Recent start-ups hardly provide much evidence of the vaunted "renaissance" in civilian nuclear power that promises reliable supplies of electricity without the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuels, especially coal. Only two new nuclear plants began operation last year, one in Japan and the other in India. Since two reactors were shut down in 2009, it left the same number, 436, generating about 15 per cent of the world's electricity in 31 economies.
However, the pace of reactor construction is rising particularly in Asia, where rapid growth and demand for electricity makes nuclear power an important energy priority for major economies. In the Middle East, too, the UAE's recent decision to go nuclear is expected to be followed by many other countries in the region. While problems related to public acceptance, safety, the disposal of radioactive waste and high capital costs of nuclear power have slowed its advance in Europe and North America, Asia - and soon probably the Middle East - will become the standard bearers for future expansion. Of nearly 70 reactors under or close to construction, 45 are in Asia mainly in China (23), India (6), Japan (6) and South Korea (6).
EDF, the French nuclear power operator, has published a global forecast for the period to 2020. These show 140 gigawatts of new capacity being built and 10 GW decommissioned, to give 480 GW in 2020, up from 370 GW today. Of the difference, 60 per cent is in Asia, leaving Europe, the Americas and Russia with about 12 per cent each. Even so, according the latest projections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear power's share of worldwide electricity production will actually be a bit less in 2020 than it is now, although it might increase slightly by 2030.
However, the real significance is the rate of growth in Asia and the emergence of South Korea, China and India, not just as sources of advanced nuclear technology, but also as exporters of nuclear plants, components and know-how. The nuclear industry is rapidly globalising. As it does so, there will be sharper vendor competition, costs and construction times are expected to fall - and more countries will opt for nuclear power. This will make it even more urgent to tighten global nuclear security and safeguards to prevent the technology being used to make weapons of mass destruction.
The World Nuclear Association lobby group reckons that another 25 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Latin America are either considering or have already decided to make nuclear energy part of their power generation systems. Nonetheless, the WNA says that over 80 per cent of the expansion this century is likely to be in major economies already using nuclear power. By the end of 2006, three big western-Japanese alliances had formed to dominate much of the world reactor supply market. They included Areva of France with Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and General Electric of the US with Japan's Hitachi. Meanwhile, Westinghouse of the US had become a 77 per cent subsidiary of Japan's Toshiba.
Until very recently, only these three groups and a small number of other firms, among them the Atomic Energy of Canada, Russia's AtomStroyExport, and Chinese state-owned companies supplying Pakistan, had shown they had the technical knowledge and project management experience to export nuclear power plants. A new member joined the club late last year when a consortium of mainly South Korean companies headed by KEPCO, the Korea Electric Power Co, beat an Areva-led group and GE-Hitachi to win a contract worth about US$20 billion to build four advanced reactors in the UAE. The project is covered by strict safeguards to ensure that it is for peaceful purposes only.
The first of the 1,400 megawatt reactors is due to start generating electricity in 2017, with the others following by 2020. The consortium also expects to earn another US$20 billion by jointly running the reactors for 60 years. Since the UAE has said it plans to standardise on one technology, Korea is hoping to secure follow-on orders. Faced with limited resources and a fast-growing demand for energy, South Korea imported Westinghouse System-80 pressurised water reactors in the late 1970s. The contract included terms that allowed KEPCO to develop its own versions of the reactor, such as the advanced model now being supplied to the UAE. Today, Korea has a full nuclear design, manufacture and construction capability, backed up by extensive skill resources and the heavy engineering capability to make reactor components.
China and India are moving swiftly in the same direction and also plan to compete in the nuclear export market, along with Japan, France, Russia, the US and South Korea. Korea plans to become self-sufficient in nuclear reactor technology by 2012 and export 80 power reactors, worth some US$400 billion, by 2030. This would make it the world's third or fourth largest nuclear reactor supplier, with a 20 per cent share of the global market.
A report to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak early last month set out the rationale for developing the nuclear industry as a major export arm of the country's economy: "Nuclear power-related business will be the most profitable market after automobiles, semiconductors and shipbuilding." Given the success that Korea has had in exporting its products from all three of these sectors, rival nuclear vendors would be well advised to take the new Korean challenge seriously.
Michael Richardson is a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore