Energy-starved India, China may not dump nuclear plans

With 20 reactors in operation, India plans to spend an estimated $150 billion to add dozens more

The Japanese disaster has led some energy officials in the United States and in advanced European nations to think twice about nuclear expansion. And if a huge release of radiation worsens the crisis, even big developing nations might reconsider their ambitious plans. But for now, while acknowledging the need for safety, they say their unmet energy needs give them little choice but to continue investing in nuclear power.

“Ours is a very power-hungry country,” Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, said. Nearly 40 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people do not have regular access to electricity. It is essential for us to have further electricity generation,” he said.

And in China, which has the world’s most ambitious nuclear expansion plans, a vice minister of environment, Zhang Lijun, said that Japan’s difficulties would not deter his nation’s nuclear rollout.

With those two countries driving the expansion — and countries from elsewhere in Asia, Eastern Europe and West Asia also embracing nuclear power in response to high fossil fuel prices and concerns about global warming — the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Not that Indian and Chinese officials are heedless of the risks of nuclear energy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Department of Atomic Energy would review all safety systems at India’s nuclear plants, “particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes.”

During a political conference in Beijing, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the national development and reform commission, said, “Evaluation of nuclear safety and the monitoring of plants will be definitely strengthened.”

China’s nuclear power industry has 11 reactors operating and plans to start construction on as many 10 a year during the next decade. China’s electricity consumption continues to climb 12 per cent a year, even as usage stagnates in the West.

India, with 20 nuclear reactors already in operation, plans to spend an estimated $150 billion adding dozens around the country. Its forecast calls for nuclear power to supply about a quarter of the country’s energy needs by 2050, a tenfold increase from now.

One company that could benefit from the continued global push for nuclear energy is General Electric, a maker of reactors. Other big players include Areva of France and Toshiba’s Westinghouse unit.

But, at least, GE’s chairman and chief executive, Jeffrey R Immelt, found himself on the nuclear defensive. GE was the designer of the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant in Okuma, Japan, that was damaged by Friday’s tsunami and is being monitored for radiation leaks.

Immelt, who happened to be in New Delhi on a previously planned promotional tour for his company’s products and services, said that it was too early to predict what effect, if any, the events in Japan could have on the nuclear energy industry. GE’s stock closed down more than 2 per cent on Monday, to $19.92.

“We just have to let discovery take place and let countries reach their own conclusions,” he said. “There has been an almost 50-year track record from nuclear power that people can look back on and make their own judgments on.” Asked whether the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s oceanfront location had contributed to its vulnerability, Immelt replied, “On location and all that other stuff – let’s just let it take its course.”

US lobby

So far, GE has not sold any nuclear plants to India. Most of the country’s existing reactors have been built locally with some Russian help, and contracts have been awarded for more Russian-backed plants. India also signed a nuclear reactor deal with Areva in December for $9.3 billion. The US has lobbied extensively to open India’s nuclear power market to US industry.

Indian and US officials spent more than five years negotiating a nuclear energy agreement that was blessed by both governments and international nuclear agencies. That deal, completed in August, is considered one of Singh’s major foreign policy successes. But the pact included an unusual liability clause that makes nuclear power plant suppliers, not just operators, liable if accidents occur.

Despite US pressure to change that provision, the Japan disaster could encourage Indian legislators to keep it in place. GE and Westinghouse have said they will stay out of the Indian nuclear market unless the country changes its liability law to conform with international standards.

Walt Patterson, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, predicted that the problems at Japan’s nuclear plants would refocus attention on safety and away from the economic viability of atomic energy. “The question mark about safety was really way down the agenda,” Patterson said. “This will bring it right back to the top of the agenda.”
Across West Asia, countries have been racing to build up nuclear power, as a growth and population boom has created unprecedented demand for energy, and as Iran forges ahead with the Bushehr nuclear facility.

The United Arab Emirates has taken the lead with a plan to build four plants in Braka, on the Persian Gulf, by 2017 to generate about a quarter of the country’s power by 2020.
The emirates plan to use pressurised water reactors bought from Korea Electric Power Company of South Korea in a $20 billion deal, passing over French and US bids for the project.

One of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, chose Braka because it is near the water and an existing power grid, far from populated areas, and lies on a seismically stable landmass. Because the Persian Gulf is an enclosed sea, planners say there is little threat of a tsunami in the event of an earthquake.

Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt are all also studying nuclear energy, and even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is considering a nuclear-powered city. Most plants would be placed in seismically stable areas, although one planned by Jordan at the Red Sea port of Aqaba is on a major faultline.

India’s nuclear energy establishment has faced stiff opposition to its ambitious plans from environmentalists and villagers at plant sites. As currently envisioned, the Jaitapur nuclear plant in Maharashtra would be the world’s largest nuclear energy complex. But analysts said the Japan crisis was unlikely to stir up significantly more public protest against nuclear plants here, given the pressing demand for more electricity.

“If one per cent of the population was against nuclear power, you might now get two per cent,” said G Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a policy research organisation in New Delhi. “I am really not concerned about the opposition that may develop around this.”

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