Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, in blow to nuclear power

Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, in blow to nuclear power

Westinghouse Electric Company, which helped drive the development of nuclear energy and the electric grid itself, filed for bankruptcy protection, casting a shadow over the global nuclear industry.

The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South. Now, the future of those projects, which once seemed to be on the leading edge of a renaissance for nuclear energy, is in doubt.

“This is a fairly big and consequential deal,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “You’ve had some power companies and big utilities run into financial trouble, but this kind of thing hasn’t happened.”

Westinghouse, a once-proud name that in years past symbolized America’s supremacy in nuclear power, now illustrates its problems.

Many of the company’s injuries are self-inflicted, such as a disastrous deal for a construction business that was intended to control costs and instead precipitated the events that led to the filing. Over all, Toshiba has been widely criticized for overpaying for Westinghouse.

But some of what went wrong was beyond either company’s control. Slowing demand for electricity and tumbling prices for natural gas have eroded the economic rationale for nuclear power, which is extremely costly and technically challenging to develop. Alternative-energy sources like wind and solar power are rapidly maturing and coming down in price. The 2011 earthquake in Japan that led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant renewed worries about safety.

Westinghouse’s problems are already reducing Japan’s footprint in nuclear power, an industry it has nurtured for decades in the name of energy security. Even before the filing, Toshiba had essentially retired Westinghouse from the business of building nuclear power plants. Executives said they would instead focus on maintaining existing reactors — a more stable and reliably profitable business — and developing reactor designs.

That has made the already small club of companies that take on the giant, expensive and complex task of nuclear-reactor building even smaller. General Electric, a pioneer in the field, has scaled back its nuclear operations, expressing doubt about their economic viability. Areva, the French builder, is mired in losses and undergoing a large-scale restructuring.

Among the winners could be China, which has ambitions to turn its growing nuclear technical abilities into a major export. That has raised security concerns in some countries.

The shrinking field is a challenge for the future of nuclear power, and for Toshiba’s revival plans. Its executives have said they would like to sell all or part of Westinghouse to a competitor, but with a dwindling list of potential buyers — combined with Westinghouse’s history of financial calamity — that has become a difficult task.

Toshiba still faces tough questions. The company is also divesting its profitable semiconductor business and plans to sell a stake to an outside investor to raise capital. Most of the companies seen as possible buyers are from outside Japan. Some Japanese business leaders have expressed fears that the sale will further erode Japan’s place in an industry it once dominated.

Source: New York Times

Date: May 2017

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Tags assigned to this article:
politiche energetiche

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