Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Areva's difficulties and the nuclear illusion

Yesterday the chief editor of our party's journal asked me to write a paper about the financial troubles of Areva. I accepted, of course, and not only because I have become the in house peak oil specialist. Areva is no ordinary company. It is the nuclear arm of the French state, in charge with the building and the supplying of French nuclear plants. Even though it is technically a corporation, it is owned by the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique, a public agency whose director is appointed by the French President who has occasionally sold nuclear plants on its behalf.

Areva, supposedly the "jewel" of the French industry is in real troubles. Even though it sells more than ever, its benefits have plummeted and it has been forced to cancel a mining project in Canada. According to the "Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire", Areva needs 3 billions euros, mostly because of the costly failure the Olkiluoto EPR has proven to be. The Finnish third generation nuclear plant, which should have been put online this year has been delayed due to technical difficulties and costs are sky-rocketing – 5.4 billions instead of the original 3 billions. Moreover, South Africa has recently cancelled the building of 12 nuclear plants while the "sells" announced by the French presidency (4 plants in Italy and 2 in India) remain virtual – nobody know how they are going to be funded.

Areva is presently clamouring for public funds. It will probably get them, no matter how loud we, and others, protest. France, trapped as it is by its own nuclear strategy, simply cannot afford to lose the control of its uranium supply.

That is hardly the whole story, however. What this affair highlight is how problematic is nuclear power at the eve of catabolic collapse. A nuclear plant is very costly and takes a long time to build. Besides, it is of absolutely no use as long as it is not completed. The end result is that to launch a nuclear program you have to immobilize a lot of capital – human, natural and financial – without any hope of anything looking like a return of investment for quite a long time.

One of the consequences of the resource crisis – and of the catabolic collapse it is triggering – is that capital of any kind will become scarcer and scarcer. In fact, the whole thing is a giant capital purge which will end only when said capital will be back to sustainable level. This a problem for all energetic conversion programs, but far more so for nuclear ones, and we can bet that Areva won't be the only victim of this predicament. Add to the lack of capital, the lack of uranium reserve and the lack of electricity-using cars – problems the resource crisis will only make worse, one of the consequences of Areva's trouble has been the cancelling of a mine, remember – and it is not difficult to see any nuclear program large enough to matter is doomed to failure.

Areva's difficulties pose, however, another, often overlooked question : what will nuclear plants will become after the nuclear industry fails. In a number of countries, it may happen sooner than one thinks. We don't know whether we have passed peak uranium, but it is a fact that the world uranium production is insufficient to supply all existing plants – let alone the planned one. Recycled military uranium and plutonium has made up for the difference so far, but it can last only so long. There will be necessarily a point in the not so distant future when uranium supply will become a major limiting factor for the industry. Only those lucky enough to have uranium deposits on their territory – France is no longer on the list, by the way – or the military or political might to use uranium deposits located on somebody's else territory will remain supplied. Even those lucky few will, at some point, be forced to close their plants down, either because their reserve are exhausted or because they have become too old and too unreliable. Needless to say, the process of catabolic collapse will probably be too advanced at that point, for them to fund the building of new ones.

And then what ?

Dismantling a nuclear plant and disposing of the wastes are very costly operation. Will the impoverished societies of forty years from now be able to afford them ? One can seriously doubt it. In fact, in a situation of worsening energy and capital shortage, one can expect them to operate their ageing nuclear plants to very end – the way the Ukrainian government did with Chernobyl – then let them decay away.

The result, needless to say, won't be good for the neighbourhood, albeit not the way the doomers of the seventies envisioned it. Abandoned nuclear plants will leak but they will no more create radioactive wasteland than Chernobyl did. Nature will thrive around it as most animal will die of natural causes before radioactivity can make a difference. There will be problems, however, for K-selected species with a long life cycle.

And human are a K-selected species with a long life cycle.

Those who want to plan for the post-peak future, should therefore take into account the position of nuclear plants, both existing and planned, and keep in mind most are located near rivers, the waters of which carry radioactivity quite well.

This, by the way, can have interesting geopolitical consequences in countries such as France which are littered with nuclear plants.

The activists who, in the late seventies, have made sure no nuclear plant would ever be built in Brittany may have won their far descendants more than what they thought.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this enlightening article. It does explain why President Nicolas Sarkozy is doing such a busy globe-trotting sales trip on behalf of AREVA.
    Sadly, the environmental devastation to be left by the nuclear industry will affect not only the "First" world, but also the lands of those indigenous peoples now being cajoled, bribed, conned, or forced into hosting uranium mining
    Christina Macpherson