x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nuclear power's new guard

The meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan two years ago put the safety of such facilities in the world spotlight. But apart from Germany, most countries are forging ahead with their atomic ambitions.

Damaged Unit 3, left, and Unit 4 of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Air Photo Service / AP Photo
Damaged Unit 3, left, and Unit 4 of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Air Photo Service / AP Photo

After the 2011 triple meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, executives predicted a decade-long recovery for the industry.

Safety improvements and next-generation reactors would be necessary to avoid the sort of growth slowdown brought on by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, whose effects could still be felt a quarter century later in an ageing global nuclear workforce that had faced difficulty recruiting new blood and a standstill in the launch of new nuclear programmes broken only by the UAE last year.

But two years on - although a handful of European nations have pulled out of nuclear - growing nations, from Saudi Arabia to Vietnam, remain determined to create domestic energy security through atomic power.

"Nuclear is here," says Yanko Yanev, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's nuclear knowledge management unit.

"It's alive. Fukushima is passé. Nobody is writing for it on a daily basis, so it's gone."

Overall, the outlook for nuclear today remains mixed but most analysts agree Fukushima was no Chernobyl.

Concrete foundations are being poured for new reactors in countries including China, where a temporary moratorium to assess the safety of reactor designs has been lifted, and Abu Dhabi, the site of the Arab world's first civil nuclear power plant.

Nations with growing nuclear power programmes such as South Korea are investing heavily in training new nuclear scientists and operators to replace the old guard.

Companies such as Russia's Rosatom are putting their money into movies and other popular culture arenas in a bid to make atomic energy appear more friendly to the public.

Fukushima has mainly left its mark on the revenue forecasts of companies supplying older reactor programmes such as France's Areva, whose fuel contracts will be hurt by Germany's decision to shut down its reactors ahead of schedule.

Growth is continuing, in particular for China National Nuclear Power Company, which enjoys the backing of the world's most ambitious nuclear new-build programme and plans to list on the Shanghai stock exchange.

"My gut feeling is that it hasn't changed the minds of any countries that were really tentative in the first place," says Will Dalrymple, the editor of Nuclear Engineering International.

"I think the far greater significance has been the economy and the deregulated markets that require a quicker investment cycle."

Safety reviews of existing reactors and tweaks to new designs have the potential to add marginal costs.

In the United Kingdom, new nuclear construction has had difficulty retaining investors but because of the global economic slowdown rather than public safety fears.

The French company EDF Energy was given permission last week to start building a new plant in Somerset.

The emphasis on nursing the world's economy back to life has also taken urgency away from another global problem - climate change.

"Another impact of the financial slowdown is a lack of emphasis on global warming and one of nuclear's great assets is that its a low carbon tech," says Mr Dalrymple.

"But no one's really caring about that because they're worried about the short term."

The solution for cultivating new growth, say industry veterans, are the same as that required to counter a Chernobyl-style slowdown: new technology; and public education.

Designs for reactors being built today provide for upwards of 1,000 megawatts at a time and the machinery and required infrastructure can cost billions of dollars to construct.

Economies of scale mean it is better to build several reactors at a time and, even then, it is a chunk of change: the UAE's four planned reactors will cost a total of US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn).

Companies in the United States, Argentina and South Korea are marketing designs for small modular reactors that would provide only a relative handful of megawatts at lower cost, making atomic power more accessible to poorer governments and more practical for rural areas. In the Arab world, smaller designs could help a country such as Jordan, which is eager to build nuclear to lessen its reliance on imported fuel but has had trouble coping with the estimated $10bn cost of building a single reactor.

"For utilities - if not backed by the government - $20bn is a lot of money, for many above their market capitalisation," says Mr Yanev.

"Making nuclear smaller and cheaper will probably provide the next boost but it will take some five to 10 years."

Some nations - South Korea and Japan in particular - revamped their regulatory regime in the wake of Fukushima, in part to assuage public safety fears. The industry should continue strengthening regulation as well as public acceptance campaigns, says Soon Heung Chang, the chairman of the Korea institute of nuclear safety, South Korea's peer safety reviewer.

"For the time being, the important thing is, I think, public acceptance and how to make the people feel safer," says Mr Chang.

"So maybe we must make the plants more safe and also you must make more regulations and safety culture, and we must educate the people."