Japan crisis hits global nuclear sector

2011-03-14 18:02

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.


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."

  • Chris - 2011-03-14 19:14

    I know this will not be seen as Politically Correct but whatever! Nuclear power is cleaner than coal / more efficient than wind and solar. It is in fact the cleanest and most reliable of all the technologies available. Yes it is worrying what is happening in Japan but please not the position of the reactors - right on a intercontinental plate! Reactors built in "Mid Plate" areas are not subject to the same stresses! I know the Greenies wold love to get rid of the Nuclear industry but there is no viable alternative. Wind Power has not been the silver bullet for Ireland and the Scandinavian countries. Sweden has the most wind turbines but they have not been able to take one coal station off line because the wind power in unreliable and you need to have the coal station ready on standby. Great effort is put in to start a Coal station so it cannot be turned off. Yes there needs to be a revision with respect to the positioning of reactors - but let sense prevail and don't throw the baby out with the bath water!

      theoldmanofthemountains - 2011-03-14 20:53

      Agreed. Unfortunately you're right. Until they manage to crack the fusion reactor riddle, fission it'll have to be...

      ejasmith - 2011-03-16 11:57

      Chris I beg to differ! What about the nuclear waste that has to be stored for thousands of years? How can you claim it is the cleanest of the technologies available? It is potentially the most damaging to the Earth and its inhabitants! What amazes me is that at the first reasonable shake Japan feels, those plants should shut down automatically! There should not be a problem to shut them down in order to prevent a melt down! Nuclear power is not the answer. Japan experienced a disaster that is comparatively small to what Nature can deal out. So what if its much bigger?

      antoncordier - 2011-03-16 21:38

      Hi Chris, All the DSTV news channels, local (RSA) and international channels used a variety of experts, especially nuclear physicist and others to explain observations from real life videos, images, photographs and other information in order explain the Tsunami and the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Their comments are so incomplete and incorrect that the viewers / listeners are left confused and insecure. I find myself fuming listening to some utter nonsense from most of the experts / spokes persons on the Fukushima nuclear incident. Not to mention their open bias towards their discipline of nuclear physics / engineering and the disregard for the ordinary citizens right to have access to correct and unbiased information. The following questions should be asked by South Africans, African Countries and nicely answered or explained to viewers / readers by ESKOM: 1. Are there fault lines in the earth's crust off-shore along the south-eastern and south-western coastlines of South Africa (Western Cape)? 2. Are there fault lines on-shore in the earth’s crust in the Western Cape? 3. Do we have a complete history of earth quakes off-shore and on-shore in South Africa? If so, how often and what was the intensity? 4. If, the answer is yes to question 1 above, then, were there any Tsunami's generated (even very small one's), when, how intensive were they and where did it happened along RSA coastline? 5. Can ESKOM provide us with a 100 % guarantee that an earth quake >9 on the Richter Scale, will never happen in future and that Koeberg nuclear facility will not be damaged, endanger life or sterilise large parts of the Western Cape for 1000's of years? 6. ESKOM should put our mind at ease by revealing the critical / relevant design criteria used in building the Koeberg nuclear facility many decades ago, should such a massive earth quake mentioned in item 5 above ever happen? 6. What will the estimated costs of electricity in ZAR / kW-hr, (including CAPEX and OPEX) are to our nation for 9,600 MW generated by new nuclear plants? 7. Why is that, that ESKOM look at their own interest, business as usual (they will tell RSA what they need), which is kind of disrespectful to our RSA population? After all we all should feel free to voice our opinions in a democratic country, and be given an ear by ESKOM to listen to. 8. Our Government should also take note of large + 600 MW per unit ocean current turbines (excellent base load), and +30 MW wind turbines invented in RSA, for RSA conditions and be build in RSA by South Africans (reduces wind farms). 9. The truth will eventually reach the surface around the events at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. The overall price around this incident is still unknown. South Africans and African’s on our continent should become more involved in debating future energy converter options for RSA, and actively participates in energy strategy / decisions for our future. Anton Cordier 0833841116

  • antoncordier - 2011-03-15 03:16

    South Africans invented ocean current turbines that can provide a continuous base load of electricity in excess of 600 MW per unit, operating in fast flowing Ocean currents across the Globe. Many ocean current turbines can be installed along RSA south-east Agulhas and west coast Benguela Ocean currents. They operate below the surface of the sea. Our company also invented large wind turbines specifically for RSA wind conditions capable of producing electricity up to 50 MW per unit at a wind speed of 12 m/s or 43.2 km/hr. The wind turbines will be more effective when used in conjunction with hydro - electric generation and pumping schemes. More information is available from Design Thinking Solutions Pty Ltd. Anton Cordier. DTS RSA.

      Peter - 2011-03-16 07:55

      Anton, glad to read what you say here. I just cannot understand that people are actually still planning the building of nuclear reactors. The spent fuel is just too much of a problem. The wind my die down but ocean currents are constant. People who cannot 'think green' for power can only think profit - and on a large scale.

      antoncordier - 2011-03-16 21:29

      Hi Peter, What can we say, civilian protest works fairly well as we seen in the world today. Thanks for your comments. PS: Oh, how does +/- R 0.20 per kW-hr (clean electricity) produced by the aforementioned wind and ocean current turbines sound. We don't need large wind farms because one of our wind turbines replaces many of the overseas designs at less than a third of the price! All locally designed and manufactured. (All South Africans please support our local renewable energy efforts and plants) Regards, Anton. Cell 083 384 1116

      Sechaba - 2011-03-17 09:58

      Hi Anton, What you have said sounds great for a layman. How many of the above mentioned energy sources have you guys produced? Which countries are currently using them and how do they rate them so far?

      safarijack - 2011-03-17 10:23

      Hmmmmmm, well I would like to see how you get to that figure of R0.20 per KW-hr and I know that when they did the comparison of coal to nuclear power coal came in at $100 Mwh and nuclear came in $120 Mwh. Wind (onshore, high capacity factor, none base load (never is) $150 Mwh. (google wiki cost per source of electricity) Your suggestion of using Hydro as a energy storage is a good one as it is even cheaper than coal if we look at cost per mwh. However as SA is an arid country it's not really feasible :/. Which leaves gas turbines, ultimately we then substitute one fossil fuel for another, one which has been shown to have a MUCH higher death rate per KWH than nuclear even though it's supplies a fraction of the world's energy supply compared to Nuclear. To Peter, nuclear waste is an issue but it would be ignorant of us to assume that future generations will face this as an insolvable problem, there has been much research with very promising results suggesting that we can build reactors that burn that waste up and transform it into elements that decay far more rapidly. Like all real world problems we need a best fit solution, currently switching to nuclear will mitigate our reliance on coal and natural gas and buy us time to further improve the efficiency of Solar and Wind (and solve that nasty energy storage problem). The result of not going nuclear or abandoning it is more coal, just look at Germany (google it)

  • corro51 - 2011-03-16 15:02

    This is a typical overeaction. Why were all these people not shouting from the rooftops prior to the tsunami ? Hindsight: The most exact science.

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