The existential crisis for the world’s nuclear industry could hardly have come at a worse moment. The epicentre of the world’s oil supply is disturbingly close to its own systemic crisis as the Gulf erupts in conflict.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard 8:28PM GMT 16 Mar 2011
Libya’s civil war has cut global crude supply by 1.1m barrels per day (bpd), eroding Opec’s spare capacity to a wafer-thin margin of 2m bpd, if Goldman Sachs is correct.
Now events in the Gulf have turned dangerous after Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to help the Sunni monarchy crush largely Shi’ite dissent, risking a showdown with Iran.
Russia’s finance minister Alexei Kudrin warned on Wednesday that the confluence of events in Japan and the Mid-East could push oil to $200 a barrel in a “short-lived” spike, which would snuff out global recovery.
While there has been no loss of oil output in the Gulf so far, the violent crackdown in Manama on Wednesday left four people dead and risks inflaming the volatile geopolitics of the region. The rout of protesters encamped at the Pearl roundabout had echoes of China’s Tiananmen massacre.
The risk group Exclusive Analysis said such heavy-handed methods may provoke Iran to launch a proxy war by arming insurgents. This could rapidly cross the border, fuelling Shia irredentism in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Any threat to Saudi control over the 5m bpd Ghawar oil field nearby would be a global “game-changer”. “Much worse headlines can easily be imagined,” said Raza Agha from RBS.
Oil prices have fallen over recent days but it may not be long before the deepening nuclear crisis in Japan and Germany’s decision to shut down seven of its oldest reactors starts to spill over into oil and gas markets.
The shutdown of 11 reactors in Japan has cut 10 gigawatts (GW) of power, forcing the country to import other fuels to keep its economy going. “We think they will need an extra 200,000 bpd of fuel oil and light crude, as well liquefied natural gas,” said Eduardo Lopez from the International Energy Agency.
The Fukushima reactors are write-offs. Japan’s local authorities are unlikely to permit other reactors to reopen for a long time. The closure of seven German pre-1980 reactors will cut energy supply by a further 6.2 GW, according to Daniel Brebner at Deutsche Bank.
“Nuclear power has suddenly gone from being part of the solution for future green energy to a dangerous relic of the cold-war era,” he said. Germany will have to cover the shortfall by importing more gas and thermal coal, playing havoc with CO2 greenhouse targets.
Even if the world navigates today’s crisis without an energy shock, a more intractable long-term crisis is brewing. Several countries are already turning their backs on the “nuclear renaissance” and shelving plans for fresh reactors. This implies a need for substitutes that will further strain fossil fuel supplies and bring forward the long-feared energy crunch.
It is too early to tell how much of this week’s anti-nuclear rhetoric is posturing by politicians. Germany has imposed moratorium on renewal of 17 reactors. Switzerland and Taiwan are reviewing policy. China said on Wednesday that it was suspending approval of 25 reactors under construction. “We must fully grasp the urgency and importance of nuclear safety,” said the state council.
US Energy Secretary Steven Chu also asked Congress for $36bn in loan guarantees for a new generation of small modular reactors. He has the backing of Capitol Hill for now but support could evaporate if Japan’s containment vessels rupture. The world has 442 reactors, with 65 under construction. They generate 372 GW, covering 13.8pc of global electricity. The share is higher in the rich world: France 75pc, Belgium 52pc, Ukraine 47pc, Korea 35pc, Japan 29pc, the US 20pc, and the UK 18pc. In China it is just 2pc.
Output is expected to double over the next 20 years as the rising powers play catch up. Nuclear reactors are a core part of the supply mix needed to meet explosive demand for power from the industrial revolutions of China and India. Any slippage tightens the energy screw elsewhere, forcing greater reliance on coal before carbon capture and storage is viable.
Much depends on whether shale gas fulfils its promise, or how soon we can achieve a quantum leap in solar technology, or exactly when the world hits “peak oil”, and at what price. The UK industry taskforce on peak oil fears the crunch will hit at 95m bpd within a decade.
Dr Euan Mearns at the Oil Drum said Fukushima has shattered democracies’ faith in the safety of nuclear power. If Japanese engineers had prevailed despite the worst that nature could muster, it would have vindicated the industry. “Alas, this is not the case. The future of the human global energy system has just changed course with potentially far reaching consequences for civilisation,” he said.