SEOUL // The global nuclear industry could take at least a decade to recover from the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima disaster, industry executives warn.
A year has passed since the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the nuclear plant and sent three reactors into meltdown. Since then, all but two of Japan's 54 reactors remain shut down - and Germany, Italy and Switzerland have decided to abandon atomic energy.
NUKE, the stock index in London tracking nuclear suppliers and operators, is more than 30 per cent below its pre-Fukushima levels.
In Seoul this week, more than 50 world leaders will gather for the Nuclear Security Summit 2012. The UAE delegation will be led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
Executives attending the summit said more transparency was needed to regain public support for atomic energy, and new technologies such as Generation IV reactors need to be developed to make the industry competitive again, say executives. Most reactors currently being built are Generation III.
Ten years is an "optimistic" timetable, said Helmut Engelbrecht, the chief executive of Urenco, a uranium fuel supply company based in the United Kingdom.
"These things need to be accelerated, and it will take 10 years before we get up to commercial, attractive solutions," Mr Engelbrecht said on the sidelines of a nuclear industry summit in Seoul. "It took very long after Chernobyl. We hope it will be faster this time."
The industry marks its history with major accidents - Three Mile Island (in the US in 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine 1986) and now Fukushima - that spurred improvements in design and safety standards but also slowed the construction of new plants and recruitment of the nuclear workforce.
Fukushima put a damper on a resurgence in nuclear construction driven by a desire for inexpensive, low-emissions power, particularly in developing nations.
It also sparked a campaign for transparency. South Korea created an independent watchdog, and Japan's regulator, once part of the ministry that promoted nuclear technology, is also to become independent.
"The nuclear industry will recover in a manner different than what we saw after the events at Three Mile Island and after the events at Chernobyl," said Charles Pardee, the chief operating officer of Exelon, a nuclear provider in the US.
"We've spent a lot more time in the last year out in front of our stakeholders - the communities in which we operate our power plants, our elected officials, the citizens who work in our power plants," he said. "All of the stakeholders that hold some interest in safe operation have been attended to by various members of the nuclear industry to make sure that we are as transparent as we possibly can be."
The task of communicating with the public has become a sensitive topic in South Korea since an accident in February at Kori 1, a 34-year-old reactor that was in cold shutdown at the time.
A 12-minute power outage that allowed the temperature of the core coolant and spent fuel ponds to rise above regular levels went unreported for several days, and a probe by the regulator released this month said some records had been destroyed.
Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), the plant operator as well as a contractor and co-operator in a South Korean consortium's US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) nuclear contract with Abu Dhabi, fired the plant manager after the accident, according to the Yonhap News agency.
"This is not good for our overseas activity," said Lee Young-il, a KHNP vice president and the head of the Kori nuclear power site. "We are talking about the next export of our nuclear power plants, so we will be at some disadvantage."
Earning the public's confidence is a priority for the global nuclear recovery after Fukushima, said Kim Jong-shin, KHNP's chief executive. "It's very important for us to win back the trust of the people.
"Still there are many countries turning back to nuclear power, and I think there is a reason for it, because the world has not found a solution to the climate change issue. We need to find a clean and sustainable energy source, and before we find that energy source I think there is a role for nuclear power to play in the world."