reducing waste.
Regulators haven’t approved these advanced reactor designs. They will also require a large number of skilled nuclear workers and the development of a new type of nuclear fuel, high-assay low-enriched uranium.
Supply-chain issues are TerraPower’s biggest risk, said spokesman Jeff Navin. Welders, general laborers are needed. Some will need training. That’s worrying.”
A decline in the cost of renewable energy has raised questions about nuclear power. Supply-chain issues have slowed the deployment of batteries that store electricity when wind and sun are scarce.
Why not develop safer, cheaper, and faster-to-build renewable energy? Mark Jacobson, a Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor, said it’s illogical. “Storage adds cost, but the cost is trivial relative to new nuclear.”
South Carolina and Georgia decided in 2008 to build Westinghouse AP1000 reactors for the Vogtle plant. Westinghouse said the reactor is safer because gravity and other natural forces will cool the core in an accident. Earlier reactors had more valves, pipes, and pumps.
Georgia Power ordered two reactors for the Vogtle plant from South Carolina. Westinghouse and Shaw Group Inc. decided to forge reactor pieces in a factory and assemble them on site to reduce costs and improve quality.
The manufacturing would take place at a Shaw factory in Lake Charles, La. Christopher Hartz, Shaw’s nuclear division’s quality control manager, said many workers lacked nuclear welding experience and struggled to meet industry standards.
Mr. Hartz said the first welded module pieces resembled pretzels.
Mr. Hartz led V.C. Summer and Vogtle executives to audit the plant in 2010. They found quality had declined and voted to stop work, he said. Mr. Hartz said a plant manager threw a letter opener at him after he told him. Hartz later resigned.
Regulators and union officials said the plant’s final Vogtle shipments were poorly made.
Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in 2017 due to cost overruns at Vogtle and V.C. Summer. South Carolina utilities Santee Cooper and Scana Corp. canceled the V.C. Summer reactors later that year.
Georgia Power and Southern Co. built two Vogtle reactors. The first is expected to launch in the first quarter of 2019.
Georgia Power knew building the first new nuclear units in the U.S. in 30 years would be difficult.
Areva SA, France’s state-controlled nuclear engineering company, led the development of the Flamanville reactor. The European Pressurized Reactor was designed to use uranium fuel more efficiently and to ease public fears about nuclear power, including a system to cool the molten core with water if it escaped the reactor vessel.
State-owned EDF SA ordered Flamanville in 2004. A consortium of Finnish companies ordered the reactor to be built in Olkiluoto, western Finland, a year earlier.
Tapani Virolainen, deputy director of Finland’s nuclear safety authority, said construction problems began quickly. The plant’s new 10-foot-thick concrete slab wasn’t watertight. The containment structure’s airtight metallic lining was improperly welded.
Mr. Virolainen said a Japanese consortium forged the plant’s 460-ton reactor vessel.
The Finnish reactor started producing electricity in March, 13 years late. A Finnish consortium spent more than €5.7 billion on the reactor, which was initially estimated to cost €3 billion. Areva lost €5.5 billion.
France’s reactor was supposed to start producing electricity in 2012. Subcontractors found problems with cooling system welds in 2015. EDF took 112 years to realize the problem was serious enough to notify France’s nuclear safety regulator, which found 110 bad welds.
Regulators and EDF executives said some problem welds were due to subcontractors not following design specs. Officials and EDF executives say others were botched by inexperienced welders.
EDF pushed back the date for loading fuel into the Flamanville reactor to 2023. It cost €12.7 billion, nearly four times the original estimate.
Areva and the French government paid for Finland and France’s cost overruns. In 2016, as the company reeled from losses, the French government restructured it and took over its reactor construction business.
In 2016, EDF’s management pushed ahead with an even bigger project: building two reactors at Hinkley Point for £18 billion ($22.5 billion).
Nonprofit executive Gerard Magnin resigned over the decision to invest more in nuclear energy. “Today’s nuclear decisions risk technical and economic obsolescence due to the collapse of renewable energy costs,” Magnin said.
Three years later, EDF raised the project’s cost estimate to between £21.5 and £22.5 billion, saying excavations revealed the site’s foundations were less stable than expected and needed reinforcement.
In May, EDF raised the price tag to £26-£27 billion and delayed the startup date to June 2027. It warned of delays.