SINGAPORE — Before Japan’s nuclear crisis struck, the world appeared to be on the verge of a nuclear renaissance. An increasing number of countries, especially in Asia, were turning to atomic power to provide electricity for rapid economic growth without the carbon emissions that many scientists say are causing dangerous climate change.
The series of explosions, fires and radiation leaks from reactors and spent fuel storage pools at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on Japan’s northeast coast since it was hit by the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 have rekindled a global debate about nuclear risk, especially in areas of known seismic activity.
The strong earthquake on March 24 near Myanmar’s borders with Thailand and Laos, which shook buildings hundreds of kilometers away in Bangkok, Hanoi and Nanning in southern China, will heighten nuclear safety concerns in Asia.
Many Asian countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, lie on or close to geologically unstable fault lines around the Pacific basin that also run through Taiwan, Japan, Alaska and down the west coast of the Americas. This so-called Ring of Fire is prone to volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunami.
The United States is reviewing safety standards at all its nuclear facilities. Regulators are also scrutinizing the location of existing and new power plants.
Governments in Europe are divided over whether to scale back or continue nuclear expansion. Italy recently delayed for at least one year a re-start of its nuclear power program closed down in the wake of the Chernobyl reactor meltdown in Ukraine in 1986.
Germany had earlier announced the temporary closure of the seven oldest of its 17 plants while France, the world’s second-largest producer of nuclear power after the U.S., and several other European states said they would continue to use the technology.
But the key to the question whether nuclear power will remain an indispensable component of the world’s “clean” energy future lies in China and other economies in Asia that need huge amounts of low-carbon electricity to sustain their rapid growth without the air pollution associated with fossil fuels like coal.
Before the Fukushima crisis, more than 155 power reactors were planned and over 320 others proposed worldwide. If all were to go ahead, they could more than double global nuclear generating capacity by 2030.
Some 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 economies currently generate about 15 percent of the world’s electricity.
Of the 85 power reactors under construction or about to start, 56 are in Asia. Thirty three are in China, eight each in India and South Korea, six in Japan and one in Taiwan. These economies are already so far down the nuclear power generation path that it would be difficult to turn back without disrupting their national development plans.
Still, China — which plans to nearly quadruple nuclear generating capacity by 2020 — announced recently that it was temporarily suspending approval for all new nuclear power plants until the government issues revised safety rules. Safety checks will be made on existing nuclear facilities and those under construction.
India, South Korea and Japan are also reviewing safety standards and the capacity of nuclear plants to withstand large-magnitude natural disasters. Taiwan says it may defer the scheduled 2012 start of a 2,700-megawatt nuclear plant, on the coast about 40 km east of Taipei, following Japan’s calamity.
Some Southeast Asian countries that planned to introduce nuclear power have also announced delays and reviews.
But Indonesia and Vietnam, the countries with the largest-scale plans for nuclear power generation in Southeast Asia, have indicated they will go ahead, although the Indonesian government has delayed awarding a tender this month for a feasibility study on the first plant.
Indonesia’s National Atomic Energy Agency proposed an island off the north coast of Sumatra as a possible site for the four nuclear power reactors it wants to develop, arguing that the area is not located in an earthquake-prone zone. The government plans to build the reactors by 2022. An earlier proposal to build a plant near a volcano on the south coast of the main island of Java was shelved after protests.
The lessons from Japan are clear. Rigorous safety standards must be applied. Backup diesel power generators at coastal nuclear plants need to be protected from tsunami damage. And only the safest possible reactor designs and spent fuel storage systems should be used, in Asia or anywhere else.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.