Outlook for Nuclear Power Revival after Fukushima

Wilfrid L. Kohl*

 


 

At the start of 2011, 30 countries had existing nuclear power programs and 15 relied on nuclear for more than 25 percent of their electric generation.[i]

 

Figure 1

 

 

Some 60 new countries were considering embarking on new nuclear power programs.  The earthquake and tsunami which struck and disabled three operating plants at Fukushima-Daiichi on March 11 leading to core meltdowns and release of radioactivity was an extraordinary event.   The accident has caused a number of countries to implement safety reviews and new regulations. Three countries—Germany, Switzerland, and probably Belgium—have announced they will construct no new reactors and will phase out existing nuclear programs.  Italy will not revive nuclear power as it had previously planned to do.  Japan, which had made a strong commitment to nuclear power, has suffered a sharp drop in public support and has yet to announce a revised energy policy. But after a pause, most countries are likely to continue nuclear power because they have operated safe programs and need to expand non-carbon base-load electricity.

 

According to the IAEA, worldwide use of nuclear energy will continue to grow despite Fukushima.  In its low projection, assuming current trends with few changes in policies, the number of operating reactors will increase by about 90 in 2030 (from 433 today.)  The high projection, which assumes an early end to the financial crisis, resumption of past growth rates, and stringent climate change policies, forecasts an additional 350 reactors by 2030.  The difference between last year’s and this year’s projections is a reduction of 7-8 percent. [ii]

 

Electric demand is growing fastest in the non-OECD countries, which have the highest rates of economic growth.  Projected growth of nuclear power is therefore largest in the non-OECD, led by Asia.

 

Figure 2

 

 

Most of the growth is in countries which already have nuclear power programs.  The largest reduction is in Western Europe.

 

16 countries have new plants under construction.  China, a country where electricity demand is increasing about 10 per cent annually, leads with 27.

 

Figure 3

 

 

 

Coal-fired generation dominates at present, but China is closing small, inefficient coal-fired plants.  The nuclear share of electric generation is currently less than 2 percent, but nuclear capacity is forecast to increase to 60 GW by 2020, 200 GW by 2030, and maybe 400 GW by 2050.  The technology being employed is French, Canadian, Russian, and US, as well as indigenous.  Current construction includes four Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors.  After Fukushima, China suspended new plant approvals pending a review of safety regulations.  New safety standards are being drawn up along with a new Atomic Energy Law scheduled to be implemented in 2012.  It is possible that officials will decide to phase out older Chinese CPR-1000 reactors more quickly than planned because they do not have passive safety systems.  China may also decide to expand its cadre of nuclear regulators and plant operators.[iii]

 

Russia is an important nuclear country with 31 operating reactors contributing about 18 percent of electric generation.   It has 11 nuclear plants under construction and an ambitious goal of doubling nuclear generation capacity by 2020 via life extensions, upgrading, enhanced performance, and new plants.  The nuclear share of electric generation is forecast to grow to 25 percent of electric by 2030, which will reduce domestic consumption of natural gas and allow more gas to be exported.  Russia has a long term plan to develop inherently safe fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle using MOX fuel.  Atomstroyexport has become a major player in the export market for power reactors with projects planned or under discussion in China, India, Turkey, Belarus, and Ukraine.

 

India and South Korea are also rapidly expanding nuclear countries.  India has 20 power reactors operating and 6 under construction.  Nuclear contributes only 2.9 percent of electric generation today, but a goal has been set to achieve 25 percent of electric by 2050.  Electric demand is expanding rapidly, and a large part of the population still has no electricity.  25-30 new light water reactors are planned by 2030 in five new ‘Nuclear Energy Parks.”  As a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India’s nuclear program was largely indigenously developed.  This has recently changed, however, with the US-India Nuclear Agreement and the waiver of the Nuclear Suppliers Group so that India can now participate in international trade in nuclear fuel and technology.  The country has specialized in heavy water reactors and is developing fast breeder reactors and a thorium fuel cycle. Following Fukushima the government conducted safety evaluations of operating plants, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reaffirmed commitment to nuclear energy that will meet the highest safety standards.  A new independent Nuclear Regulatory Agency will be created along with a senior Council of Nuclear Safety.  Russia and France have agreements to build new reactors, and two sites have been set aside for US companies.  However, there is still disagreement over nuclear accident insurance.

