After Fukushima: the future of nuclear power in Asia

Author: Vlado Vivoda, Griffith University

Before the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on 11 March 2011, just two years ago yesterday, Asia was seen as the nuclear powerhouse of the future, but in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear catastrophe there was much uncertainty about the industry’s Asian, and global, future.

Some analysts suggested that Asia’s nuclear renaissance was over while others remained cautiously optimistic about the region’s nuclear power future. But nearly two years after the Fukushima disaster, plans for nuclear power in Asia remain mostly in place.

With increasing competition for oil and gas among Asian nations and the negative impact of carbon pollution, nuclear power is still considered by many regional states as a matter of survival, both in terms of growing energy demands and environmental security.

But in Japan, not surprisingly, the future of nuclear power is still unclear. Before the disaster, Japan generated 25–30 per cent of its electrical power from 54 nuclear reactors, and planned to increase capacity to 50 per cent by 2030. By that time it was planned that 14 new reactors would have entered operation. Twelve of them were under construction or active development in early 2011.

Long one of the world’s most committed promoters of civilian nuclear power, the 3/11 disaster has changed attitudes in Japan. Many Japanese blame the government for allowing the accident to happen and are strongly in favour of abandoning nuclear power. Many of Japan’s plants have been closed, or their operation suspended for safety inspections. While the last of Japan’s 54 reactors went offline for maintenance in May 2012, leaving Japan completely without nuclear-produced electrical power for the first time since 1966, in July 2012 two reactors in the Ōi Nuclear Power Plant were restarted to tackle anticipated electricity shortages during summer peaks.

While output from other nuclear power plants are now expected to resume at some stage in the near to medium term, the long-term forecast for nuclear power production in Japan is that it will be considerably lower than pre-3/11. Few, if any, of the proposed nuclear plants are expected to enter service, and many of the existing plants may never be restarted due to safety concerns or public opposition. While the public overwhelmingly supports a phase-out by 2040 — and in mid-September the government hinted that this may be the preferred policy option — Japan’s powerful ‘nuclear village’ and the current government are strongly opposed to a phase-out. Consequently, the future role of nuclear power in Japan’s energy mix is yet to be determined and subject to debate.

China hosts the world’s largest nuclear development program. On top of 16 existing nuclear reactors, 26 are under construction and a further 51 reactors are firmly planned. In the immediate term, the State Council responded to the 3/11 disaster by suspending the approval of further nuclear power projects until new safety plans were in place, and requiring checks on operational, under-construction and approved reactors. The suspension of unapproved projects has not had an immediate impact on China’s nuclear program, given the number of projects already approved and under construction. In addition, Beijing has moved closer to ending its suspension after unveiling a plan to upgrade security standards at nuclear facilities by 2015. A recently released five-year nuclear safety plan has prompted another round of speculation that Beijing may resume its ambitious nuclear expansion plans in the near future. Consequently, the Fukushima disaster is unlikely to have a long-term impact on China’s nuclear growth.

India has 20 nuclear reactors in operation in six nuclear power plants, while seven other reactors are under construction. The Indian government responded to 3/11 in near record time, with officials saying within a week that its nuclear program had been recently reviewed and was safe. The government’s message is that it’s business as usual for nuclear power. New Delhi’s stance is unsurprising in a country where power demand is surging and national electrification and grid integration programs are incomplete. Having passed the Indo–US nuclear agreement in 2008 (effectively ending a 34-year US ban on supplying nuclear technology and fuel to India), and clearing the way for Australian uranium exports to India, New Delhi’s plans to increase its nuclear capacity are moving faster than ever.

But since 3/11 populations around proposed Indian nuclear plant sites have launched protests, raising questions about atomic energy as a clean and safe alternative to fossil fuels. The state government of West Bengal has even refused permission to a proposed facility intended to host six Russian reactors. A Public Interest Litigation has also been filed against the government’s civil nuclear program at the Supreme Court. Yet much of the opposition relates to local land and employment issues, and issues related to imported (as opposed to indigenous) reactors, rather than to more general concerns about nuclear safety. The rate at which nuclear power expands in India will depend on how these issues are resolved.

South Korea has 23 nuclear reactors that produce around 30 per cent of the country’s electricity, and has plans to increase that share to 60 per cent by 2035. Eleven reactors are scheduled to come on stream between 2012 and 2021. In addition, Korea is seeking to export its nuclear technology, and aims to sell 80 reactors abroad by 2030. Korean enterprises are among those hoping to pick up overseas contracts at the expense of Japanese companies, and are pursuing opportunities in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Indonesia, India, China and Malaysia. Although in December 2011 protesters demonstrated in Seoul and other areas after the government announced it had picked sites for two new plants, internal opposition to the country’s domestic nuclear program is relatively small.

Taiwan has six operating nuclear reactors and two advanced reactors under construction. While comprehensive safety reviews have found no concerns, nuclear energy has emerged as a contentious issue. In March 2011, anti-nuclear protesters were demonstrating for an immediate halt to the construction of the island’s fourth nuclear power plant, and there are now calls for a referendum on its future. The protesters were also opposed to plans to extend the lifespan of three existing nuclear plants. In November 2011, the government acceded to their requests, and two existing reactors are expected to close in 2016.

Indonesia has plans for four nuclear-power plants by 2024. With growing electricity shortages, Indonesia is unlikely to halt its plan to build its first nuclear-power plant. It claims its plants will be safe, thanks to the use of more advanced technology than the four-decade-old Fukushima reactors. Elsewhere in Asia, Thailand froze its plans to build nuclear plants after 3/11 but reversed course in late 2011, concerned over continuously increasing electricity demands. Under its current 20-year plan, Thailand will have four or five plants operational by 2030. Vietnam, presently nuclear-free, has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with a range of countries and in early 2012 announced a partnership with Russia that includes a US$9 billion deal to construct 13 nuclear plants by 2020. Finally, Malaysia and Bangladesh each plan to build two nuclear reactors, by 2022 and 2018 respectively.

In Europe, the Fukushima catastrophe has reshaped the nuclear landscape, decimating industries in Germany, Italy and Switzerland — countries that share good safety records and negligible seismic risk. But in much of Asia, the aftershocks have been muted. Major regional nuclear powers, China, India and South Korea, have reaffirmed their nuclear programs, albeit with caveats and plans to review safety measures and emergency procedures. Other countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh, remain committed to developing nuclear power largely as a means to tackle electricity shortages.

While there has been increased local and environmentalist opposition to nuclear power in most Asian countries, it has not been sufficient to reshape government policies that promote nuclear power. The only exceptions are Japan and Taiwan, where the jury is still out on the future role of nuclear power, although gradual phase-outs are the most likely option.

Dr Vlado Vivoda is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘Energy, Resources and Food’.