China and India-now even more important to nuclear?

13 September 2011

In the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, many people are questioning the future of nuclear power or, at the very least, asking how much negative influence it will have on future plans. It is obviously still a little early to say with any precision what the final outcome for nuclear will be, particularly as the accident is still effectively in progress, with the possibility of further problems still to be uncovered.

Nevertheless, we can say a couple of things at this point. First of all, despite all the news and speculation over the past few months, nobody has lost their life owing to the nuclear incident and it is unlikely that anyone, beyond a few of the more exposed workers, will suffer any additional cancer risk in the future. There may be some adverse psychological reactions for people living nearby resulting from the accident, but these will likely be small compared with those stemming directly from the wider earthquake and tsunami, which killed around 25,000 people and caused huge devastation. The major impact of Fukushima is likely to be the economic cost of making the reactors safe, closing them down earlier than expected, losing the cheap power and also of imposing the exclusion zone for a considerable period, moving people and their workplaces to other locations.

The second point is that the world energy supply and demand situation remains essentially the same, post-Fukushima. There remains an enormous demand for clean electricity in the future, if both economic and environmental targets are to be met. The International Energy Agency’s work emphasizes that it is almost impossible to achieve these if we rule out any of the possible contributors to this, such as nuclear. Hence Japan has sensibly emphasized the need for more energy-saving and an increased role for renewable energy post-Fukushima, but still sees nuclear as a very important element in its clean energy strategy. Some reactors, such as those at Hamaoka, will be shut down for a while and new reactors will undoubtedly be delayed, but the strong commitment to nuclear will remain because it is necessary.

Other countries haven’t been so sanguine. Germany has shut down its older reactors without any new consideration of their safety – this move is clearly purely political in motive. Given the weaknesses of Merkel’s coalition government and strength of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany (which arguably results from the now remote weapons link and Germany’s position in the front line of the Cold War), it was always doubtful that the life extensions for reactors which were agreed relatively recently could be delivered in reality. In the aftermath of Fukushima, it seems that the most likely outcome is a return to the previous Nuclear Law in Germany, with a phase out of all reactors by the early 2020s. Switzerland too has acted, with the government having advocated no operating life extensions for the existing five reactors and no replacements for them – hence another slow phase out of nuclear.

Elsewhere the reaction has been more tempered (and arguably rational – why should an exceptional natural event, almost impossible in most parts of the world, influence policy unless there are some new discoveries about specific reactor safety?). One prospective growth area for nuclear that may be adversely affected by Fukushima are the prospective nuclear countries. Some of these are clearly subject to tsunamis and public opinion may well be an important factor in any nuclear programmes going forward. South East Asia is the key area here and it may now be rather more difficult to start nuclear power in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam for this reason. At the very least, sites will have to be very carefully chosen and sufficient tsunami defences designed in.

In other countries, nuclear plans may now be subject to reappraisals and possible delays. Yet in the United Kingdom, for example, the impact seems very limited with regard to the prospective new build plans, where the key issues essentially lie elsewhere. This may go for others too, but Fukushima will be used as a convenient excuse for a delay of a few years in some countries where the plans were rather optimistic; this is only to be expected.

So as things stand now, the impact on world nuclear prospects is likely to be noticeable, but at the same time somewhat limited. Forecasting bodies are cutting their reactor scenarios for the period to 2020 and then out to 2030 with the average cut in the order of between 5 and 10%. With current world nuclear generating capacity at about 375 GWe, on most reference scenarios, this will knock out about 50 GWe of prospective nuclear capacity of 600 GWe by 2030. This would amount to not building maybe between 40-50 large reactors, spread around the world, but the cut in generating capacity may alternatively be down to additional closures rather than cuts to new reactor build aspirations.

One inevitable consequence of Fukushima, however, is that the substantial nuclear programmes in both China and India have become even more important in the future of nuclear. The trend for the centre of gravity of general nuclear activity to spread eastwards is now very well-established. It can be said to have started with the Japanese and Korean nuclear expansions, but the lack of new build activity elsewhere in the world over the past decade has turned the spotlight very suddenly to China and India. As things stand today, there are 61 reactors under construction around the world, of which in China alone there are 27. On nuclear generating capacity too, China now has almost half of the world’s current programme. India is currently some way behind, with only 5 units currently under construction.

However, it is when the full Chinese and Indian plans for nuclear are examined that the numbers get really impressive. Of reactors considered to be at the planned and proposed stages (at the minimum, these must have a specific site or programme outlined) and that should be completed by 2030, China has about a third of the world total, amounting to 160 units out of 480. We can also identify about 60 units for India on this measure, the second biggest in the world ahead of Russia with about 50 (but Russia now has double the units currently under construction than India).