 

South Korea has 21 reactors providing about 31 percent of electric generation.  The country plans nuclear capacity expansion to 59 percent by 2030.  18 new reactors are planned.  Strong GDP growth drives continuing increase in electric demand.  South Korea has completed a post-Fukushima safety review of all plants and plans to make improvements against flooding and seismic events.  Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. has become a leading exporter of reactor technology beginning with a recent $20 billion contract to supply four reactors to the United Arab Emirates.  Korea is developing its own reactors and discussing exports to Turkey, Jordan, Romania, and Ukraine.

 

A number of nuclear countries that had moratoria or dormant programs have recently opted for nuclear revival.  These include the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Brazil.

The United States has 104 nuclear power reactors that provide about 20 percent of electric generation.  However, there has been no new construction since 1977.  In recent years the industry has operated with high capacity factors and improved safety, and license extensions have been approved for some 61 reactors.  Standardized designs have been developed for new reactors and the licensing process has been streamlined.  There are 12 applications before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for over 20 new reactors.  In the 2005 Energy Act the government provided tax incentives and loan guarantees for the first few new nuclear plants.  President Obama ordered the NRC to conduct a safety review of US plants after Fukushima, but reaffirmed the US commitment to nuclear power. The NRC Task Force subsequently issued its recommendations which were confirmed by the Commission in October and divided into Tier 1 near term recommendations (including seismic and flooding criteria, enhanced capability to meet prolonged station blackouts, strengthened emergency procedures) and Tier 2 longer term.  The NRC is working with industry to implement the recommendations.[iv] Public support for nuclear declined somewhat post Fukushima, but has since recovered and in a recent poll 59 percent favor more nuclear plants in the US.[v]

 

The greatest challenge facing the US industry is economics.  Capital costs of new nuclear plants have increased considerably and are running around $8 billion for a new 1000 MW plant.  Two construction projects have begun in regulated states of Georgia and South Carolina where state public utility commissions have allowed utilities to charge customers for CWIP (construction work in progress).  But merchant nuclear plants will find it difficult to compete with low-priced natural gas in deregulated markets, especially without more loan guarantees.[vi] The US nuclear revival will therefore proceed slowly.  Nuclear needs a carbon price which does not appear to be imminent given the decline of interest in Congress in climate legislation.  Meanwhile, the US does not have a firm plan to deal with high level nuclear waste following cancellation of the Yucca mountain project while awaiting the recommendations of the latest Blue Ribbon Commission.

 

In Europe several countries have recently changed policy to favor new nuclear construction.  The United Kingdom has 19 reactors generating about 18 percent of electricity.  During 2006-08 the Labor government decided to favor new nuclear build by a privatized nuclear power sector, a decision that was confirmed by the Conservative-Liberal coalition government in 2010 and has continued after Fukushima.  Currently there are plans for possibly 9 new plants to be built by EDF Energy (which bought British Energy), Horizon Power, and NuGeneration.

 

Sweden has 10 operating nuclear plants providing over 40 percent of electric generation.  Reversing an earlier decision to phase out nuclear following a 1980 referendum, the Swedish parliament voted in 2010 to allow new construction to replace the existing plants as they reach the end of their lives over the next 10-15 years as part of their climate change program.  Sweden is advanced in its policy on nuclear waste management, has an interim repository and a plan for deep geologic storage by 2020.  The Netherlands, which has one nuclear reactor, also reversed an earlier phase-out decision in 2010 and is planning one large new nuclear plant.

 

Meanwhile, Finland, which has four operating nuclear reactors, is continuing its program with a fifth reactor under construction since 2005 and two more reactors approved.  It has advanced plans for radioactive waste management.

 

Two other countries that have recently reactivated their nuclear programs are South Africa and Brazil.  South Africa has one operating nuclear plant with two units built in the early 1980s supplying 5 percent of generation.  To meet rapidly increasing electric demand, another reactor was approved by Eskom in 2007, and a new energy plan ratified by the Cabinet in 2010 calls for 9.6 GW of additional capacity which would yield 25 percent of electric from nuclear by 2030.  However, a law needs to be changed to allow private financing in the nuclear sector.  Brazil has two operating nuclear plants.  In 2006 President Lula de Silva determined that his country was overly dependent on hydro for 80 percent of electricity and began planning new reactors.  His successor, Dilma Rousseff, has granted a license for new construction.  There is a strong need for new base-load power that also meets climate concerns.  Following Fukushima, the government has announced a goal of 4-8 GW of new nuclear by 2030.[vii]

 

Turning to new nuclear countries, the IAEA said in September 2010 that some 65 countries “are expressing interest in considering or actively planning for, nuclear power” after a “gap of nearly 15 years” in such interest worldwide.  More recently, the World Nuclear Association has reduced this number to about 45 countries “actively considering embarking upon nuclear power programs.”  Ranging from “sophisticated economies to developing nations,” these include countries on every continent which can be classified according to how far their planning has progressed:

 

  • Power reactors under construction or recently completed:  Iran
  • Contracts signed, legal and regulatory infrastructure well-developed:  UAE and Turkey
  • Committed plans, legal and regulatory infrastructure developing:  Vietnam, Jordan, Belarus, Bangladesh
  • Well-developed plans, but commitment pending:  Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Poland, Lithuania, Chile
  • Developing plans:  Saudi Arabia, Israel, Nigeria, Malaysia, Morocco, Kuwait
  • Discussion as serious policy option:  19 other countries, including some in Africa.[viii]

 

Many of the above are fast growing developing countries with rapidly expanding electricity demand.  They have a strong need for new base-load power.  Many are currently highly dependent on imported fossil fuels, which are subject to price volatility, and are concerned about energy security.  They are also concerned about climate change and are seeking lower carbon alternative fuels.  Not all of these countries will ultimately decide to develop nuclear power.  Fukushima has undoubtedly delayed the decisions of some of them. But the important drivers of their interest remain.   Many will need time to train personnel and develop legal and regulatory infrastructures.

 

To describe a few of these countries, the United Arab Emirates is in the lead having reached an agreement in 2009 with a Korean consortium that will build four nuclear reactors at a cost of $20 billion and operate them for 60 years.  The country needs nuclear to meet high electric demand growth of 9 percent/year for desalination and other uses and projects it will cost much less than natural gas.  It has established the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and followed recommendations of the IAEA.  Significantly, it has agreed to forego enrichment and reprocessing.

 

Turkey is experiencing electric demand growth of 8 percent/year and currently relies heavily on natural gas from Russia and Iran, as well as coal and hydro.  Nuclear was considered earlier but postponed for financial reasons.  A Turkish Atomic Energy Authority was established in 2007 to regulate the building and operation of plants.  In 2010 Russia and Turkey agreed that Rosatom would build, own, and operate four 1200 MW units at Akkuyu on the eastern Mediterranean, with Russia to provide financing.  Construction will begin in 2013.  Korea or a Japanese or French consortium may bid on a second plant at Sinop on the Black Sea.

 

Jordan imports 95 percent of its energy and is expecting to double its electricity consumption by 2030.  It is seeking nuclear power to end dependence on fossil fuels, provide low cost electricity, become a net electricity exporter, and expand desalination.  In 2007 the country established the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  During 2008-09 feasibility studies and site selection were undertaken.  In 2010 three vendors and designs were short-listed (Areva-Mitsubishi, AECL, and Atomstroyexport) in preparation for a decision in 2012.  JAEC expects construction to start in 2013 on a first reactor to go into operation in 2020, followed by a second reactor to be completed by 2025 and probably two more reactors thereafter.    There are also plans to establish a Nuclear Science and Technology Center to educate and train future nuclear engineers and scientists.  Jordan has uranium resources that are being prospected by several foreign companies.

 

In Asia, Vietnam is a leading country among those considering nuclear power.  With strong electric demand growth of 14-15 percent/yr., Vietnam passed a nuclear energy law in 2008, to be followed by a legal and regulatory framework.

Targets have been set for 8000MW of nuclear by 2025, and 15,000 MW in 2030 and up to eight sites in five provinces.  Atomstroyexport will build the first two reactors from 2014, which Russia will largely finance, supply the fuel, and take back used fuel.  Japan will build the next two reactors.

 

Oil and gas fuel about 45 percent of electricity generation in Indonesia.  The country has been interested in nuclear power to free up oil for export.  There are plans for four nuclear plants to be in operation in 2025, which will be cheaper then oil and gas generation.  Three sites are being considered, all on the north shore away from the tectonic subduction zone.  Korea and Japan are cooperating in feasibility studies.  The IAEA is reviewing safety aspects of proposed sites.  Fukushima has provoked more public debate about seismic dangers.

 

Among other Asian countries, Thailand in 2010 had planned five nuclear plants, but will delay three years because of public response to Fukushima.  Malaysia will make a decision on nuclear by 2013 Bangladesh will build two reactors starting in 2012.  Singapore is considering one reactor, but may join with Malaysia.

 

In Eastern Europe there is interest in nuclear power to reduce dependence on imports of Russian gas and to assist in meeting CO2 reduction targets of the EU. Poland, which has large reserves of coal, decided in 2005 to introduce nuclear power to help diversify away from coal.   A 2009 resolution called for construction of 4 reactors to provide 15 percent of power by 2030.  The National Atomic Energy Agency will oversee construction of the plants and a Nuclear Energy Law established a stable and transparent regulatory framework.  Public opinion is strongly in favor of nuclear power.

