26 premature nuclear reactor shutdowns

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Published on 31/07/2020

Climate vandalism on a global scale

The premature shutdown of the two reactors at the Fessenheim nuclear power plant is a political act, unrelated to the quality or performance of their operation, of the plant, of the site, of the surrounding region, carried out against the will of its inhabitants. It came from outside, it “fell on them,” “from above,” so to speak.

It is important to repeat that.

Yes, this decision was born directly from a “little negotiation” during an electoral campaign. But it is not an isolated act of national policy specific to the French context stemming from a completely sovereign decision of the French people. It is part of a long-standing political movement that continues to unfold on a global scale. Bad for the climate, bad for the environment, bad for the people of the planet.

This second post-Fessenheim-shutdown newsletter completes the panorama of the actions the Voices have taken to ensure that this closure is understood as far as is possible by all for what it is: an act of political vandalism. You will find below the elements that allowed us to put it into a broader perspective, as well as the photo-montages we composed and sent to EDF management – asking them kindly to consider adopting the idea for the power plants of the EDF nuclear fleet – and of course to the employees of the Fessenheim plant as well.

We wish you a good read.

on behalf of the Voices

Important information:

The Stand Up for Nuclear 2020 event organized in Paris by the Voices will take place on Sunday September 27 (instead of September 20 as previously announced).

The Voices are taking up their summer quarters for a few weeks. We look forward to seeing you again at the start of the school year, which promises to be full of news and debates around French and European economic recovery plans, climate policies and future energy policy.

And on September 27, mobilize for the climate, mobilize for nuclear. Come join us at Stand Up for Nuclear in Paris.

Meanwhile, have a good vacation !!

From left to right:
Climat Hero – Tool of energy solidarity – Generator of low-carbon electricity

Florent Le Goux

Geological engineer

Editorial coordinator – the Voices

Jadwiga Najder

Nuclear engineer

Head of international development – the Voices

I. Rushing headlong into a crisis for low-carbon energy

Minus 26 reactors in only three years

26 reactors, more than 25 GW of low-carbon baseload power, partly dispatchable. Enough to supply 100% carbon-free electricity to a country like Australia during the southern winter, excluding during peak demand. This is what is disappearing, in the three years from 2019 to 2022, under the pressure of anti-nuclear influence groups and due to the neglect or even hostility of public policies(1). Even though 85% of the energy consumed in the world still comes from coal, oil and gas(2).

Graphic design: Tanguy Firinga

… After 10 years of gradual decline in the number of reactors

As of July 2020, there are 439 reactors in operation in 31 countries, representing a total capacity of around 390 GW, and producing around 10% of the world’s electricity. Over the past ten years, the number of final reactor shutdowns (64, including 15 since 2019) has exceeded that of start-ups (60), even if the larger size of the new units has allowed a slight increase in total installed capacity. The countries most affected by the closures are Japan (25), Germany (11), and the United States (10), but nine other countries have also experienced final shutdowns. Most of these 64 closures are the result of biased or even distorted political or economic decisions. They would not have happened in a world that cares seriously about the climate future, and where the economic and social benefits of these reactors are assessed on systemic and factual bases.

The existing global nuclear fleet potentially halved in twenty years

This time we’re talking about a risk, not a fact, but it’s a very real risk. The Uranium Exchange Company (UxC) * counts 86 other reactors, representing 66 GW of installed capacity, whose closure is announced or which risk closure by 2030. Moreover, given that two-thirds of the fleet currently in operation were built before 1990, the accentuation of the trend to exogenously shorten the average operating life of existing units will automatically lead to a rapid decline in nuclear energy on a global scale. Considering an average lifespan reduced even to 50 years for current reactors, added to the closures already enacted or foreseen, half of the world’s installed capacity would disappear by 2036.

*Uranium Exchange Company (UxC): US-based uranium broker/trader

Dozens of “non-constructions”

Much like the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the Fukushima accident, with the media frenzy that followed, nipped a number of nuclear projects around the world in the bud.

In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency counted at least 50 countries planning to introduce nuclear power, of which 12 were actively planning power plant construction programs. China expected a 5-fold increase in its installed capacity by 2020, Russia expected to double its capacity by building 26 big reactors and 10 smaller ones before 2022. India expected an 8-fold increase in its nuclear capacity by the same date.

The slowdown in the global economy after 2008 put a chill on many projects, but in 2010 the IAEA still projected(3) up to 803 GW of nuclear capacity worldwide in 2030 and 1415 GW in 2050.

By 2019, that forecast had declined to 715 GW in 2050(4) (high) and even 371 GW (low) – a decline from today’s 389 GW.

“Fukushima”, or rather its fantasy version, left its mark: among the new “active” countries in 2008 cited by the IAEA, only Turkey actually started a project, which is going slowly. Japan and Italy halted ambitious programs right after the Tohoku earthquake. In Sweden, a project for two new reactors fell victim to the advent of a hostile government in 2014. Russia has commissioned only five large reactors and two small ones. Only China was able to meet its 2008 target, despite a one-year suspension in new construction starts in response to the nuclear accident in Japan.

From left to right:
Tool of national energy independence – My electricity doesn’t pollute the air – Climate hero

II. Why do we speak of early or premature closure?

Political injunction

Movements and organizations opposing nuclear power have been recognized and established in influential circles and in the imagination of public opinion, particularly in the West, since the 1970s, benefiting from significant resources and a large audience. Whether in countries already equipped with nuclear reactors, or in those that could potentially install them, many politicians are rightly afraid of the negative repercussions on their image and on the programs they want to implement of the bad publicity that a decision in favor of nuclear could bring them. To submit to this explicit or tacit pressure to avoid a confrontation where they have little to gain and much to lose then becomes, for these decision-makers, the result of a rational calculation that gives anti-nuclear sentiment a disproportionate weight in the decisions of public policy in relation to its real hold on opinion.

The closures that we classify in this category have borne the brunt of this type of arbitration without any factual and substantiated technical or economic justification.

Targeted deterioration of the economic context

When economic criteria are invoked to justify the shutdown of certain reactors, they look more like short-term excuses.

When such decisions are indeed taken by the operator and its shareholders, the question becomes in effect: is there something in the competitive and regulatory environment of these reactors that penalizes their economic profitability to the point that their operations may be affected, and that it becomes preferable for the operator to lose his investment rather than continue to operate it?

If that is the case, why have the public authorities for whom environment and climate are part of the stated public policy objectives chosen to promote, or not to penalize, power plants that are more polluting (which would be more expensive if they were taxed to reflect the true level of their health and environmental impacts) or less effective in reducing CO2 emissions??

Must operators also artificially compensate for the “cost of fear” of nuclear power (excessive expenditure on safety, or interest rates inflated in relation to the objective reality of the risk during operation) – fear cultivated by the same groups of opponents? This further adds to the lack of competitiveness caused by regulatory mechanisms that discriminate between energies, in particular with regard to gas in the United States, Belgium, and soon throughout Europe(5).

These are the questions we have tried to answer to justify the classification of certain closures in the category “economic closure induced by the actions of movements opposed to nuclear power and/or due to neglect by public policies for fighting global warming.”

Artificial shortening of operating lifetime

These closures are “early” because they are motivated by political or economic reasons. None of the reactors we selected would have been shut down for reasons other than because they had reached the end of their useful life. They could all have seen their operations continue in an optimal performance and safety context.

The Fessenheim nuclear power plant was considered exemplary by French nuclear regulatory authority ASN in terms of safety(6), until the weeks preceding its final shutdown(7), and was one of the most efficient in the French fleet.

The nuclear reactors still operational in Germany are in perfect working order and are among the most efficient in the world(8). Yet Fessenheim was stopped, and the last German reactors are on borrowed time. Those who work in the nuclear industry know these realities, but it is always worth recalling them.

In the United States, the Turkey Point and Peach Bottom power plants were recently licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate for up to 80 years. Others are expected to follow suit. Most operating plants have already obtained licenses to operate for 60 years.

From left to right:
Here, generation of low-carbon electricity – Every day. Day and night. In all kinds of weather.

III. Why is this decline (very) bad news for the planet?

Climate impact

The premature shutdown of nuclear reactors leads to increased use of fossil fuels. This fact is illustrated by examining the impact of the final shutdown, at the end of April 2020, of reactor number 2 at the Indian Point power plant, which supplied New York with low-carbon electricity.

The graph below shows the electricity mix in New York State before and after this shutdown, over equivalent weeks in terms of electricity consumption and production.

The low-carbon nuclear power that was eliminated (12 gCO2/kWh) has been replaced, almost megawatt for megawatt, by gas generation (490 gCO2/kWh).

Source for data: New York Independent System Operator (NYISO)
Source for carbon intensity: IPCC

The International Energy Agency warns, with increasing emphasis, of the need to keep existing nuclear power plants in operation as long as their condition is assessed positively by safety authorities, particularly in Europe, if we are to have a chance to meet international climate commitments(9).

