Nuclear in east Asia – the hotbed?

6 December 2011

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, expectations of the expansion of nuclear power over the next 20 or so years have undoubtedly been lowered. The situation in Japan remains fluid, with some senior politicians coming out for the first time with the view that the country can and must eventually do without nuclear energy. These views have then been opposed by those who argue that nuclear is essential in a developed country devoid of most natural energy resources. Elsewhere, however, nuclear plans are largely unchanged.

South Korea is set to become a major nuclear energy country through technology export. Today 21 reactors provide 31% of South Korea’s electricity from 18.7 GWe of plant. The aim, reaffirmed in mid-2011, is to provide 59% of electricity from 40 units by 2030. In terms of nuclear generating capacity, it is planned to increase by 56% to 27.3 GWe by 2020, and then to 43 GWe by 2030.

Nuclear activities were initiated in the late 1950s. The first nuclear reactor to achieve criticality in South Korea was a small research unit in 1962. Ten years later construction began of the first nuclear power plant, Kori 1. It started up in 1977 and achieved commercial operation in 1978.

South Korean energy policy has been driven by considerations of energy security and the need to minimise dependence on current imports. The policy to have nuclear power as a major element of electricity production is to continue. After drawing on Westinghouse and Framatome (now Areva) technology for its first eight PWR units, and Combustion Engineering (which became part of Westinghouse) for two more, the Korean Standard Nuclear Power Plant (KSNP) became a recognised design, and evolved to the KSNP+. In 2005 the KSNP/KSNP+ was rebranded as OPR-1000 (Optimised Power Reactor) apparently for Asian markets, particularly Indonesia and Vietnam. Six operating units and four under construction are now designated OPR-1000.

Shortly following its sale of four modern nuclear power reactors to the UAE, the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy declared in January 2010 that it aims to achieve exports of 80 nuclear power reactors worth $400 billion by 2030, in the course of becoming the world’s third largest supplier of such technology, with a 20% share of the world market, behind the USA and France or Russia. The Korean industry aims to be 100% self-sufficient by 2012, with no residual intellectual property constraints.

As Japan has few natural resources of its own, it depends on imports for some 84% of its primary energy needs. Initially it was dependent on fossil fuel imports, particularly oil from the Middle East (oil fuelled 66% of the electricity in 1973). This geographical and commodity vulnerability became critical due to the oil shock in 1973. At this time, Japan already had a growing nuclear industry, with five operating reactors. Re-evaluation of domestic energy policy resulted in diversification and in particular, a major nuclear construction programme.

Today, nuclear energy accounts for almost 30% of the country’s total electricity production, which dropped from 47.5 GWe of capacity in March 2011 to 44.6 GWe following the Fukushima accident. There were plans to increase this to 41% by 2017 and 50% by 2030, but these are now very doubtful.

By mid-May 2011, only 17 out of Japan’s 50 remaining nuclear power reactors were in operation. This represents 15,493 MWe, or 35%, of the total remaining nuclear generating capacity of 44,396 MWe. Twenty units, with a combined capacity of 17,705 MWe (40% of total nuclear capacity) were not operating as they had been shut for periodic inspections, while another two units (1700 MWe) had been shut for unplanned inspections or equipment replacement. The chairman of Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC) warned that the organization expected the supply-demand balance in the remainder of 2011 to be very tight in the east coast areas served by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), Tohoku Electric Power Co and Chubu Electric Power Co (60 Hz). He said that all the utilities on the west coast of Japan need to cooperate to transfer electricity to the east coast, noting the significant role of nuclear energy in ensuring a stable power supply.

Construction of new reactors in Japan has ground to a halt post-Fukushima, but significant plans remain to expand nuclear on several sites. Nuclear power’s reputation has taken a severe dent in Japan and the politicians have followed public opinion. Several further older reactors may have to close, but the country will most likely eventually return to a pro-nuclear strategy out of energy need.

Mainland China has 14 nuclear power reactors in operation, with 26 under construction, and even more about to start construction soon. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give a huge increase in nuclear generating capacity to perhaps 70 GWe by 2020 and as much as 200 GWe by 2030. China is also rapidly becoming self-sufficient in reactor design and construction as well as other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Most of mainland China’s electricity is produced from fossil fuels (79% from coal, 2% from oil, 2% from gas) and hydropower (15%). Two large hydro projects are recent additions: Three Gorges of 18.2 GWe and Yellow River of 15.8 GWe.

“Nuclear power's reputation has taken a severe dent in Japan. Several older reactors may have to close, but the country will most likely eventually return to a pro-nuclear strategy out of energy need.”

