Emerging Economies Move Ahead With Nuclear Plans
Comment of the Day

March 15 2011

Commentary by David Fuller

Emerging Economies Move Ahead With Nuclear Plans

This is an informative article by Heather Timmons and Vikas Bajaj for The New York Times. Here is the opening:
NEW DELHI - Despite Japan's crisis, India and China and some other energy-ravenous countries say they plan to keep using their nuclear power plants and building new ones.

The Japanese disaster has led some energy officials in the United States and in industrialized European nations to think twice about nuclear expansion. And if a huge release of radiation worsens the crisis, even big developing nations might reconsider their ambitious plans. But for now, while acknowledging the need for safety, they say their unmet energy needs give them little choice but to continue investing in nuclear power.

"Ours is a very power-hungry country," Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, said during a news conference Monday in Mumbai. Nearly 40 percent of India's 1.2 billion people do not have regular access to electricity, Mr. Banerjee said. "It is essential for us to have further electricity generation."

And in China, which has the world's most ambitious nuclear expansion plans, a vice minister of environment, Zhang Lijun, said on Saturday that Japan's difficulties would not deter his nation's nuclear rollout.

With those two countries driving the expansion - and countries from elsewhere in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East also embracing nuclear power in response to high fossil fuel prices and concerns about global warming - the world's stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry trade group.

Not that Indian and Chinese officials are heedless of the risks of nuclear energy. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said Monday that his country's Department of Atomic Energy would review all safety systems at India's nuclear plants, "particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes."

During a political conference in Beijing on Sunday, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said, "Evaluation of nuclear safety and the monitoring of plants will be definitely strengthened."

China's nuclear power industry has 11 reactors operating and plans to start construction on as many 10 new ones a year during the next decade. China's electricity consumption continues to climb 12 percent a year, even as usage stagnates in the West.

India, with 20 nuclear reactors already in operation, plans to spend an estimated $150 billion adding dozens of new ones around the country. Its forecast calls for nuclear power to supply about a quarter of the country's electricity needs by 2050, a tenfold increase from now.

David Fuller's view If several nuclear reactors with the oldest dating back to the 1970s, built side by side on a questionable ocean site of known seismic activity are irreparably damaged by the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history, plus a tsunami which kills over 10,000 people, is that a disaster for the nuclear power industry?

The frightening problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant are certainly a disaster for the people of Japan. Although still regarded as a category 4 accident (on a scale of 0 to 7), and although no one has died from the nuclear plant's problems to date, it is certainly the biggest accident since the USA's Three Mile Island shutdown in 1979 (category 5), where no one was killed. Hopefully, it will remain far short of the Kyshtym, USSR (category 6) explosion of a waste tank in 1957, which released a great deal of radioactive material. Although widely compared in the press to Chernobyl, USSR (category 7) in 1986, that will hopefully remain an irresponsible exaggeration.

The technologies and fuels which produce significant amounts of energy - coal, gas, oil and nuclear - are dangerous. Nevertheless, on a relative basis, nuclear power has a very favourable safety record, and so it should because the possibility of being irradiated, however remote, is a frightening risk which cannot be taken too seriously.

Fortunately, in the last 50 years only Chernobyl, rumoured to have been managed by poorly supervised personnel high on vodka, ranks as a devastating accident, although the Fukushima Plant's problems have yet to be solved and the risks contained.

In contrast, think how many more people have died in coalmining accidents during the last 50 years, or had their lungs damaged by an accumulation of lethal dust, not to mention the atmospheric pollution created by this fossil fuel. Think how many people have died in the offshore oil drilling industry, or in refinery blasts and storage tank accidents, not to mention the atmospheric pollution. Think how often you have read about lethal gas explosions taking lives and burning down numerous homes, or accidental deaths among the poor due to the unintentional inhalation of noxious fumes from heating and cooking stoves.

However no one is suggesting that we ban or hold referendums on the use of coal, oil or natural gas.

There is no doubt that safety failures in the Fukushima nuclear reactors, due to the earthquake and tsunami, are setbacks for the industry. The anti-nuclear lobby is now in full cry, despite offering no practical, effective solution to our pressing requirement for non fossil fuels which are actually capable of producing the energy that our societies require. There is room for tolerance and informed debate on this subject but in my experience many of the anti-nuclear lobby are also anti-GDP growth, despite the understandable aspirations of billions of people who wish to improve their standards of living. Presumably, those who would ban nuclear power are also anti-globalisation and anti-technology, perhaps preferring that we lived in the 18th century once again.

I do not think that the anti-nuclear view will prevail in many countries, because no other non fossil fuel technology is even remotely as effective. In the light of Fukushima this will be discussed and debated, necessary safety measures agreed upon and seismically stable sites selected. Countries which aspire to a degree of energy independence, while reducing their carbon emissions, will continue to develop their nuclear power capability, led by China and India.

Fukushima is also a medium-term setback for those of us who have investments in uranium mining companies. It is also an opportunity for those who share our long-term bullish view on nuclear power to buy at prices not seen for a number of months. Tactically, I would do so incrementally and on easing as new support levels will have to be established and this can take time. Additionally, a global correction is underway in response to a trio of Black Swans: a moderate spike in crude oil in response to the Middle East uprisings, the earthquake / tsunami, and the Fukushima Plant problems.

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