Hype over the future of nuclear power is rampant, but the facts tell a different story. The percentage of nuclear-generated electricity in the overall global energy mix is decreasing. In this three-part series Mycle Schneider, a French independent nuclear analyst, explores the difficulties facing nuclear power throughout the world and in Western Europe and Asia in particular.
Six Asian countries possess nuclear power programs--China, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In 2007, they generated 523 terawatt hours--or 20 percent--of the world's nuclear electricity. That, however, represented a 3.5 percent drop in the continent's nuclear generation when compared to 2006. The decrease was mainly due to the shutdown of the seven-unit plant at Kashiwazaki, Japan, which was damaged by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in July 2007. Overall, the 111 nuclear reactors operating in Asia provided an average of 7.6 percent of the region's electricity--or 3 percent of its commercial primary energy. That average masks wide differences between Asian countries. While China and Pakistan generate only 1 percent with nuclear, South Korea generates 14 percent. And Japan alone accounts for half of the region's nuclear electricity generation.
Hopes for a world nuclear power revival rely on Asia as the engine of that rebirth. Asia has been the site of a majority of new nuclear power construction. Ten of the 14 new reactors in the world were located in Asia, and 19 of the 35 units under construction world-wide are located in Asia as well. In 2006, Asia represented 14 percent of French nuclear builder AREVA's total sales, and in 2007, its 58-percent boost in backlogged orders was due in particular to agreements with the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC).
Yet, in all of the Asian countries with a nuclear power program, the share of nuclear energy in the power mix decreased in 2007 compared to 2006. The most active country, China, could potentially add substantial new capacity to the world grid over the next decade. Yet, there is no evidence that China's official ambitious targets will be implemented (India also has very ambitious plans that may never be actualized). In the meantime, the role of nuclear energy in the overall Asian power mix is on the decline, just as in Europe. What follows is an in-depth look at the Asian countries with active nuclear energy programs:
China. Eleven nuclear power reactors generated 6 terawatt hours or 2 percent of the country's electricity in 2007. Six additional units that will add 4.2 gigawatts of nuclear capacity are under construction, and the World Nuclear Association (WNA) lists 24 more projects as planned. China has the lowest share of nuclear power in its electricity mix of every country with a nuclear power program in the world. This is likely to remain the case even if Beijing embarks on a significant new build program, because the country's total power consumption and generation is expected to grow much faster than its nuclear program. Almost nothing is known about the safety and environmental policies of the Chinese nuclear power program, as there isn't a licensing procedure that allows for noteworthy public consultation.
In the past, China has masterfully negotiated contracts with multinational nuclear firms. France lost an unknown, but significant, amount of money in its first reactor deliveries at Daya Bay, Guangdong. "We did not lose the shirt but cuff-links," Électricité de France (EDF) President Pierre Delaporte stated at the time. The contract, signed in 1985, was meant to open the door to a series of reactor deals between EDF and China. At that time, Beijing announced it was going to operate 20 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2000, but in reality, it has built 10 times less than that. As such, Framatome, now part of AREVA, has exported just two more units to China since the deal's inception. Meanwhile, China acquired two Canadian and two Russian plants and has negotiated with U.S., Russian, and Franco-German companies for scarce follow-up orders. In addition, Beijing has developed its own technology--the key issue for the Chinese has always been technology transfer.
In July 2007, Toshiba-Westinghouse, along with the Shaw Group, signed contracts with the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, Sanmen Nuclear Power Company, Shandong Nuclear Power Company, and China National Technical Import & Export Corporation to build generation III AP1000 reactors. Construction is supposed to start in September 2009, and the first operational plant is expected at Sanmen in late 2013.
On November 26, 2007, after a three-year delay, AREVA finally announced a $11.2 billion commercial contract with its Chinese partners, calling the deal "unprecedented in the world nuclear market." It plans to build, with the CGNPC, two Evolutionary Power Reactors (EPR) in Taishan, Guangdong; according to AREVA, the series of agreements provides for the supply of all the materials and services needed to operate the EPRs through 2027. In return, CGNPC bought 35 percent of UraMin, the South African mining company AREVA acquired in August 2007.
