Westinghouse's late-March 2017 bankruptcy opened a can of worms pitting industry against Mother Nature. It marked what could become a fatal blow on the global nuclear industry, exposed the crumbling infrastructure in two of the world's three largest economies and the relationship between them that became the pillar of post-World War II globalisation, and underscored how exploiting Mother Nature for reckless business profits can easily backfire.
With a debt of US$ 9.8 billion, Westinghouse was described in a New York Times article by Diane Cardwell and Jonathan Soble last week as a "once-proud name that in years past symbolised America's supremacy in nuclear power" (March 29, 2017), but which, they added, "now illustrates its problems." Purchased by Toshiba Corporation, the iconic Japanese consumer electronic enterprise, for US$ 5.4 billion in 2006 to exemplify the necessary diversification in a rapidly-reconfiguring global economy, Westinghouse Electric Company was poised to become at the start of the 21st Century what Ford Motor Company was at the start of the 20th Century: the era's trendsetter and trademark. The trans-pacific Toshiba-Westinghouse marriage of convenience (a) symbolised concurrent globalisation in full sway; (b) elevated nuclear energy to displace fossil-fuel, particularly petroleum, as the foremost supplier; (c) reaffirmed Japan and the United States as the engines of 21st Century economy; and (d) sharply slapped regulations and growing grassroots concerns.
Toshiba's plan to build 45 nuclear reactors the world over by 2030 was dealt a rude blow by the sustained growth of renewable energy sources, collapse in natural gas prices and oversupply in petroleum production (eventually culminating in a gigantic oil-price meltdown), as well as the 2011 Fukushima aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami.
Paul Chefurka's 2007 World Energy and Population (WEP) model indicates: (a) with nuclear reactor boasting an effective life of only about 40 years, of the 439 reactors he counted in 2007, 361 were 17-years-old or older, meaning, by 2030, almost 300 reactors will have to be retired, and with Fukushima in the rear-view mirror, few new plants dare to enter the drawing board currently; (b) simultaneously, with the rapid resort to renewal energy sources, such as wind, solar, tidal waves, and photovoltaic, expanding faster, as for example, wind-power by 30 per cent, the prospects for nuclear energy keeps diminishing; (c) given the undeniable growth of global warming, it will be difficult to mine coal for energy purposes after 2025; (d) given the reserves-consumption ratio also narrowing, gas consumption also seems set for peaking about 2025; and (e) petroleum exploitation may already have peaked, with the resort to the environmentally devastating shale further corroding 21st Century petroleum viability.
These trends and forecasts could enormously constrain two of the top three global economies. Whether Westinghouse and Toshiba, which is itself set to lose US$ 10 billion this year, serve as a bellwether of the United States and Japan may be too premature to announce now, associated sclerotic symptoms suggest the worst-case scenario outpacing the best-case counterpart. For example, President Donald J. Trump's clipping of the Environmental Protection Agency functions and funding, while appeasing coal-mine constituency voters, may divert policy-making attention and resources to industries/sectors already entering a comatose stage. Across the Pacific, Japan's long-term struggle with recession and aggravating demographic pressures predict, within a decade or so, the rest of the critical energy sector, upon which Japan is so dependent, will burden more than bail out a sagging economy. Without stock-market attraction, Japan might end up monitoring disastrous Toshiba ripple-effects on other industries.
Clearly the battle has not been won by grassroots groups, civil society representatives, environmentalists, and their sympathisers. Against them is a formidable force consisting of retarded policy-makers hell-bent on screwing whatever is left of natural resources, voluptuous corporations still looking to squeeze the last buck out of just about everything, and angry population pockets armed with nationalism/protectionism and aggrieved over either the lack of educational skills to find employment or turned-off to see contending countries do better. Trump, Brexit, Frexit, the anti-immigrant waves, and wall-building are all but symptoms of this malaise.
It would be hard to prescribe outlets on a general basis against this background for countries to follow. Yet, at the broader level, it does not hurt not losing faith in the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel: it is there over energy production/consumption/diversification/renewability, but finding the right kind of leaders to pave the way, or the resources to jump a sinking ship, or even to enlighten a conspicuous chunk of any population still left unawares of the promises, pitfalls, and plausible pathways.
River-rich Bangladesh could profit by rethinking its Rooppur nuclear plans and consider hydro, wind, and solar alternatives as these are infinite, destined to depict diminishing costs over time, and fetter-free since gas, our ample source of the past, is in its sunset years, and coal, our key energy Indian imports, is also being downsized by India itself. We do not want to be environmentally emaciated like that helpless and hapless child on George Harrison's relevant 1971 album was through malnutrition, certainly not after rising to become the 44th largest economy with a promise to become a developed country and a top-thirty club-member within our lifetime.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.