Fukushima crisis imperils global nuclear development
It is impossible to clearly forecast what consequences the crisis at Japan’s nuclear plants will have for the global nuclear industry, because the situation has not yet stabilized. Nobody can say with any confidence what will happen next or where it will stop. Therefore, our short- and medium-term forecasts are based on the assumption that the situation in Japan will not deteriorate further.
First, a number of countries will suspend nuclear development and modernization programs that have been approved. Germany and Switzerland have already done some steps in that direction. In addition, nuclear energy-related issues will rise to the top of some countries’ political agendas, above all in Europe, and become a visible element of election campaigns.
Second, the consequences of the Japanese nuclear disaster will be especially serious in the countries situated in seismically active regions. For them, the situation in Japan may signify an end to their nuclear construction and development plans.
The obvious example is Indonesia, which is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. It has 400 volcanoes, 100 of them active, and accounts for about 90% of earthquakes worldwide. The Indonesian authorities have been seriously considering developing a nuclear industry and planned to commission their first nuclear power plant by the end of this decade. Now it is highly unlikely that Indonesia will build nuclear power plants any time in the next 20 years.
Russia may have to review the seismic safety standards for expected new power reactor in Armenia, which is located in seismic active zone. On August 20, 2010, Russia and Armenia signed an intergovernmental agreement on the joint manufacturing of power units to replace the VVER-440 reactor that will be decommissioned in Armenia after 2016. Magnitude 6 and 7 shocks were recorded near the Metsamor nuclear power plant in Armenia during the destructive earthquake at Spitak in 1988, but the plant continued its work.
Third, the situation in Japan, unless it deteriorates dramatically, is unlikely to seriously influence the development and modernization plans of those countries that have been developing the nuclear power industry for a long time. The main reason is that no alternative energy source on the table today can match nuclear power in capacity terms.
It is important that alternative energy projects are being developed, as the disaster in Japan has demonstrated, but admittedly they are not currently in a position to fully replace nuclear power. Japan, where this tragedy is playing out, could be the exception. Its government may be prompted to take extreme measures, including shutting down some power units located in seismically hazardous regions and of the same design as in Fukushima. But it is impossible to imagine it shutting down all 54 nuclear power units which currently generate 30% of Japan’s electricity.
There are other countries that are heavily dependent on nuclear power and will be unable to replace it with any other energy in the medium term. For example, nuclear power plants generate close to 80% of France’s electricity. The United States has 104 operating nuclear power units.
But this does not mean scientists should not try to solve the global challenge facing them, notably, search for radically new, safer sources of energy comparable in yield to nuclear power. As it is, we must develop new standards and requirements for sites selected for nuclear power plant construction as well as for reactor designs. This process should be lead by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Japan has accumulated considerable experience when it comes to nuclear energy, including in dealing with nuclear accidents. Of course, none of the preceding accidents were of a comparable scale to the current disaster, but Japanese professionals and scientists have learned from their previous experience when working to remedy the situation. Had a comparable accident happened in a country that was only beginning to develop a nuclear industry, the consequences for the region, and the nuclear industry globally, would have been much more dramatic.
The effect of these unfolding events in Japan will also be felt in Russia’s export nuclear projects.
The Russian nuclear power corporation Rosatom has ambitious plans. There are nuclear cooperation agreements with over 50 countries. Rosatom has a goal to build 26 power units abroad. This year, two power units are to be commissioned at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in India and the first unit is expected to come on stream at Bushehr in Iran, despite a recent malfunction of a pump in the plant.
Russia is also building two more power units for the Tianwan plant in China, and there are plans to build two power units for the Bulgarian nuclear station at Belene. Last year Russia won bids for the construction of nuclear power plants in Turkey and Vietnam, while India plans to increase the number of nuclear reactors built to Russian designs to 12. A two-unit nuclear power plant could also be built in Belarus under an agreement singed on March 15, 2011.
I don’t think the disaster in Japan will seriously change this program, but it may force some countries to postpone the implementation of their projects, for example in Turkey, although not for seismic reasons.
Turkey’s nuclear plans could be affected by the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. It is politically rather a stable country, but events in neighboring countries could influence its priorities, prompting it to postpone construction work on the nuclear power plant. Conversely, events in the region could have the opposite effect: if hydrocarbon prices continue to grow while nuclear plans are put on the back burner, Turkey could decide to step up the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
When talks on the Bushehr plant began in the late 1980s, Iran insisted that it should be built on the Caspian shore in the north of the country, but Russian geologists said the region was seismically hazardous. Iran eventually opted to build the plant in the south of the country.
Anton Khlopkov is founding director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow, editor-in-chief of the Nuclear Club journal.