In January, Agence France-Presse reported that the contract with CGNPC wouldn't go forward until AREVA agreed to transfer its reprocessing technology to China. Although the status of the transfer agreement remains unknown, on August 10, EDF announced the creation of the Guangdong Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Company with the purpose of building and operating the two EPRs. EDF will hold 30 percent of the joint venture for 50 years. Construction is scheduled to start next fall with start-ups planned for 2013 and 2015 respectively. China National Nuclear Corp. has announced that work will start by the end of 2009 on a 1,300-megawatt nuclear plant at Changjiang in the southern island province of Hainan with more than 70 percent of the plant's equipment made in China. The plant is supposed to begin commercial operation in 2014.
The country's ambitious nuclear plans will depend very much on its heavy equipment manufacturing capacity, estimates of which vary from three to six steam supply system sets per year--including pressure vessel and steam generators. Currently, there's a severe bottleneck worldwide for the ultra-heavy forgings necessary for reactor pressure vessels. Only Japan Steel Works can currently produce the 450-ton ingots necessary for generation III designs such as the EPR. And the nuclear industry has to compete with thermal power plant builders for these limited forging capacities. According to Nucleonics Week, in the case of thermal power plants rated at 600 megawatts or more, China must currently import more than 90 percent of its forgings. Chinese equipment manufacturers reportedly have ambitious plans to extend their capacity to the equivalent of 20 or more sets per year, but these claims cannot be confirmed independently.
Nevertheless, it remains highly unlikely that nuclear power will play a major role in China's energy balance over the next few decades, even if a major construction program does start. It's also questionable how the country could possibly connect several hundred reactors by 2040, as publically suggested by AREVA CEO Anne Lauvergeon in Le Monde. In its World Energy Outlook 2007, the International Energy Agency judges Chinese projections of 40 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2020 as "ambitious given the current level of development, the long construction times, and the current global bottlenecks in nuclear component manufacturing, which impose extended delays on delivery."
Still, in March, a vice minister of the National Development and Reform Commission told the Xinhua News Agency that he expects installed nuclear power capacity in China to reach 60 gigawatts by 2020, up from the earlier 40-gigawatt target. But even under this highly unlikely scenario, nuclear power would provide only 5-6 percent of domestic power. And critics have warned not to rush things. "We don't have a very good plan for dealing with spent fuel, and we don't have very good emergency plans for dealing with catastrophe[s]," a nuclear energy expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the New York Times in January 2005.
India. Seventeen nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 3.8 gigawatts provided 16 terawatt hours or just 3 percent of the country's electricity in 2007. Total power generating capacity in India is about 130 gigawatts--10 percent more than France for a country with 20 times the population. India lists six units as "under construction," and 10 are considered by WNA as "planned." The country's reactors are small (ranging from 90-200 megawatts) and most took 10-14 years to complete and missed their power generation targets. In 1985, India's goal was 10 gigawatts of operating nuclear capacity by the year 2000, which would have required a tenfold increase. In reality, installed capacity rose to 2.2 gigawatts. In 2006, the chairman of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India told reporters that 62 reactors with a combined capacity of 40 gigawatts would be operating by 2025. There's no evidence of how the country could realize such a goal, which would require an annual increase of more than 1.8 gigawatts through 2025. (See "India's Nuclear Fuel Shortage.")
In an effort to meet such targets, India negotiated an agreement with the United States allowing the purchase of nuclear-related technology and fuel, even though it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). More than 150 U.S. and other nongovernmental organizations and nuclear experts have signed a declaration warning, "[F]oreign nuclear fuel supplies would free up India's relatively limited domestic supplies to be used exclusively in its military nuclear sector, thereby indirectly contributing to the potential expansion of India's nuclear arsenal." On September 6, the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) released a statement endorsing the deal, effectively exempting India from standard NSG rules and creating a dangerous precedent. However, Congress must still approve the agreement.
