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#4255, 13 January 2014

Nuke Street

Nuclear Power: An Annual Report Card
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

The global nuclear power scenario showed signs in 2013 of gradually emerging from the post-Fukushima freeze. The impact of Fukushima remained still formidable in Japan as the year saw the trickle of persistent bad news from the Daichi units in Japan and TEPCO struggling to cope with the problems. Prime Minister Abe, however, has made concerted effort to bring some traction to the Japanese nuclear industry. As the year ended, sixteen Japanese nuclear power units had filed applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority for restarting the power production. Globally, the diminishing trend in both capacity and output witnessed in 2011-12 due to Fukushima induced shut-downs in Japan and Germany seems to have stopped in 2013. While four reactors were permanently shut down in the US, new reactors were connected to the grid elsewhere, three in China and one in India (Kudankulam). Thus, the total number of operating reactors worldwide remained the same. Nuclear power’s share of world electricity production also remained around 11 per cent.

For the first time since 1974, construction commenced of two new reactors at two sites in the US. These new reactor projects were among ten that started worldwide, including one in UAE. Who in the 1970s would have imagined that the Emirates too would launch nuclear power projects?

The US posted the best global figures so far regarding the actual generation of power from existing nuclear plants. The US achieved through steady improvements high load factors and its best performing reactors now make up nearly half of the global top 50 performers – even as the four reactors that were shut down were reported to have diverse insurmountable problems that had plagued their continuation. At the other extreme, the Philippines, which had mothballed its 621 MW nuclear power reactor, built by the Westinghouse in the 1980s, was actively considering  restarting it - the IAEA in a study done in 2008 had concluded that the plant could be run safely and would be economical too if suitable upgrades were done. The Korea Electric Power Company which was hired to conduct a feasibility study for the Philippines government had recommended that the plant be refurbished.

In the context of the rising power demand, it is yet to be seen whether the severe winter storms that have raged in North America and Europe would reinitiate the skepticism about nuclear power’s role in the energy mix; skepticism that was spawned by the Fukushima aftermath. It is not wind nor solar that could provide an assured base load in such emergencies. 

As for new reactor designs, while the fast reactors still remain promising for the future, the SMR (Small Modular Reactor), also made headlines during the year, with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission giving it a nod. As the US Secretary of Energy stated “Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology and provide a strong opportunity for America to lead this emerging global industry.” The US Department of Energy also authorised funding for SMR and reflected the drive in the US for new technological options for future energy challenges. It is relevant to quote the US Secretary of Energy in this context - “We think these technologies, and there are a multiplicity of them, as you know, (and) are very, very, very promising. Very interesting features, passive safety features, nice security features, underground siting, factory production, hopefully driving down costs, more flexibility, including flexibility in financing inherent to the scale, but of course we won’t really know about the cost performance until we get small modular reactors out there.” In the light of these clear positions it would not be correct to underestimate, as some anti-nuclear campaigners in India persist in doing, the true potential of India-US nuclear cooperation in diverse ways. 

China remained the leader in new constructions even though in terms of global power outputs so far China figures near the bottom of the graph where lead entries are from Russia and the OECD countries such as US, France, UK, OECD Europe and South Korea. While China’s agreement to supply four nuclear power reactors to Pakistan has been in the news, what is not examined carefully is whether China may bid to emerge as a major exporter of nuclear power plants in the coming decades. According to a US energy analyst the International Marketing Head for China Nuclear Power Engineering Company - China’s largest nuclear plant builder - plans to dominate the nuclear power market worldwide, just with present technology. Thus while others debate about the Generation 4 technology and explore options to effectively answer nuclear power critics on safety, security, non-proliferation and waste management, not to mention public perceptions, the Chinese nuclear juggernaut might be heading its own way on just what China has. If such perceptions are valid, the sheer size of Chinese nuclear enterprise might cast a different spell on NSG proceedings. Who would in the suppliers’ cartel cross-examine China? India’s place is almost invisible in the global capacity graph for nuclear electricity with less than 5000 MW out of the global total of 375000 MW. So much for the realisation of promises articulated ten years ago.

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