Rapid growth in demand has given rise to power shortages. Electricity consumption in 2010 increased 14.5% to 4190 billion kWh, according to the China Electricity Council, corresponding to a 10% growth in GDP. Installed generating capacity increased 10% to 962 GWe. At the end of 2010, fossil fuelled capacity (mostly coal) reached 707 GWe, hydro capacity was 213 GWe (up 16.6 GWe in the year), nuclear capacity was 10.8 GWe and wind capacity reached 31 GWe. These capacity increase figures are all the more remarkable considering the forced retirement of inefficient small coal-fired plants: 26 GWe of these were closed in 2009 and 11 GWe in 2010, making 71 GWe closed since 2006.

While coal is the main energy source, most reserves are in the north or northwest and present an enormous logistical problem: up to half of the country’s rail capacity is used in transporting coal. Because of the heavy reliance on old coal-fired plant, electricity generation accounts for much of the country’s air pollution, which is a strong reason to increase nuclear share. China recently overtook the USA as the world’s largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear power has an important role, especially in the coastal areas remote from the coalfields and where the economy is developing rapidly. Generally, nuclear plants can be built close to centres of demand, whereas suitable wind and hydro sites are more remote. Moves to build nuclear power commenced in 1970, and by about 2005, the industry moved into a rapid development phase. Technology has been drawn from France, Canada and Russia, with local development based largely on the French element. The latest technology acquisition has been from the USA (via Westinghouse, owned by Japan’s Toshiba) and France. The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor is the main basis of technology development in the immediate future.

Following the Fukushima accident, the State Council announced that it would suspend approvals for new nuclear power stations and conduct comprehensive safety checks of all nuclear projects, including those under construction. About 34 reactors were already approved by the central government, of which 26 were being built. After three months the inspections of operating plants had been completed and those of plants under construction were planned to have been completed by October.

Taiwan imports 99% of its energy, which is vital to the rapidly industrialising economy. Electricity demand was growing at almost 5% per year, but this is now slowing to about 3% per year to 2013. Nuclear power has been a significant part of the electricity supply for two decades and now provides one quarter of base-load power and 17% overall, though nuclear comprises only 11% of 46 GWe installed capacity. Coal-fired plants comprise 26% of capacity and in 2008 delivered 38% of the power.

The three Taiwanese nuclear plants comprise four General Electric boiling water reactors and two Westinghouse pressurised water reactors. Construction of the first unit began in 1972. They are all operated by the utility Taipower under the Ministry of Economic Affairs and are expected to have 40-year lifetimes.

There are two 1350 MWe Advanced Boiling Water Reactors under construction at Lungmen, near Taipei. Contracts were awarded to GE for the nuclear reactors, Mitsubishi for the turbines and several other companies for the remainder, making it a particularly difficult project to manage. Construction began in 1999 with intention of completion in 2004. When the two reactors were one-third complete, a new cabinet cancelled the project, but work resumed the following year later after legal appeal and a government resolution in favour. The project was thus significantly delayed, with completion of the first unit now expected to be late in 2012 or early 2013.

Nuclear output on Taiwan is very cost-competitive (at US$ 1.9 cents/kWh in 2008) now that the six reactors have been depreciated. Average Taiwan generation cost was 7.0 c/kWh in 2008, with coal-fired generation US$ 5.8 cents/kWh, and LNG US$ 11.25 cents/kWh.

The obvious common thread in the pro-nuclear strategy of Korea, Japan and Taiwan has been their lack of domestic energy resources. They fear the vulnerability of importing large quantities of fossil fuels from potentially politically-volatile areas of the world; nuclear acts as a hedge against this. Nuclear fuel can be acquired from many politically-stable countries around the world and can readily be stored in large quantities, unlike coal, oil or gas. The countries also have seen the price volatility in fossil fuel markets and wish to have some protection against this. Nuclear generating costs have historically been remarkably stable, despite some recent increases in the cost of uranium. The environmental advantages of nuclear are also well-appreciated as carbon emissions are a significant factor in very industrialised countries.

China is in a slightly different position, as it has abundant coal reserves and also some oil and gas. The problem there is more one of environmental protection rather than energy security, and policies have been set to clean up the air by installing more nuclear and renewables. China would appear to be indifferent as to whether its environmental targets are achieved by more nuclear or more renewables (it has by far the biggest renewable energy programme in the world); it will no doubt settle on a mixture of both. Longer term, the Chinese seem committed to a reprocessing strategy for their used nuclear fuel and are already leaders in advanced reactor technology which will utilise uranium and plutonium recycled from today’s used fuel inventory.

In conclusion, East Asia needs nuclear. Vietnam is likely to join the others as a nuclear country before 2020, initially (at least) relying on Russian technology. Given the scale of nuclear new build in East Asia, the experience will provide important lessons for the remainder of the world, in particular how to manage projects for large numbers of standardised reactors. The lower costs of these will arguably spread to the rest of the world, where nuclear currently faces a severe economic challenge from gas plants which are much cheaper to build.

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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