Japan. Fifty-five reactors provided 266 terawatt hours or 28 percent of the country's electricity in 2007--down from 30 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in 2002. On August 9, 2004, five workers were killed after a steam leak at the Mihama-3 station in Fukui Prefecture. The subsequent investigation revealed serious shortcomings in systematic and thorough inspections at Japanese nuclear plants. Other serious recent accidents at Japanese nuclear facilities include a 1995 sodium coolant leak at the Monju fast breeder reactor (which is now in "long-term shutdown"); a 1997 explosion at the Tokai reprocessing center; a 1999 criticality accident at the Tokai fuel fabrication facility; and the revelation that Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) officials had falsified inspection records and attempted to hide cracks in reactor vessel shrouds in 13 of its 17 units (leading to their shut down). Later, the scandal widened to other Japanese nuclear utilities.
Although not a case of human error, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Niigata Prefecture on July 16, 2007, shut down TEPCO's seven unit Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the largest nuclear power station in the world. The reactors have remained shutdown ever since. During the quake, the seismic activity detected at one of the reactors was at least 2.5 times higher than the facility design parameters, and it's unclear whether the units can ever be restarted. (See "Nuclear Safety Lessons from Japan's Summer Earthquake.") So far, TEPCO estimates a $5.7 billion charge due to the quake on its fiscal year 2007 results--$4.2 billion coming from fuel costs and the remaining $1.5 billion in restoration expenses. The company restarted mothballed thermal plants to make up for the shortfall in nuclear generation. According to Bloomberg News, in 2008, TEPCO expects to post its first loss in 28 years.
Future nuclear construction plans are vague and have been scaled back and delayed several times (one new Japanese reactor is listed as "under construction"), but the country has a major role to play in global nuclear expansion plans. Japan Steel Works supplies about 30 percent of the world's operating nuclear reactor vessels and has announced plans to further invest in manufacturing capacity. Yet, its annual current manufacturing capacity remains unclear. According to Nucleonics Week, recent investments brought its capacity to the equivalent of four nuclear sets per year in 2007 and five-and-a-half sets in 2008. The company is aiming to produce sufficient forgings to supply the equivalent of about eight-and-a-half sets per year by 2010 and the maximum ingot size will be increased to 650 tons. Japan Steel Work's capacity for nuclear products is fully booked at least until the end of 2010. But it's unclear how much of the forging capacity is dedicated to new nuclear projects. For example, the company also supplies about 100 forgings per year for fossil-fuel turbine and generator rotors to China alone.
Pakistan. Two nuclear reactors provided 2.3 terawatt hours or 2 percent of the country's electricity in 2007. Another additional unit is under construction. The entire nuclear sector is controlled by the military and little is known about its safety or environmental policies. As in India, Pakistan has used designated civil nuclear facilities for military purposes. International nuclear assistance has been practically impossible, because, like India, Islamabad hasn't signed the NPT and doesn't accept full-scope safeguards. But the precedent-setting U.S.-India agreement could substantially change that situation in the future.
South Korea. Twenty nuclear reactors provided 137 terawatt hours or 35 percent of the country's electricity in 2007. Three reactors are listed as "under construction." For a long time, South Korea was considered a significant future market for nuclear power expansion. But while Seoul's early program was implemented without much public debate, in the 1990s, a major controversy over the future of the nuclear program--in particular about radioactive waste--halted proposed expansion plans. There are still some plans for new reactors--five according to WNA--but South Korea's nuclear program has come to a virtual halt.
Taiwan. Six nuclear reactors provided just under 50 terawatt hours or 19 percent of the country's electricity in 2007. Two 1,350-megawatt Advanced Boiling Water Reactors have been listed as "under construction" at Lungmen since 1999. They were scheduled to start up in 2006 or 2007, but have been repeatedly delayed, most recently until 2010. There are no further projects. The most recent operating unit started up in 1985. All of the power plants were supplied by General Electric and Westinghouse. For the two plants under construction, contracts were awarded to GE-Hitachi for the reactors, Mitsubishi for the turbines, and others for the remaining equipment.
This series is a select update of the author's "World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007," which he prepared for the Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.