SINGAPORE – The catastrophic accident at Japan’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant earlier this year undermined confidence in, and support for, nuclear power around the world. The plant north of Tokyo on the Pacific coast was hit by a series of explosions, fires and serious radiation leaks after a massive earthquake and the monster tsunami waves it generated cut outside power to the plant, causing reactor fuel rods to heat up dangerously.
It took several months to bring the nuclear crisis under control. Countries with the world’s 440 commercial reactors in operation, and those with plans to use atomic power to generate electricity, paused to check safety and other risks.
They had to ask whether nuclear energy was more cost-effective than other alternatives, including renewable energy.
Initially, it seemed that Fukushima might severely constrain future growth of civilian nuclear power, which generates about 14 percent of global electricity supply.
Most of this nuclear capacity is in advanced OECD countries. A number of these industrialized nations, including Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, have said they will phase out existing reactors and cancel plans for new ones.
In Southeast Asia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand either said they were no longer interested in nuclear technology or indicated indefinite deferment of plans. After this period of reconsideration, it is clear that nuclear power is far from dead.
In the last week of September, Vietnam confirmed that it would press ahead with an ambitious nuclear program. It signed a deal with a consortium of Japanese reactor operators to conduct a feasibility study for two new reactors from Japan, in addition to two already contracted from Russia.
The Vietnamese government has said that by 2030, it plans to have 13 nuclear reactors running at eight separate plants with a combined capacity of 15,000 megawatts (MW), amounting to 7 percent of Vietnam’s total generation capacity.
Meanwhile, the new Japanese government under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wants nuclear power continued, despite increasing public opposition. The previous prime minister, shocked at the scale of the Fukushima disaster, had sought a phaseout.
Noda told the Wall Street Journal this month that he was determined to restart idled reactors by next summer to avoid power shortages that would undermine the economy.
China said recently it would start approving new nuclear power projects in 2012, after suspending them in the wake of the Fukushima accident. Beijing aims to increase nuclear power capacity to 40,000 MW by 2015, from nearly 11,000 MW in 2010, although it may scale back an earlier target of 80,000 MW by 2020.
China, the world’s second biggest economy and one of its fastest growing, has 14 operational nuclear reactors and is building more than two dozen others. This is about 40 percent of all reactors being constructed worldwide.
Before Fukushima, the International Atomic Energy Agency forecast that nuclear plants would add 360,000 MW of generating capacity by 2035, the equivalent of 200 new reactors. It now estimates there will only be half that number, although many will be in developing nations, raising fresh concerns about safety and the possible spread of nuclear weapons.
Only around 6 percent of global nuclear power capacity today is in developing countries. It is confined to China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina and Pakistan. But a recently updated report by the World Nuclear Association says that nuclear power is under serious consideration in over 45 countries that do not have it. All except about a dozen are in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
In Saudi Arabia, a senior official said the government planned to spend over $100 billion for 16 commercial reactors by 2030, with the first in operation by 2021.
Developing countries opting for nuclear power cite the need to meet rapidly rising demand for electricity, conserve oil and gas supplies, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike fossil fuel power, reactors produce no carbon dioxide.
However, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist in Pakistan and critic of the country’s nuclear policy, warns that some developing countries’ interest could mask another objective: nuclear weapons.
“India and Pakistan built their weapon-making capacity around their civilian nuclear infrastructure,” he says. “They were not the first, and will not be the last.”
The technologies and expertise needed for peaceful uses of nuclear energy can form the basis of programs to make nuclear bombs.
So, the spread of nuclear reactors into parts of the world where geopolitical tensions and rivalries are rife, including Asia and the Middle East, raise the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.
This makes it all the more imperative for countries adopting power reactors to have professional and independent regulatory regimes — and strong commitment to international non-proliferation measures.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.