Naturally, it is easy to cast doubt about the ability of both China and India to fulfil plans at these levels. China's plans would take it to around 200 GWe of nuclear capacity in 2030, after reaching about 70 GWe in 2020. This is certainly a big stretch from where it is today, with only 13 units and 10 GWe in operation (and only Ling Ao 4 close to commissioning). Two hundred GWe is double the current US capacity. Once the 27 units now under construction are completed (which should be by 2015), this plan would require an average of nine large reactors a year to be put online until 2030. This rate may sound outrageous based on recent world reactor build trends, but is not so extravagant when it is recalled that France (whose population of 50 million is 26 times smaller than China's) commissioned 50 new reactors between 1977 and 1990, with 15 alone in the two-year period 1980-1981.

Anyone who has visited China will confirm that completing a major infrastructure investment of this magnitude is certainly not beyond it. Within a very short time, Chinese developers have created an inter-provincial highway system akin to the US interstates, a high-speed rail network, new airports for every significant city, and a huge amount of concomitant commercial and residential construction. They have also built a huge amount of electricity-generating capacity, mainly coal-fired (but with a lot of hydro and bits of renewables and nuclear too). They are now committed to stiff low-emission and clean air targets for the future, so are moving their plans strongly towards renewables (where they also have easily the world’s biggest programme) and nuclear.

The Chinese ability to deliver in nuclear is certainly subject to doubt. All the usual arguments about lack of trained people, high-quality components and fuel get mentioned, but probably the biggest concern is on the regulatory side. Moving from a small number of plants to a massive programme will impose a lot of strains and likely cause some delays. The authorities are not going to allow the expansion to run excessive risks. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the Chinese authorities have ordered safety checks on existing reactors and those under construction, while pausing the regulatory approval process for others. Even before Fukushima, a view that their nuclear expansion was running too fast for comfort was already apparent in China; so now the regulators have the perfect excuse to pause for breath. Nevertheless, the target of 70 GWe by 2020 is still semi-officially mentioned and is quite realistic, assuming the next group of reactors get through the regulatory system and construction begins over the next few years. There are plenty of planned reactor sites in China but those with seismic issues in the inland provinces such as Sichuan will now have to pass further scrutiny.

India is a very different situation; those trying to draw close parallels between the Indian and Chinese programmes are undoubtedly wide of the mark. One advantage that the Indians possess, which is not shared by the Chinese, is a deep and long-standing commitment to civil nuclear, going back to the early days after independence in the 1950s. In China, until very recently, nuclear gained little attention with the state planners and was not seen as important to the future. The change has come with the appreciation of its potential role in a clean energy future. The problem with nuclear in India, however, in common with many other areas of the economy, has been a big failure to deliver on the expansive plans that have been around for years. There may be 20 reactors in operation in India today, but they amount to only 4.4 GWe.

Yet there are two reasons today to be more optimistic. Firstly, the economy is at last doing very well. While it may not be achieving the 10% GDP growth rates of China, it is not far behind. Many areas of the economy are booming; not just the IT and outsourcing (which everyone knows about) but many other key areas too, like steel production and automotive, while there is plenty of money for investment. The second reason for hope is the opening up of the Indian market. In the 2008 deal instigated by the United States, the Nuclear Suppliers Group loosened up its restrictions on trading with India imposed for non-proliferation reasons. This means that India, which is short of uranium owing to relatively poor domestic resources, can now import nuclear fuel and also reactor technology from other countries. There are now effectively two nuclear programmes in India: the indigenous one based on heavy water reactors, which is designed to move through fast reactors to thorium-fuelled advanced heavy water reactors. The second programme is the development of light water reactors from foreign suppliers. Contracts have been granted to Russia (an additional site beyond Kudankulam, where two VVER-1000s are nearing completion), Areva and eventually (subject to nuclear liability concerns) to GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse too.

Despite the support of the government, potential investors from other sectors and the major Indian engineering companies, doubts about the Indian programme centre on developers' inability, so far, to deliver on huge infrastructure projects of the sort the Chinese specialize in. Having a very active democracy will also undoubtedly impose some public acceptance problems, notably concerning land rights in some of the proposed reactor locations. Yet their plans up to 2030 are much more modest, heading towards 60-70 GWe by 2030. It is in the period beyond 2030 when the Indian planners are looking to bring in a huge amount of nuclear power to replace coal generation, for environmental and security-of-supply reasons. One important step post-Fukushima is the re-establishment of the Indian regulatory body on a much more independent basis.

Beyond China and India, nuclear growth over the next few years is likely to remain weak in Europe and North America. Russia remains a bright spot (but like India has some uncertainties on delivery); South Korea will continue on its programme; and the Middle East remains a bright spot. The eventual hope is that if the Chinese and Indian programmes are successful, building large numbers of standardized reactors there will bring a huge amount of relevant experience (and a lower cost base) to new build elsewhere. Then some of the better established nuclear countries will start building in volume once again. The world energy situation suggests a continuing need for a large expansion of nuclear power.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is deputy director general of the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was still the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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