http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/business/energy-environment/29nuke.html?_r=1&sq=nuclear power plants&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=all
By JAMES KANTER
Published: May 28, 2009
OLKILUOTO, Finland — As the Obama administration tries to steer America toward cleaner sources of energy, it would do well to consider the cautionary tale of this new-generation nuclear reactor site.
After four years of construction and thousands of recorded defects and deficiencies, the price tag on the reactor in
The massive power plant under construction on muddy terrain on this Finnish island was supposed to be the showpiece of a nuclear renaissance. The most powerful reactor ever built, its modular design was supposed to make it faster and cheaper to build. And it was supposed to be safer, too.
But things have not gone as planned.
After four years of construction and thousands of defects and deficiencies, the reactor’s 3 billion euro price tag, about $4.2 billion, has climbed at least 50 percent. And while the reactor was originally meant to be completed this summer, Areva, the French company building it, and the utility that ordered it, are no longer willing to make certain predictions on when it will go online.
While the American nuclear industry has predicted clear sailing after its first plants are built, the problems in
A new fleet of reactors would be standardized down to “the carpeting and wallpaper,” as Michael J. Wallace, the chairman of UniStar Nuclear Energy — a joint venture between EDF Group and Constellation Energy, the Maryland-based utility — has said repeatedly.
In the end, he says, that standardization will lead to significant savings.
But early experience suggests these new reactors will be no easier or cheaper to build than the ones of a generation ago, when cost overruns — and then accidents at Three Mile Island and
“A number of U.S. companies have looked with trepidation on the situation in Finland and at the magnitude of the investment there,” said Paul L. Joskow, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a co-author of an influential report on the future of nuclear power in 2003. “The rollout of new nuclear reactors will be a good deal slower than a lot of people were assuming.”
For nuclear power to have a high impact on reducing greenhouse gases, an average of 12 reactors would have to be built worldwide each year until 2030, according to the Nuclear Energy Agency at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Right now, there are not even enough reactors under construction to replace those that are reaching the end of their lives.
And of the 45 reactors being built around the world, 22 have encountered construction delays, according to an analysis prepared this year for the German government by Mycle Schneider, an energy analyst and a critic of the nuclear industry. He added that nine do not have official start-up dates.
Most of the new construction is underway in countries like
By comparison, “the state has been all over the place in the
To streamline construction, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also not yet approved the so-called EPR design under construction in
This month, the United States Energy Department produced a short list of four reactor projects eligible for some loan guarantees. In the 2005 energy bill, Congress provided $18.5 billion, but the industry’s hope of winning an additional $50 billion worth of loan guarantees evaporated when that money was stripped from President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.
The industry has had more success in getting states to help raise money. This year, authorities permitted
But resistance is mounting. In April,
Areva, a conglomerate largely owned by the French state, is heir to that nation’s experience in building nuclear plants.
After designing an updated plant originally called the European Pressurized Reactor with German participation during the 1990s, the French had trouble selling it at home because of a saturated energy market as well as opposition from Green Party members in the then-coalition government.
So Areva turned to
Areva promised electricity from the reactor could be generated more cheaply than from natural gas plants. Areva also said its model would deliver 1,600 megawatts, or about 10 percent of Finnish power needs.
In 2001, the Finnish parliament narrowly approved construction of a reactor at Olkiluoto, an island on the
Serious problems first arose over the vast concrete base slab for the foundation of the reactor building, which the country’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority found too porous and prone to corrosion. Since then, the authority has blamed Areva for allowing inexperienced subcontractors to drill holes in the wrong places on a vast steel container that seals the reactor.
In December, the authority warned Anne Lauvergeon, the chief executive of Areva, that “the attitude or lack of professional knowledge of some persons” at Areva was holding up work on safety systems.
Today, the site still teems with 4,000 workmen on round-the-clock shifts. Banners from dozens of subcontractors around
Areva has acknowledged that the cost of a new reactor today would be as much as 6 billion euros, or $8 billion, double the price offered to the Finns. But Areva said it was not cutting any corners in
Areva announced a steep drop in earnings last year, which it blamed mostly on mounting losses from the project.
In addition, nuclear safety inspectors in
On top of such problems come the recession, weaker energy demand, tight credit and uncertainty over future policies, said Caren Byrd, an executive director of the global utility and power group at Morgan Stanley in New York.
“The warning lights now are flashing more brightly than just a year ago about the cost of new nuclear,” she said.
And Jouni Silvennoinen, the project manager at Olkiluoto, said, “We have had it easy here.” Olkiluoto is at least a geologically stable site. Earthquake risks in places like
Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from
A version of this article appeared in print on May 29, 2009, on page B1 of the