Japan’s exit from nuclear exports leaves the field open to Russia and China

The possible withdrawal of Japanese conglomerates from nuclear export projects in Britain and Turkey would leave the nuclear newbuild industry open to Russian and Chinese state-owned companies as Western private firms struggle to compete.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) has effectively abandoned their Sinop nuclear project in Turkey as cost estimates had nearly doubled to around USD $44 billion. The Sinop deal was signed in 2013 between Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan and Japan’s Shinzo Abe and had been too ambitious. The project, earmarked for a country with no nuclear tradition, would have been the first to use the untested Atmea reactor developed by MHI and France’s Areva. Chief Executive Shunichi Miyanaga said this month it was up to the Turkish and Japanese governments to decide on the project, adding that Turkey was examining a feasibility study MHI had submitted.

Hitachi is also considering whether to scrap its Horizon nuclear project in Britain as cost estimates had risen, while Toshiba liquidated its UK project this year. Horizon said it had been in talks with the UK government since June, when business minister Greg Clark said Britain may invest directly in the project, and nuclear cooperation will be on the agenda of Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Britain next month. Hitachi hopes a group of Japanese investors and Britain each will take a third of the equity portion of the project. A company source said the project would be financed one third by equity, two thirds by debt. The company said it will make a final decision next year.

With Japan’s export prospects severely curtailed, the global nuclear market is now essentially in the hands of Russia’s Rosatom and two Chinese reactor builders. Russia and China are already facing off in Latin America, where a Chinese deal to build a reactor in Argentina seems to be unravelling and Russia is muscling in. An industry source familiar with the situation said China-Argentina talks had stalled and that “Something fell apart. It is not an accident that the Russians are there now.” A Beijing-based nuclear industry consultant said it was significant that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not mention nuclear in a recent speech about China-Argentina cooperation.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear security office is developing a project to help other countries handle nuclear waste, an effort to keep the United States competitive against global rivals in disposal technology.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is considering helping other countries by using technologies that could involve techniques such as crushing, heating, and sending a current through the waste to reduce its volume. The machinery would be encased in a “black box” the size of a shipping container and sent to other countries with nuclear energy programs, but be owned and operated by the U.S.

The U.S. has struggled to find a solution for its own mounting nuclear waste inventories amid political opposition to a permanent dump site in Nevada, proposed decades ago, and concerns about the cost and security of recycling the waste back into fuel.