Japan crisis hits global nuclear sector

2011-03-14 18:02
The Japanese nuclear disaster has prompted world-wide concern over nuclear energy. (AP)

The Japanese nuclear disaster has prompted world-wide concern over nuclear energy. (AP)

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Singapore - Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants and Germany cast doubts about its industry after the Japanese nuclear crisis, raising questions over the future of the global sector.

Taiwan's state-run Taipower also said it was studying plans to cut nuclear power output.

The crisis at the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear power complex north of Tokyo is likely to increase opposition to major nuclear expansion in Europe and hurt a renaissance for the sector in the US, which already has more than 100 reactors.

Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard suspended the approvals process for three nuclear power stations so safety standards can be revisited after the crisis in Japan.

However, the disaster might give renewable energy technologies and greener fuels such as LNG sector a boost in the quest for safer energy.

Impact

The crippled Japanese plant, near the epicentre of Friday's 8.9 magnitude quake, suffered a second explosion on Monday. Of Japan's 54 reactors, 11 are shut down because of the quake.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Monday that a government decision to extend the life of the country's nuclear power stations could be suspended following the crisis in Japan.

US Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Senate's homeland security panel, said on Sunday the US should "put the brakes on" new nuclear power plants until the impact of the incident in Japan became clear.

"I don't think nuclear is going to be done away with but it is likely that people's nuclear programs will be delayed as they question whether it is the right thing to," said Simon Powell, head of sustainable research at CLSA in Hong Kong.

"The nuclear power industry is likely to shrink due to Japan's nuclear accident," said an executive at state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (Kepco).

"Rising opposition is seen in developed countries, although developing countries may see less opposition due to their shortage of power unless they reside in earthquake zones," the executive said.

Asia's insatiable appetite for electricity is however unlikely to derail nuclear programmes but would likely lead to a reassessment of safety procedures or designs and a further diversification of energy sources.

Renewable energy

Globally, renewable energy such as wind power could benefit in the medium term.

KGI Asia analyst Jennifer Liang said the nuclear incident had strengthened the case for safer sources of renewable energy. But she also pointed to the current limitations of green energy.

"The solar or wind industry is still young and is unlikely to replace nuclear use in the near or medium term," she said from Taipei. "How do you replace the base load power from nuclear?"

Nuclear accounts for 30% of Japan's electricity.

"While Japan may stick to nuclear, it [nuclear programme] will likely suffer delays and there will be more cost overruns," said Thiemo Lang, a Zurich-based senior portfolio manager with Sustainable Asset Management.

"Going forward, the scenario would be that Japan will reassess its nuclear programme and will tap natural gas to assure energy supply and increase renewables," Lang added.

The risks associated with nuclear energy could further push new-build programmes to the backburner in Britain and the US, global political risk analysts the Eurasia Group said in a note.

Cautious target

China, which has 13 reactors in operation and dozens under construction or planned, said its plants are safe but that the government would learn lessons from the Japanese crisis.

"Up to now we are paying attention to the impact of the earthquake on Japan's nuclear equipment and we are paying attention to how the situation develops," Zhang Lijun, vice-minister for environmental protection, told reporters on Saturday.

But the decision and schedule to develop nuclear power was unchanged, Zhang said. China's nuclear firms say the country is capable of building as much as 100GW of capacity by 2020, but there have been signs the government is going for a more cautious target of 70GW.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), the country's monopoly nuclear power producer, said the events in Japan had prompted a safety review.

NPCIL operates 20 reactors with an installed capacity of 4 780MW and the sector, estimated at about $150bn over the next 15 years, is tightly controlled by the government.

Indian officials and industry said the government could now face calls to go slow on nuclear power and push renewable sources.

"What could now happen is the government will have to go slow with focus now more on greater scrutiny, robust safeguards, site selection. So we are looking at longer gestation periods," said Robinder Sachdev, head of strategic think tank ImagIndia Institute.

Public sentiment


South Korea plans to add 14 nuclear power reactors through to 2024, on top of existing 21 to boost energy security and reduce planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

The economy ministry said in a statement on Monday it would evaluate the shortcomings of Japan's nuclear power plants, and implement changes as necessary.

Shares in nuclear power related stocks tumbled on Monday, with shares in nuclear power plant designer Kepco Engineering & Construction plunging 14.7% and KR Plant Service & Engineering , which maintains and operates nuclear facilities, falling 14.5%.

Uranium miners Energy Resources of Australia , a unit of global miner Rio Tinto fell 12.2% and Paladin dived 16.5%.

But shares in renewable energy companies rose in Hong Kong, with GCL Poly Energy, China's top polysilicon maker, and China Longyuan Power Group showing gains. South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted representatives of opposition parties as saying the government should review its plan to boost nuclear power.

The crisis in Japan would further hurt public sentiment because it reminded the public of the risks after the Three Mile Island disaster in the US in 1979 or Chernobyl in 1986. Nuclear risks are also a potent issue in Japan, the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack.

"People are risk averse and, under normal circumstances, nuclear power is not particularly risky," said Stephen Lincoln, who teaches nuclear chemistry at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.

"But people are probably more worried about nuclear power because it is a rather mysterious thing. Whereas if you can see a windmill turning or you can see a solar panel, people can pretty much see what's going on."
Read more on:    japan  |  earthquakes  |  nuclear  |  japan earthquake
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