Japanese Tsunami 2011

Asia's resolve to seek nuclear energy remains unshaken, post Fukushima

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2012, 12:00am

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that damaged part of the Fukushima nuclear power plant a year ago tomorrow caught the Japanese and the rest of the world off-guard. Public panic was initially a reaction to the perceived threat caused by the release of a relatively small amount of radiation, which has since developed into a renewed resentment towards nuclear power that is questioning the wisdom of its continuity, let alone expansion.

Such reactions are a 'natural' result of exaggerated reporting by some media, feeding on a prevailing lack of knowledge and misconceptions about nuclear energy in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. It's therefore no wonder that the Fukushima incident overshadowed the loss of over 23,000 Japanese lives and the massive destruction of commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential areas, even though the nuclear accident did not cause any death, serious injury or major environmental damage.

A year after Fukushima, there is a wide misconception about its impact on the global nuclear energy industry, as many people believe the era of nuclear energy is over. Yet, that is far from the reality. With some qualifications, and excluding France, Russia and Britain, this is perhaps partly true for Europe and North America, which have not been nuclear-power enthusiasts, especially since the 1980s, owing mainly to their unhindered access to affordable fossil fuel energy.

Hence, Germany (importing large volumes of gas and oil and building new gas pipelines to increase gas imports from Russia) and Switzerland (having unused hydro capacity) have both declared their intention to phase out their operating nuclear reactors at the end of their life span, in about two decades. Italy, which imports electricity from France's nuclear reactors, has also said it won't revive its nuclear power sector, which was shut down in 1990.

The US has confined its nuclear ambitions to two planned reactors. It has secured its energy requirements through imports of tar-sand-generated oil from Canada and crude oil from many regions and its own fields, while exploiting its vast coal deposits and phenomenal shale gas reserves, which should make it self-sufficient in gas in a few years.

Thus, their reaction to Fukushima has not had any major impact on the global nuclear energy industry. Asia has been the main arena for nuclear energy, especially since the 1990s. This is reflected in the large nuclear sectors of Japan and South Korea and the growing ones of Taiwan, India and, of course, China. Factors prompting them to opt for nuclear energy prior to Fukushima include reducing their heavy dependency on imported oil, gas and/or coal which make them highly vulnerable to supply and pricing instability. They also wish to diversify their fossil-fuel-dominated energy mix and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate global warming and reduce health hazards to their people.

Asia-Pacific's large and growing energy needs also demand a continued use of nuclear energy and the expansion of this sector in the post-Fukushima era.

Excluding Japan, nuclear power projects in the region have continued, although extra measures are being put in place to ensure their operational reactors and those under construction would survive intact a major tsunami and earthquake. This has slowed down, but not suspended, their ongoing projects. China is leading the region with 24 projects, followed by South Korea (6), India (4), Taiwan (2) and Pakistan (1).

Other countries in the region with no operating reactors have not been deterred by the Fukushima incident, either. Vietnam, which concluded agreements with Russia and Japan for two nuclear plants before the incident, has reiterated its commitment to implement the plans. Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia also remain committed to developing a nuclear power sector.

In West Asia, Turkey is moving forward with its 2010 agreement with Russia for four reactors. China is to help Turkey build nuclear power plants, while Iran has made operational its Russian-built reactor in Busheher and continued building a reactor of domestic design in Darkhovin.

Japan seems the exception; it has suspended operation of all but two reactors to ensure they meet all the safety requirements, particularly resistance to major tsunami and earthquakes. However, Japan is not prepared to phase out its nuclear power sector, which was producing 30per cent of its electricity before the Fukushima incident, in the absence of any environmentally clean alternative. Such a phase-out would force it to substantially increase its already large imports of oil, gas and coal, with major financial consequences and leaving the nation politically vulnerable to supply and price instability.

Appreciating this, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has distanced himself from his predecessor by pushing for stress tests for Japan's suspended reactors to bring them back online.

The Fukushima incident has understandably made everyone more cautious about nuclear energy, but has not been a game- changer in Asia, particularly the Asia-Pacific. Asian nations that had strong reasons for opting for this energy prior to March 2011 remain committed to their projects, a fact that will ensure the region remains the main arena for nuclear energy expansion in the foreseeable future.

Dr Hooman Peimani is the head of the Energy Security Division and a principal fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore