The Shin Kori nuclear facility in Ulju, South Korea.— Bloomberg

Global energy crisis prompts revival of nuclear power in Asia

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The Shin Kori nuclear facility in Ulju, South Korea.— Bloomberg

Due to the global energy crisis, Asia is giving the once-disregarded nuclear power industry a second chance, Bloomberg reported.

Japan and South Korea are repealing anti-nuclear policies, while China and India are planning to build more reactors to avoid future supply shortages and reduce emissions. Even developing nations in Southeast Asia are interested in atomic technology.

The embracing of nuclear energy comes after natural gas and coal prices, the two fossil fuels used to generate the majority of Asia’s power, reached all-time highs this year as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the world moves away from Russia, a major fuel exporter, supply will remain tight and prices will remain high for the foreseeable future.

This makes clean and dependable nuclear power very appealing to policymakers and utilities looking to control inflation, achieve green goals, and reduce reliance on foreign energy suppliers.

“Old resistances are crumbling surprisingly fast,” said David Hess, a policy analyst at the World Nuclear Association. “Existing nuclear plants produce some of the cheapest electricity. The skyrocketing natural gas price has made these obvious economic advantages all the more obvious.”

Dramatic turnaround 

It’s a dramatic turnaround for the nuclear industry, which has been plagued by cost overruns, competition from cheaper fossil fuels, and stricter regulations in recent decades. Delays in major nuclear projects forced industry pioneer Westinghouse Electric to declare bankruptcy.

While the nuclear power revival is global, with supporters from the United Kingdom to Egypt, the shift is perhaps most surprising in Asia, given the region’s close proximity to the disaster that struck Japan more than a decade ago.

Nuclear power had a promising future until March 2011, when a massive tsunami struck Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, causing the worst meltdown in decades. The incident convinced some governments that the risks of nuclear power outweighed the benefits, with Germany and Taiwan setting deadlines to close down their fleets of plants. Massive construction costs and frequent delays also served as deterrents.

As power bills rise and nations deal with the inflation caused by fossil fuels, governments are once again considering nuclear power. It uses little uranium, which is currently abundant and produces power continuously, unlike intermittent renewable energy projects like wind and solar.

Advances in producing smaller and cheaper nuclear technology, such as small modular reactors (SMRs), are also boosting the industry. SMRs may become appealing alternatives as tools to combat climate change.

“Fear-based objections that grew from Fukushima have faded, as the extent of that accident was tempered by a decade of scientific research, and Asian countries face more acute – and deadly – threats from energy shortages,” said Brandon Munro, chief executive officer of Bannerman Energy Ltd., an Australian-listed uranium development company.

Next-generation reactors 

That explains why Japan, which relies on imported fuel to generate the majority of its electricity, announced this week that it will investigate the development and construction of next-generation reactors while also advocating for the restart of additional idled nuclear reactors. It’s a complete 180-degree turn for Japan, which had previously stated that it would not build new units or replace old ones.

“Russia’s invasion changed the global energy situation,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Wednesday. “Nuclear power and renewables are essential to proceed with a green transformation.”

South Korea is experiencing a similar shift. This year, voters elected a pro-nuclear president who wants nuclear energy to account for 30% of total energy generation, reversing the previous administration’s plan to phase out reactors. He also promised to make the country a major exporter of nuclear equipment and technology, as well as to integrate nuclear power and renewable energy to achieve carbon neutrality.

China, which is currently dealing with a historic heat wave that has resulted in power shortages in some areas of the country, announced this week that it will accelerate nuclear and hydropower projects.

The country is in the midst of the largest reactor build-out in nuclear industry history to meet its insatiable energy demand while also reducing reliance on dirty coal-fired power plants. According to WNA data, China currently has nearly 24 gigatonnes of nuclear power capacity under construction, with another 34 gigatonnes planned. If all of this comes to fruition, China will be the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy.

India’s massive nuclear power projects 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push into atomic energy is also gaining traction, with India’s largest power producer planning two massive nuclear power projects. The country currently generates approximately 70% of its electricity from coal and approximately 3% from nuclear, but Modi intends to more than triple the country’s nuclear fleet over the next decade.

Even cash-strapped Southeast Asian nations are considering nuclear power. Last month, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told Congress that he plans to investigate nuclear power plants in order to reduce power costs and increase energy sufficiency. Indonesia intends to build its first nuclear power plant in 2045, as part of an ambitious plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.

Singapore announced earlier this year that next-generation nuclear or geothermal technology could account for 10% of its energy mix by 2050. While the details are murky, this represents a shift from a decade ago, when the country determined that conventional reactors were unsuitable.

Not all Asian governments are convinced. Taiwan’s position on nuclear power has not changed. According to the Taipei Times, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced earlier this week that it intends to shut down its reactors at the end of their 40-year lifespans through 2025.

And Europe has demonstrated that even having a massive fleet of reactors does not always guarantee power supply. France, one of the world’s leading nuclear power producers, is dealing with record-high electricity prices, owing in part to a slew of reactor outages.

Meanwhile, next-generation projects like SMRs are years, if not decades, away and do not provide an immediate solution to the current energy crisis. However, governments and businesses are moving to support the technology now in order to avoid future crises.

This month, South Korean conglomerate SK Group announced a $250 million investment in Bill Gates-backed TerraPower LLC. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation invested $110 million in Nuscale Power, a company that is developing SMRs, in March.

“Each country faces its own unique challenges in implementing its nuclear programme,” WNA’s Hess explained. “However, recent events have seen these obstacles vanish or shrink significantly.”

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