After Fukushima, it seems like the world powers are still not daunted by the perils of nuclear power in a bid to satisfy their energy cravings.
A new report published by the World Energy Council examining the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi accident upon the global nuclear energy industry suggests a strong long-term prognosis for the technology. The near-immediate cessation of nuclear energy programs in a handful of Western nations will clearly set back total global nuclear energy generation, but it’s an effect that will most likely be dwarfed in the long-term as the majority of countries, including emerging economic giants China and India, proceed with their nuclear plans unabated, albeit at a more cautious pace.
In the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, countries the world over put nuclear energy programs on hold to undertake comprehensive safety reviews. As a result, reactor construction starts have fallen from 16 during 2010 (following year-on-year growth since 2004) to just two in 2011. In some cases, countries haven’t held out for review findings before electing to close aging power stations.
Before Fukushima, Japan was the third-largest provider of nuclear energy in the world, with nuclear contributing 30 percent (47GW) of the country’s total electrical power production from a total of 54 reactors. There were plans to increase that proportion to 53 percent by 2030 with an additional 14 reactors. Instead, six reactors have been decommissioned, and of the remaining 48, only two were in use as of mid-February 2012. The others are undergoing stress testing and further closures are likely. The Japanese government has stated its commitment to reducing the role of nuclear energy in the long term, with renewable energy and fossil fuels slated to take up the slack.
An arguably more emphatic response has been evident in pockets of western Europe. More or less immediately, Germany closed eight of its 17 reactors (though one was temporarily offline already) and announced plans to phase out nuclear energy entirely by 2022. A knock-on effect will be an increase in European cross-border energy trading, with inevitable but unpredictable consequences for both electricity and gas prices in the region, the report asserts. Switzerland is to decommission its five nuclear plants by 2034, and following a referendum, Italy has scrapped plans to to reintroduce nuclear power.
The report also notes that Japan, Germany, Italy and Switzerland are also those that “experienced the most profound public reactions,” seemingly implying that the decision to scale back or discontinue nuclear power programs in those countries is, at least in part, a political one. By 2034, Europe will contribute at least 15GW more nuclear electrical power than would have been the case thanks to the policy changes in Germany and Switzerland. It’s impossible to quantify yet at this stage how many of Japan’s remaining, existing 50 reactors (contributing 44GW of electrical power) will also be permanently phased out, but this may yet constitute by far the single biggest reduction of nuclear energy capacity as a direct result of Fukushima.
Switzerland and Italy also account for an additional 21GW of nuclear expansion that will now be scrapped. The reactors Japan had under construction prior to Fukushima remain under construction today, and though the country has scaled back the number of planned reactors from 12 (for 16.5GW) to 10, the number of reactors proposed long-term has increased from one (1.3GW) to five (6.8GW combined). The global figures for planned and proposed reactors are cited in Table 4 of the report, and are based on World Nuclear Association figures as of February 2012. They would seem to somewhat undermine Japan’s stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear power, though it’s worth reiterating that this contribution may look relatively small compared to the existing plant Japan may yet permanently decommission.
However, comparing snapshots of the global nuclear energy industry directly before Fukushima and today, there’s barely any change. At the beginning of March 2011 a total of 547 reactors were either proposed, planned or under construction, promising to add an additional 610GW of electrical power capacity globally. As of February 2012 those figures have just increased, with 558 reactors in the offing to some degree for an additional capacity of 618GW. A number of proposals have been dropped over that year in Ukraine, the USA and Vietnam; but these have been more than offset by additional reactor proposals in China, Saudi Arabia and Japan in the last 12 months.
France, which might be considered the biggest exponent of nuclear energy with 74 percent of its energy mix accounted for by nuclear energy, has not changed its plans with three reactors planned for the future including one under construction. Whether a significant number of additional reactors would have been planned and proposed over the last year were it not for the Fukushima incident is very difficult to say, but that several countries have scaled back their nuclear energy ambitions in the short term suggests that it is at least a possibility.
Throughout the report the distinction is made between members and non-members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—which can be taken, somewhat ham-fistedly, as euphemisms for developed and developing nations respectively. Unsurprisingly the report concludes that non-OECD nations, and particularly China and India, will account for most of the future growth in nuclear energy. China is set to add 197 reactors to its current 16 (including 26 currently being built), for an eventual capacity of 219GW. India has plans to increase its nuclear energy capacity more than 15-fold to an eventual 73GW with an additional 64 reactors. Russia have 54 reactors planned, proposed or under construction, while representing the OECD the USA has 31 future reactors slated, and the UK 13. These are all figures that have remained relatively unchanged – if anything, showing modest increases – in the last year.
The report is hesitant to draw firm conclusions, but admits that nuclear power will suffer in the court of public opinion, just as it did after the very different Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. However, it does go so far as to say that outside of Europe and Japan, there has been no “significant retraction” in nuclear power programs. The report attributes steadfastness from the majority of nations to “the economics of nuclear power” compared to other energy sources, especially in the face of rising demand coupled with a desire to reduce reliance on fossil fuels to bolster security of supply and combat climate change. It remains to be seen if the decommissioning of existing Japanese nuclear plants will put a dent in the expansion of nuclear energy.