 

Elsewhere, Romania started building a second reactor in 2007 and plans to build two more.  The Czech Republish has two reactors and plans two more.  Slovakia is completing two reactors.  Bulgaria plans to start building two reactors.  Lithuania recently shut two old reactors for safety reasons and is interested in a joint regional Visaginas project.

Reducing the risks of a global nuclear expansion:

It will be important that new nuclear countries have “good governance” characteristics that provide the basis for safe nuclear operations and management.  This means low corruption, high political stability, governmental effectiveness, and functioning regulatory institutions.  The record shows that democracies are more likely not to seek diversion of civil nuclear programs to develop nuclear weapons.  Unfortunately, a preliminary look at the list of possible nuclear newcomers shows a variety of states that overall score lower on the above indicators than existing nuclear states.[ix]

 

Specific risks presented by a global nuclear expansion fall under nuclear safety, nuclear security, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear waste.[x] Regarding nuclear safety, it will be necessary to train nuclear scientists and engineers in new nuclear countries, to develop independent regulatory regimes, and to establish a “safety culture.”  The IAEA is advising a number of new countries on how to prepare to launch civilian nuclear power programs.  Following Fukushima, it will also be important to strengthen international institutions.  In September 2011 the IAEA adopted an Action Plan on Nuclear Safety that includes new commitments by its member countries to undertake safety assessments, organize and submit to peer reviews of power plants and national regulatory bodies, and strengthen emergency preparedness and response.  Nuclear safety standards will be reviewed, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety.  WANO, the World Association of Nuclear Operators is also strengthening its activities.

 

An increase in number of nuclear reactors world-wide will create more targets for terrorist sabotage and other challenges to nuclear security.  Existing agreements do not include specific security standards and there is no peer review.  The formation in 2008 of a new organization, World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) where security professionals can meet and discuss best practices holds promise.

 

More nuclear power states will also increase risks of weapons proliferation.  The present regime based on the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty signed by 190 countries works reasonably well but there are weaknesses.  Four states remain outside the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—which withdrew in 2003).  The IAEA needs increased support if it is called upon to expand its inspections of civilian power reactors in more countries, and greater flexibility in its access to sites as provided by its Additional Protocol which not all members have signed.  A major challenge will be how to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities, which carry proliferation risks, in new nuclear countries.  The Nuclear Suppliers Group needs to strengthen guidelines on nuclear exports.

 

Finally, there is the problem of nuclear waste.  Interim dry cask storage is a temporary solution, but eventually deep geologic disposal will be needed.  But national repositories are expensive.  Take-back agreements on spent fuel by the country leasing it will be helpful for those countries that agree.  Regional repositories need to be explored.

 

Growth in nuclear power will be slower after Fukushima.  But increased interest in nuclear power remains.  In order to meet the world’s expanding demand for electricity while reducing greenhouse gases, nuclear power needs to remain an important part of the global energy mix.

 


* Senior Advisor and Adjunct Professor, Energy, Resources, Environment,Johns Hopkins SAIS, Washington, DC.

[i] This article is an expanded version of my presentation at the USAEE North American Conference, Washington,

DC, October 10, 2011

[ii] IAEA (September, 2011)

[iii] Most of the country data in this paper is derived from country papers of the World Nuclear Association, available at www.world-nuclear.org, and World Nuclear News.  See also Nuclear Energy Institute, “Global Nuclear Power Development: Major Expansion Continues” (White Paper, November 2011),  at www.nei.org

[iv] The NRC recommendations are well summarized in Nuclear Energy Institute, “The Impact of the Fukushima Accident on the US Nuclear Energy Industry (White Paper, November 2011).

[v] Nuclear Energy Institute, October 3, 2011

[vi] See MIT, The Future of Nuclear Power (2009 Update.)

[vii] See NEI, “Global Nuclear Power Development: Major Expansion Continues” (White Paper, November 2011)

[viii] See  “Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries,” World Nuclear Association (November 2011)

[ix] See Steven E. Miller and Scott D. Sagan, “Nuclear Power Without Nuclear Proliferation,,” DAEDALUS (fall 2009)

[x] For an earlier discussion, see Matthew Bunn and Martin B. Malin, “Enabling a Nuclear Revival—and Managing Its Risks,” in INNOVATIONS, vol. 4, no. 4 (fall 2009), pp. 173-92.

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