Environmental impact

These premature shutdowns, which are actually forced obsolescence, pure and simple waste, are in fact anti-environment. Unlike anything that replaces them to ensure the corresponding electricity supply, these operational reactors, built long ago, require very little additional material, take up little space, and their operation has negligible impact on the biosphere.

The installation of extensive new intermittent capacities (wind turbines and solar panels) can make it possible to partially reduce the use of the fossil units that back them up – provided there is wind or sun – but is not able to replace it entirely, unlike nuclear or hydroelectric power.

From left to right:
Generator of low-carbon electricity – Preserving the climate for more than 40 years – Climate hero

IV. “Never again”? Go past the slogan and into action

Act economically on the basis of technical arguments

Nuclear power plants preserve the climate. Ambitious policies to cut CO2 emissions preserve nuclear power plants.

The Beaver Valley power plant in Pennsylvania, reference plant for Fessenheim which was built under an American license, has an operating license for up to 60 years (perhaps soon 80) whereas its French version was stopped after 42 years of operation. Threatened with economic closure by very low natural gas prices in the United States, Beaver Valley was finally granted a stay, thanks only to … a plan to increase taxes on CO2 emissions.

What changed in Pennsylvania was the decision to join a program to limit and then gradually reduce CO2 emissions from the electricity sector. This requires coal, gas and fuel oil power stations to pay a fee for their carbon emissions.

This plan is critical to preserving Pennsylvania’s remaining nuclear power plants, which do not emit CO2 when generating electricity, but face punishing competition from power plants running on low-cost natural gas.


Act on the political and media levels

Pro-nuclear ecological mobilization counts.

The international echo (https://www.linkedin.com/posts/voix-du-nucleaire_pro-nuclear-energy-protesters-rally-against-activity-6684802601483087874-DdYY)

received by our little gathering in front of the Paris headquarters of Greenpeace France during the final drop in load of Fessenheim unit 2 is an indicator: the existence of, and the (ostentatious) manifestation of, a civil society whose stated aim is to defend the environment and which is pro-nuclear arouses new curiosity about this energy source, sows a seed of doubt about yesterday’s givens concerning nuclear power, and engenders a favorable attitude towards its possible role today and tomorrow.

“Save the planet! Save the nuclear power plants!”

While there is still a long way to go, this visibility in the media allows one important thing: to put nuclear power back into its rightful place in the debate, to give this “elephant in the room” that is nuclear power a voice again in discussions about French, European and world policies and the fight against global warming and to give it, finally, the opportunity to put forward its arguments.

Act at grass-roots, on a personal level…

When nuclear is successfully reintroduced into a frank and factual debate, then the (very) little-known facts to the public can begin to gain a foothold and speak for themselves. Citizens therefore have the means to question the certainties that have been – and still are – served up to them, so as to reappropriate their understanding of these subjects and thereby the capacity to decide for themselves and in their own interest.

Everyone can participate in his or her own way in rehabilitating these facts, not to convince their interlocutors to become pro-nuclear, but to say that an opinion that so impacts the collective future is worth being based on more than feelings.

… And on the… industry level

In the same way, operators can participate, with the inestimable means at their disposal, and with panache, in this movement to reconquer the facts. Imagine that the objective virtues, the benefits that nuclear power plants bring to society, were visible to everyone, painted in giant letters on reactor buildings, on cooling towers.

Imagine how this could change the way they are seen, allowing us to no longer see these plants just for the piles of concrete and metal that they are, but also for what they do, and that currently has no equivalent in the service of humanity and the planet.

This is the meaning we wanted to give to the retouched photos of the Fessenheim power plant that illustrate this newsletter.

For the other reactors in operation, it is not yet too late.

Here, generation of the most low-carbon electricity in France – Every day. Day and night. In all kinds of weather.

Photo editing: Julie Denegre

(1) Graphic sources :

(2) https://4thgeneration.energy/review-of-bp-annual-energy-report/

(3) Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050 , IAEA, 2010

(4) Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050 , IAEA, 2019

(5) https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/meps-ban-nuclear-from-green-transition-fund-leave-loophole

(6) Rapport de l’ASN sur l’état de la sûreté nucléaire et de la radioprotection en France en 2019

(7) https://www.dna.fr/environnement/2020/06/17/la-centrale-de-fessenheim-va-s-arreter-sur-de-bonnes-bases

(8) WNA reactors database 2019

(9) https://www.iea.org/reports/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-system