Life after Fukushima: the future of nuclear power in East Asia

Author: Ben Heard, ThinkClimate Consulting

In early 2011, nuclear power was coming back. China and South Korea were undertaking significant expansion, while Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia were en route to embracing nuclear power for the first time. China was determined to develop Generation IV thorium and fast reactors.

The modern reactors were safer, simpler, smaller, cheaper, and more modular than ever before, with Generation IV technology holding the potential for consuming nuclear waste. Then the Fukushima accident reignited our nuclear fears. What will this mean for the future of energy in East Asia?

On 11 March, the 40-year-old Generation II Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini safely shut down following the earthquake. A massive 12–15 metre tsunami then struck, causing catastrophic damage to electricity infrastructure and disabling the diesel generators that provided emergency cooling to the reactors.

A cascade of difficulties followed. This very serious and ongoing incident has required major efforts to stabilise. At the time of writing, the focus was on a 20-centimetre crack in a concrete pit that is the likely source of a radiation leak to the ocean. While the biggest risk period seems to have passed, the overall stabilisation task is expected to take months.

What are the lessons that will, or should, come out of Fukushima for energy policy in Asia?

This last week has seen a suspension of approvals for new nuclear power plants in China. Is this a blip in the comeback, or a more permanent disruption to the cause of nuclear power? Lessons must be learned, and there have been problems at Fukushima, but the energy production alternatives come with serious drawbacks that cannot be justified in light of the impact of the Fukushima incident.

The impacts of the Fukushima disaster itself have not been significant enough to justify the condemnation of nuclear energy more broadly. The first explosion at the reactor caused a dozen injuries, and the subsequent mass evacuation of around 200,000 people brought with it risks and social impacts. Some sickness and injury has occurred among the workers trying to stabilise the plant, although exposure is being managed within accepted emergency rates. Despite this, in a catastrophe that has overall claimed some 27,000 lives, the nuclear incident has not caused any fatalities. Radiation effects from beyond the plant and its nearby surrounds have been short-lived.

Suggesting, as George Monbiot has, that no region with serious quake risk use nuclear reactors is impractical and would hamper efforts to rein in greenhouse gases. Replacing the 55 nuclear reactors supplying 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity with coal would release another 275 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year. Replacing these reactors with combined cycle gas generation would produce an extra 100 million tons CO2e.

More extreme calls for the cessation of all nuclear power in favour of alternatives demand testing. To generate the same energy levels through offshore wind systems would require 30,000 turbines operating at 40 per cent capacity, though in reality the intermittent wind resource will not be a neat match for the electricity demand profile. Based on Californian conditions, 146 solar thermal farms would be needed, at a cost of 1 per cent of Japan’s land. Japan’s different solar climate would mean that this figure would be in reality even higher. Reality crashes the renewable party very fast when you try to scale it up.

This does not change the fact that lessons must be taken away from the incident, both for reactor design, and for the social management of nuclear programs.

Improved design is needed. Dependence on external power supply is an intolerable risk. Generation 3+ reactors incorporate isolated and protected power supply, as well as passive cooling systems. Open containment of spent fuel rod ponds is also untenable.

Some Advanced BWRs, the quintessential Generation III plant, have this unacceptable design. The B&W mPower Reactor, a Generation III+ design, has full spent fuel containment underground, holding the waste for the life of the plant. With full containment, a meltdown would be expensive and hazardous, but local and contained.

The other lesson is social. Ignorance and fear creates risks that often exceed the original hazard such as accidents, stampedes and violence. TEPCO had 40 years to build relationships and understanding in surrounding communities and, as is often the case, it either underestimated the value of these exercises or ignored them completely. Imagine a nuclear operator communicating with the local community in halfway technical terms, in the context of a trusting relationship, without fear of being misunderstood? This is social capital. Nuclear must develop a culture where failure to engage with surrounding communities is as derelict as ignoring a licence condition. The potential impacts are every bit as great.

What next? Dismissing a proven, scalable, base load, low-carbon technology would be the grossest of overreactions, driving up greenhouse gas emissions in a region that is exposed to climate change impacts many orders of magnitude greater than this disaster. It would also worsen the particulate air pollution that blights many East Asian cities, causing devastating illness. East Asia can afford a focused hiatus in development and approvals to incorporate the obvious lessons from Fukushima: reactors with protected power supply and passive cooling, full containment of spent fuel, better regulation and proper engagement with populations who will live in the surrounding regions. This is the sensible outcome that needs to be fought for. The sensational alternative would be a terrible mistake.

Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate Consulting, based in Adelaide, South Australia.