Nuclear renaissance continues despite Fukushima
China, India and Russia in race to expand capacity and build new reactors amid climate change fears. By Apinya Wipatayotin
Although nuclear energy is carbon-free, global communities are reluctant to utilise this alternative power source due to concern about radioactive contamination.
The industry hit a new low in March 2011 after a tsunami struck a nuclear power plant in the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima, which led to a number of nuclear meltdowns, explosions and radioactive seepage. This incident rekindled fears inspired by earlier high-profile nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.
Shortly after the events that unfolded in Japan, the German government decided to redirect attention and support towards renewable energy.
But as China and India race to expand their nuclear capacity and build new reactors, and with climate change a growing concern, the World Nuclear Association said in a 2015 report that there are "signals [of] a revival in support for nuclear power in the West".
Despite all the negative fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Russia's Rosatom, a state atomic energy corporation and one of the world's largest developers of nuclear power plants, also continues to express optimism about the industry.
According to this Russian government-owned outfit, the Nuclear Renaissance that has been whispered about in the West since 2001 has arrived.
Kirill Komarov, first deputy director-general of Rosatom state atomic Corp, insists nuclear power is still significant and can be mixed with other sources to create sustainable and balanced energy.
Many studies show that renewable energy should not account for more than 40% of power production worldwide as a larger ratio could lead to management problems.
Mr Komarov said the company has inked a deal to collaborate with China, India, Saudi Arabia and other countries to develop nuclear power plants.
"We are not slowing down. A lot of work as been done, including the construction of new plants in many countries, especially in Saudi Arabia," he said.
The company's decade-long international contract portfolio grew 21% to US$133 billion at the end of last year, it said. This year it expects to generate income from its $460-million contract with Iran, Bulgaria and China.
Rosatom now claims to be the world leader in terms of simultaneously implemented nuclear reactor construction projects, with eight in Russia and 34 abroad.
Meanwhile, Mr Komarov stressed that last year's climate change meeting in Paris generated aggressive demand for global cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advocating for renewable energy.
According to a report released last month by Research and Markets on the offshore wind market by component and region, wind energy prevented up to 637 million tonnes of carbon emissions globally in 2016. It said the global offshore wind market is forecast to jump from $27 billion to $55 billion in 2022.
Rosatom said it has striven to boost belief in nuclear technology in two areas -- increasing public confidence about nuclear technology, and upgrading technology to reach credible safety standards.
This year, the company organised the "IX International Forum AtomExpo 2017" in Moscow, which brought together more than 1,000 participants from 62 countries. Over 100 leading international enterprises in the global nuclear power industry presented new technologies.
Nuclear energy should become a key player in power generation due to its reliability and cost-efficiency, according to Anton Poryadin, partner and head of strategy and transformation practices CIS at Ernst & Young.
But plants must be altered to meet clients' demands -- such as downsizing reactors, better managing waste and maintaining fuel efficiency -- without letting environmental concerns be swept under the carpet, he said.
Others see nuclear power as a way to fight the gradual heating-up of the planet, with Rosatom claiming such plants could be used to meet the targets set out in the International Energy Agency's (IEA) 2-degree scenario (2DS), which aims to limit warming to under 2 degrees Celsius.
Nuclear currently accounts for 11% of the global power supply. Under 2DS, Rosatom envisions the global nuclear capacity reaching 529 gigawatts by 2025, up from 413GW now.
An estimated 20GW of new capacity is expected to be reached within the next three to four years, with another 30GW to be met by 2025 if construction is sustained along earlier lines.
The future of nuclear power development depends on two key questions, according to William Magwood IV, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The first asks whether people are actively thinking about climate change; the second questions whether nuclear plants can realistically solve problems related to carbon emissions. If both answers align, more nuclear plants should be developed globally, he said.
Yet he admitted nuclear waste remains a pressing concern and a challenge that must still be overcome with the help of research and technological developments.
Rosatom recently introduced its so-called 3+ VVER-1200 reactors at Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant in central Russia. It claims these are the most technologically advanced power units in the world, capable of increasing capacity by 20% to double their service lifespan.
A range of technological solutions implemented under the project guarantees nuclear safety at the plant and eliminates the risk of radioactive emissions hurting the environment, the company said.
The unit has two protective shells and a ventilation area between them to contain leakages and fully safeguard the reactor and plant, it added.