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Nuclear safety upgrades post-Fukushima cost $47 billion

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Nuclear safety upgrades post-Fukushima cost $47 billion

Five years after the accident at Fukushima I in Japan resulted in three reactor meltdowns, the global nuclear industry is spending $47 billion on safety enhancements mandated after the accident revealed weaknesses in plant protection from earthquakes and flooding. This is according to a Platts review put together by Steven Dolley in DC, Benjamin Leveau in London, Yuzo Yamaguchi from Tokyo, as well as Platts correspondents in Sweden, South Korea and China.

Reactions to the March 11, 2011 accident ranged from pauses in new nuclear construction programs in China to Germany's decision to gradually phase out nuclear generation.

But in the majority of countries with nuclear power, plans for new reactors have been scaled back, not just because of the Fukushima I accident but for economic reasons, as competing sources of power become less expensive, renewable energy grows in popularity and slow economic growth curbs demand.

Global nuclear regulators carried out reviews of the accident, and in most countries nuclear plant operators were required to install backup sources of electric power and cooling water along with additional protection from earthquakes and flooding. A record-setting earthquake triggered a tsunami that swamped backup emergency power generators and disabled on-site power distribution systems at Fukushima I, leading to a complete loss of cooling.

Those safety improvements have come at a high cost.

A Platts review found that in nine of the 13 countries with the largest nuclear fleets, costs to comply with post-Fukushima requirements will total more than $40 billion, mostly before 2020. Those countries accounted for 289, or two-thirds, of the power reactors in operation worldwide.

The median of the costs was $46.9 million/reactor.

If the remaining reactors not covered in the Platts survey spent the median amount to meet post-Fukushima regulatory requirements, the global cost to make post-Fukushima enhancements would be $47.2 billion.

Post-Fukushima nuclear safety costs through 2020

The greatest cost per country was in Japan, where operators may spend $640 million per reactor to enhance safety.

The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency released a five-year status report on the Fukushima I accident, concluding that actions implemented by member countries had improved the overall safety of the world's nuclear fleet, but that enhancing safety remains "a long-term process."

NEA Director General William Magwood said February 29 he believes the addition of portable power sources and sources of cooling is one of the most important improvements resulting from the Fukushima I accident. Validating the safety culture and independence of a country's nuclear regulatory regime is another element that Magwood said is important.

While Magwood said he recognized member countries had responded differently to the Fukushima I accident, he said he had been "struck by the commonality" in the response to the accident.

In the US, Nuclear Regulatory Commission members in 2012 ordered power reactor operators to enhance their ability to mitigate severe accidents. The US nuclear industry has estimated more than $4 billion, or about $40 million/reactor, will be spent by 2017 or 2018 to meet the requirements.

"The industry has managed its response to Fukushima while avoiding costly new requirements that would have provided little benefit," said Marvin Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, in New York February 11.

Anti-nuclear groups have said the regulatory and industry response following the Fukushima I accident has been insufficient. Regulators in the US have "capitulated" to industry by failing to order vent filters, the group Beyond Nuclear said in a March 10 statement.

Measures to protect nuclear plants from earthquakes and flooding have left unaddressed vulnerabilities in areas such as plant security, the group said.

The biggest problem facing US nuclear plant operators recently has been economic. Low natural gas prices and an abundance of cheap renewable electricity in some markets have created financial problems for nuclear plants in competitive electricity markets. Entergy in late 2015 said it would permanently shut two stations, the 849 MW FitzPatrick in New York state and 728 MW Pilgrim in Massachusetts.

Japan's nuclear reactors were all shut following the Fukushima I accident, and only two have met regulatory requirements and restarted.

The country's nuclear industry has budgeted about Yen 3.1 trillion ($27.5 billion) for earthquake and tsunami protection following the accident.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Japanese nuclear regulator, said March 23 that Japanese reactors have to be protected from greater earthquake or tsunami risks than those in most other countries. "There have been few big earthquakes or tsunami in Europe, unlike in Japan."

Power companies in Japan are willing to spend billions of dollars on reactor upgrades because they expect the investments will help them reduce substantial costs spent on replacement fossil fuels. Restarting the two Takahama reactors, for example, could save about Yen 10 billion/month for Kansai Electric Power Co., a company spokesman said March 22.

For Germany, the Fukushima I accident was the catalyst for a government decision to permanently shut the country's nuclear reactors.

In April 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government was moving to phase out nuclear power in favor of renewables. After the accident, the government ordered that the country's seven oldest units be shut permanently and set a schedule for nine remaining units to shut by 2022.

The phase-out decision, which parliament confirmed, sparked a number of lawsuits by German nuclear utilities that are still pending.

Because of the broad German political consensus on shutting nuclear power, politicians have said there is no reversing the phase-out decision.

"The nuclear phase-out decision will not be reversed as there is no serious political party favoring nuclear power," Claudia Kemfert, a professor of energy economics at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said.

Despite the Fukushima I accident, the political consensus in favor of nuclear energy and the UK's new nuclear plant construction program remains.

Tim Yeo, who was an environment and energy minister in the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major in the mid-1990s, said March 14 he attributes this to a combination of bipartisan support for nuclear power and a robust and the UK regulator's 2011 report concluding there was no inherent weakness in the regulation of UK nuclear stations.

France ratified last year a law that aims to change the country's energy mix, reducing the share of nuclear energy in electricity production to 50% from 75% and promoting renewable energy use in its place. But the practical steps to reduce nuclear power's share of generation have yet to be discussed.

State utility EDF estimated in late 2011 that it would cost Eur11 billion to 2033 to implement the safety measures that the country's nuclear safety authority, ASN, recommends. The post-Fukushima measures were divided in phases, with the first two phases costing an estimated Eur4.5 billion to 2020.

South Korea will spend a total of Won 1.1 trillion ($930 million) to carry out post-Fukushima measures from 2011 to 2017, Kim Tae-Seok, a senior spokesman for the country's state-run nuclear power operator, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, or KHNP, said March 15.

The political and economic impact of the accident in South Korea include larger protests by residents against plans to build new reactors, which has forced the government to offer larger economic aid packages to win support in those communities.

Following the Fukushima I accident, China's government slowed the approval process for planned units and suspended approvals for the start of construction of any new plants, Xu Dazhe, the chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority, said at a briefing January 27.

The country resumed new nuclear plant construction approvals in 2015, with the start of work at Hongyanhe-5.