45 out of the 60 countries which planned to develop nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster continue to consider it an option for meeting their energy needs in the future.Five years ago, when the largest nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 hit Japan, prospects of nuclear power looked gloomy. However, Valdai club expert Anton Khlopkov, Director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies, believes the worst forecasts regarding future of the industry have not been realised.
“Today, the number of nuclear reactors in the world has returned to the pre-Fukushima level, totalling 442. Their aggregate capacity has increased by 2.5 percent, because old reactors are being replaced by newer and more powerful ones,” the expert said.
Despite the serious damage inflicted by the 2011 disaster, Japan is beginning to revive nuclear power, laying a special emphasis on public relations. “Just look at the figures. Japan operated 53 reactors at the moment of the disaster. Today, the 43 reactors, whose operation was until recently suspended for additional checking, can be operated again. Two reactors were re-started between August and October 2015, followed by another two in February 2016. Japan’s plan is to launch in the near future almost half of reactors operated prior to the disaster. The dynamic is evident,” Khlopkov stressed.
Some countries did revise their nuclear power plans or voiced readiness to do so after the disaster. “First of all, this is Germany,” Khlopkov said, “because it is ready to decommission its nuclear power plants ahead of schedule. A few reactors have already been shut down. But Germany’s reaction to the Fukushima disaster is unique. No other country followed its suit,” he added.
For instance, Switzerland said it would not construct new reactors to replace those operated now, but its current reactors will continue to work till the end of their operation life. “It cannot be ruled out that this decision may be revised in favour of using nuclear energy in the future,” Khlopkov believes.
Another case in point is Italy, which decided to wind down its nuclear energy programme after the Chernobyl disaster. However, plans to revive it emerged not long before the Fukushima accident. “Ironically, a nationwide referendum [on whether to build the nuclear power plants on Italian territory] was scheduled for the period immediately following the Japan nuclear accident, therefore plans of the Italian government to garner popular support for nuclear power were doomed,” the expert said.
Also, there are nuclear newcomers which gave up their ambitions following the Fukushima disaster. “As a rule, these were either countries which planned to develop nuclear energy from scratch or whose plans were unrealistic in the first place, like Bahrain, Venezuela, Kuwait, some countries of Southeast Asia,” Khlopkov said.
Still, 45 out of the 60 countries which planned to develop nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster continue to consider it an option for meeting their energy needs in the future. Some countries can be regarded as the leaders of this group, like United Arab Emirates, which is constructing four reactors at the Barakah nuclear power plant and expected to get the first criticality of the first of the Unit 1 in 2017, or Belarus, which has begun construction at the site of the Ostrovets nuclear power plant. Statistics say that nuclear industry has been able to deal efficiently with the crisis of trust, which began after the Fukushima disaster, the expert believes.
Today, nuclear power accounts for 11% of the total electricity generation in the world with 30 countries operating nuclear power plants. Khlopkov stressed that Asia replaced Europe and North America as the major proponents of nuclear power development, although this happened before the Fukushima accident. “Suffice it to say that ten new reactors were put in operation in 2015 worldwide, including eight in China, one in South Korea, and one in Russia. There is a visible Asian vector, but it is no way related to Fukushima,” director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies said.
According to Khlopkov, the biggest challenge to the nuclear industry today is competitive pressure from cheap carbohydrates. “It is more and more difficult for it to compete with fossil-fuel generation using gas and various oil products. It means that the major nuclear countries should work to find solutions,” Khlopkov said.
Another large-scale task in the nuclear power sphere is decommissioning of old reactors. “More than half of reactors operated in the world are older than 30 years. Therefore, reactors will be decommissioned massively in the coming ten years, which will create a significant financial and technological pressure on the industry,” the expert said.
Khlopkov believes concerns about climate change and interest to develop clean energy can revive interest in nuclear power. “Since nuclear power is a clean energy source if operated accident-free, this can spark new interest in it in the near future,” he said.
According to Khlopkov, although nuclear industry managed to recover in a relatively short time span, it is crucial to learn from the Fukushima experience. “Lessons must be drawn. Incidentally, this opens a window of opportunities for cooperation between Russia and other key global nuclear technologies holders. It is quite clear that all countries investing in nuclear technologies are interested in increasing safety in the industry,” the expert concluded.