Asia's surge to nuclear power

Asia Banks on Nuclear Power

Dr .Young Bok Chae, Minister of Science and Technology, Republic of Korea (Credit: D Calma)

In Asia, new nuclear power plants are on the horizon, a sign of rising electricity demand and energy economics. Seventeen new reactors are under construction and at least 19 more are planned. In sharp contrast, across the other side of the world, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Norway have banned nuclear power. Belgium, Germany and Sweden have policies to phase it out. So what is driving these differences?

For the Republic of Korea – one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world – economics is key. Nuclear power is seen as a cheap, sustainable and clean energy source. Korean Science and Technology Minister, Dr. Young Bok Chae, told the IAEA General Conference in Vienna that his country was on the way to building eight new reactors. "Korea has 17 nuclear power plants in operation, which supply over 40% of the nation´s total electricity. Three units are under construction, and eight more units will be built by 2015," he said.

Korea's interest in nuclear energy is due to a lack of indigenous energy resources and subsequent concerns about supply diversity and security, according to Il Dong Kim, Senior Manager, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power. "Korea has few natural energy resources. The cost of fossil fuels is high, as we import most of our oil, coal and gas. Nuclear power is an important part of our energy mix to allow us to meet peak demand now and into the future," Mr. Kim said. Including nuclear power in the energy pool can also be a useful hedge against volatile fuel prices and exchange rates.

The latest IAEA Nuclear Technology Review found that steep fossil fuel prices and high priority of energy supply were also important factors in recent decisions by China, India, and Japan to build new nuclear power plants. "Just as it was earlier in countries like France, Germany and Sweden," the report said.

In Western Europe today, it is a very different picture. There and in North America, new nuclear power plants are less of an option than in Asia for various reasons. Commenting on the future of nuclear power in his opening address to the IAEA General Conference, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei said: "For a number of years, I have been stressing that the future of nuclear power will depend on sustaining a strong safety record, improving economic competitiveness, demonstrating waste management solutions and technological developments – in short, regaining public support."

The financial bottom line is one key factor stopping the West from constructing new reactors. Typically nuclear power plants are two to four times more expensive to build than fossil-fuelled plants. So rather than constructing new plants, the West's focus is on getting more out of existing reactors. Nuclear power plants today produce more electricity than ever before. Performance has improved by about 11% from 1990 to 2001. For many countries, improving old, rather than constructing new, power plants has become the way forward.

Trends may change. In May this year the Finish Parliament decided in principle to build a fifth Finnish nuclear power plant. It is the first decision to build a new reactor in Western Europe in 15 years. Similarly the United States Government has committed to having a new, nuclear plant operating in the USA before the end of the decade. It will be the first to be built there since the late 1970s.

There is also growing interest in "lifetime extensions" of existing nuclear power reactors. Ten United States reactors have already been granted license renewals that would increase their licensed lifetimes to 60 years, and 37 additional plants have applied for license renewal.

"Extending the operating life of existing nuclear plants is economically attractive because it requires relatively little new capital expenditure, and reduces the short term need for new generating capacity; however, it also requires particular attention to the safety of ageing equipment and systems," Dr ElBaradei said. About one-third of the worldwide installed nuclear capacity is over 20 years old.

The future of nuclear power will depend to a large extent on continually improving the economic competitiveness of new nuclear power plants in the global market, the IAEA Nuclear Technology Review concluded. Other contributing factors include: fossil fuel prices, the priority given to energy supply security, restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, growing energy demand, regulatory uncertainties and innovations and the political will to move ahead on waste disposal.

Last update: 12 November 2014