Global Trends in Nuclear Power Post Fukushima

Unlike Germany, which has said it will hasten its departure from nuclear energy following the crisis in Japan, and Italy, which has announced a one-year moratorium on plans to relaunch atomic power, the Czech Republic has no intention of slowing its push for more nuclear power. Less than a week after the Fukushima disaster, Prime Minister Petr Necas said that he could not imagine that Prague would ever close its plants. “It would lead to economic problems on the border of an economic catastrophe.”

At the same time there’s little doubt the Fukushima crisis will change the Czech Republic’s thinking about safety in the new plants. “Nuclear energy works on the basis of lessons learned from past events,” Zavodsky told Reuters. “We will analyze what happened in Japan and will surely include recommendations arising from this analysis for suppliers in the tender.”

That’s just one way the Japan crisis is already changing the game long term for the nuclear industry.

Before Fukushima, more than 300 nuclear reactors were planned or proposed worldwide, the vast majority of them in fast-growing developing economies. While parts of the developed world might now freeze or even reduce their reliance on nuclear, emerging markets such as China, India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe are planning to continue and expand their nuclear drive.

The number of new reactors under construction has risen significantly over recent years. Today, there are 62 reactors under construction, mainly in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), with 158 more on order or planned and another 324 proposed, according to World Nuclear Association data from just before Fukushima. China, which currently has just 13 reactors in operation, has 27 more under construction and was planning or proposing another 160. India was planning or proposing 58 and Russia 44.

But with fewer plants to bid on, the competition for new projects is likely to grow even fiercer. The question is whether concerns about safety will benefit Western reactor builders, or will cheaper suppliers in Russia and South Korea hold their own? If the situation at Fukushima fails to improve will that trigger the start of another ice age for nuclear power, like Chernobyl did in 1986?

With nuclear plants costing several billion dollars apiece, the answer to those questions may be worth a trillion dollars to the nuclear industry. Little wonder that the main players have rushed to reassure their clients that all is well.

Anti-nuclear lobby activists argue that demand for safer designs will make nuclear power more expensive. That should help low-carbon renewables such as solar and wind, and end nuclear power’s momentum according to Greenpeace EU Policy Campaigner Jan Haverkamp. “Fukushima will end all this talk about a nuclear renaissance. The industry says nothing will change. Forget it,” Haverkamp said.

But even if Fukushima does increase public resistance to nuclear energy, it seems unlikely to stop the emerging market countries’ nuclear ambitions altogether.”The global socio-political and economic conditions that appear to be driving the renaissance of civil nuclear power are still there: the price of oil, demands for energy security, energy poverty and the search for low-carbon fuels to mitigate the effects of global warming,” Richard Clegg, Global Nuclear Director at Lloyd’s Register told Reuters.

It’s not all about safety features and price, of course. Nuclear contracts often come down to geopolitics. The firms that sell reactors are mostly state-owned which means negotiations about nuclear deals are often done government to government.

Even the privately owned U.S. reactor builders get an extraordinary level of diplomatic support. Numerous cables obtained by WikiLeaks show that U.S. missions, with the active support of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have led lobbying initiatives for nuclear contracts in countries such as China, Hungary, South Africa, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Italy.

The French owned company Areva‘s spokesman, Saulnier said that it is perfectly normal for countries to support their export industries. “In most cases we deal with private clients where the public authorities have no impact. But there are other cases, notably China, where the state-to-state relationship plays its full role and it is important that the political authorities not only give their imprimatur but work side by side with the French company,” he said.

The biggest prize remains China, which is buying reactors from American, French and Russian builders while working hard on developing its own.

Beijing’s impatience over third-generation plants has led to the fast-tracking of dozens of second-generation reactors, which led to charges of corner-cutting even before the Japanese quake.

In a paper published in January, scholars at the State Council Research Office said China was moving too fast and that many regions were bucking worldwide industry trends by building less reliable second-generation reactors. It recommended that apart from plants that have already been approved, all new nuclear projects should “in principle” be based on third-generation designs.

Li Ning, a nuclear expert and director of the Energy Research Center at China’s Xiamen University, told Reuters that because of the Fukushima crisis China’s focus will now shift further to third-generation technology.

“The Chinese announced their intent to begin exporting their nuclear power plant technology starting in 2013. I expect that due to the recent events in Japan there will be some delay, to 2014 or 2015. They are looking for opportunities,” Polcyn said. Even with the crisis in Japan, those opportunities aren’t likely to vanish.

Sourced from Reuters

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