Posted 24 June 2011, by Michael Marshall, New Scientist, newscientist.com
IN THE wake of the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in March, several countries have announced plans to reject nuclear power. Japan will not build any more reactors. Germany plans to phase out its nuclear power plants, Switzerland will not replace its reactors, and last week Italy voted against starting a nuclear programme.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is running an emergency conference this week to identify the key lessons from Fukushima (see “Agency report praises Fukushima staff, slams TEPCO“). So does this mean a decade-long revival of interest in nuclear power is grinding to a halt?
IAEA figures suggest not. They list 65 reactors under construction, and those figures are just the tip of the iceberg because they do not include reactors that are contracted to be built, or those being planned. Neither do they acknowledge the significance of the United Arab Emirates being on course to become the first country to go nuclear since China in 1985: the UAE has signed a deal with a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corporation to build four reactors. Saudi Arabia is following suit, having announced earlier this month that it will build 16 reactors by 2030. Turkey plans to build two new plants.
Dozens more countries have registered an interest in the nuclear option with the IAEA, though few are likely to follow through, according to Jessica Jewell at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.
Jewell gathered data on countries with established programmes to work out what it takes to go nuclear. When they started building nuclear power stations, these countries had robust electricity grids, stable, effective governments and big economies that could swallow the upfront costs.
Of 52 countries that have recently asked the IAEA to help them start a nuclear programme only 10 meet all of these criteria, Jewell says. Another 10 had the motivation and resources but were politically unstable (Energy Policy, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.10.041).
That second group includes Egypt, which Jewell reckons is the most likely to gain nuclear power of the five north African countries with stated intentions. Continuing political uncertainty in Egypt makes nuclear an unlikely option there in the near term, however.
Meanwhile, the plants already under construction in established nuclear countries are feeling the ripples of Fukushima. Just under half of the reactors listed as under construction by the IAEA are in China – but following events in Japan, the Chinese government has suspended approvals for new plants while it reviews their safety.