Shift to nuclear brightens Asian energy future
At a time when the global media narrative is dominated by fossil fuels and renewables, countries in Asia have been commissioning an increasing number of nuclear plants, contrary to many European countries and the U.S.
With a string of new approvals in recent years, the future of energy security in Asia appears to be increasingly dependent on nuclear energy to bolster the already strong fossil fuel sector.
Unlike renewables, nuclear plants do not occupy large swaths of land and do not stop working when there is no wind or sun. In addition, among all available electricity-generation methods, nuclear plants have the highest capacity factor — a measure of the ability of a plant to produce at full capacity in a given period of time. The nuclear capacity factor is higher than 90 percent, while solar and wind are around 25 percent and 35 percent, respectively.
Attracted to the advantages of nuclear power and financially strengthened by economic growth supported by fossil fuels, more countries are beginning to invest in new nuclear plants.
China, India, and Others Go Nuclear
China is spending as much as $440 billion on new nuclear plants. Last month, Bloomberg reported that "China is planning at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35."
India too has been receptive to nuclear technology. Currently having 23 reactors in operation, the subcontinent will add 12 new reactors by 2024 and is assessing the possibility of five more. Though the Indian numbers are dwarfed by those of China, the country has made significant progress. Installed nuclear power capacity grew by over 40 percent in the last seven years.
My home state of Tamil Nadu in the southwestern tip of India boasts state-of-art nuclear generation — including the Kudankulam plant with four reactors — that employs fast breeder reactors imported from Russia. Even as I was writing this piece, construction for a new reactor was launched 200 miles from my place of birth.
Japan Returns to Nuclear After a Brief Hiatus
In the Far East, Japan has returned to its old love of nuclear energy after a decade-long hiatus caused by the knee-jerk reaction to the tsunami-induced Fukushima nuclear accident.
The Fukushima incident was exaggerated by the media, and unwarranted fear was instilled among the people of the world. In fact, a recent study of wildlife living in the Fukushima exclusion zone shows "almost no adverse effects of the radiation from the nuclear plant meltdown on the animals' DNA." The incident was one of its kind, involving an outdated technology vulnerable to the extraordinary earthquake and tidal wave that struck the plant.
Japan's embrace of nuclear was inevitable. The country's lack of fossil fuel resources make nuclear an obvious choice. Though the Japanese leadership seem to have a soft spot for renewables, it knows that they cannot meet Japan's cities' power demands. At least 20 percent of Japan's total electricity is expected to come from nuclear by 2030.
Anti-Nuclear Sentiment Impacting Key Economies
At present, China has 46 nuclear plants either in the planning stage or under construction. In contrast, the U.S. has only two plants under construction. Many European countries have no nuclear plants under construction.
In Europe, France has been a champion of nuclear energy. But other big economies like Germany and the U.K. have been reluctant to increase nuclear capacity, leading to an unstable energy sector and higher power prices. In fact, Germany is set to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by 2022.
This huge difference in the nuclear priorities of the East and the West may increase in the coming years as nuclear proponents face opposition from the climate collective — unless the so-called green agenda loses support to a technology far superior to wind turbines and solar panels.
Vijay Jayaraj is a research associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Va., and holds a Master's degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, England. He resides in Bengaluru, India.
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