Simon Roughneen in Bangkok and Niall Stanage in New York – While Asian countries say they might revise nuclear energy plans in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and Fukushima crisis last week, planned projects seem likely to go ahead in the longer-term.
China and India both plan to increase their current nuclear energy capacity, and Beijing’s expansion plan, adding 28 reactors to its current 13, is around 40% of the new nuclear facilities being planned globally. China plans an additional fifty reactors further down the line, taking its overall number of plants close to 100.
However, last Wednesday the Chinese Government ordered safety inspections of nuclear facilities and temporarily suspended approval for new projects pending revised safety rules, but long-term plans seem to be on track.
India’s nuclear authorities have reassured a jumpy public that the country’s nuclear facilities are not as vulnerable to natural disaster as those in Japan. Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission said this week, “Whenever we have a nuclear reactor design we have to see the possible natural events that can happen in a particular location and these are factored in.”
It is not just Asia’s giant economies that are planning for nuclear energy, however. Indonesia, which like Japan sits on the seismically-active Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, said that it will build 4 new reactors by 2022. The 17,000-island nation is one of the world’s leading emerging markets, according to Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill, who recently coined the MIST (Mexio, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey) acronym, following up on his now-mainstream BRIC coinage with a new list of the world’s next tier of large non-western economies.
Vietnam has also indicated that it will go ahead with its own plans to build nuclear power plants, with Japanese and Russian assistance. Striking a more cautious note, Thai Energy Minister Wannarat Channukul said on Thursday that the country should re-examine plans to open its first nuclear power plant by 2020, after public protests at proposed nuclear facility locations during last week.
The new nuclear market is prompting intense competition for lucrative contracts, with France, Russia South Korea and the US vying with Japan for deals in non-OECD countries. Global warming alarmism and concerns about the longevity of oil and gas supplies has prompted Asian countries to look to nuclear power as a ‘green’ alternative as the continent’s massive economic growth fuels energy demands.
Safety concerns have been voiced, however, amid perceived corruption in many emerging economies, leading to fears about corner-cutting and sub-standard project implementation. Kang Rixin, head of the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), was sacked in 2009 and investigated for “a serious disciplinary matter” — wording that is often code for graft in China.
Meanwhile, the tragedy in Japan has fuelled scepticism about nuclear power even in the US, where the nuclear industry is well established.
Energy secretary Steven Chu last week urged the American population to have ‘‘full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place’’.
But Chu’s cabinet colleague, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, acknowledged in an interview with NBC News that the Japanese tragedy ‘‘raises questions about the costs and the risks associated with nuclear power’’, though she added that ‘‘we have to answer those’’.
There are more than 100 nuclear plants dotted across the US. In light of events in Japan, those near the San Andreas fault in California have received particular attention.
However, research by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has found that the plant at greatest risk in the event of an earthquake is Indian Point, which is just 24 miles north of New York City.
Defenders of nuclear power insist that the chances of a serious disaster are extremely slim. Even the vulnerable Indian Point reactor has only about a one-in-10,000 chance of being damaged in any year.