The UAE isn’t the only state in the Middle East that is turning to nuclear energy to meet electricity needs, and Seoul’s early contract win must give South Korea hope that it can secure further success. Still, although the government remains upbeat about nuclear power, the media has raised concerns about safety issues, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that South Korea could overtake Japan as the country with the greatest density of nuclear plants.
South Korea isn’t the only place where there are worries over safety; India, too, has announced that it is reviewing operations at existing plants. This comes as the country looks to have 63,000 MWe of atomic energy in place by 2032, with about half of that capacity being made up of imported Gen III designs supposedly able to avoid Fukushima-style problems.
Indian heavy engineering companies are already entering into tie-ups with global nuclear majors to put in place the heavy forging capabilities required to build massive nuclear components such as RPVs. In addition, the oldest civil nuclear programme in Asia has over the years developed its own nuclear technology. For example, India is exchanging small reactor technology (less than 300 MWe in capacity) with countries such as Kazakhstan and Namibia that have modest sized grids in return for natural uranium to power its indigenous reactors.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet as in South Korea, the media in India is awash with stories of the crisis at Fukushima, and there is considerable public unrest over a proposed nuclear site at Jaitapur in the state of Maharashtra. The site, set to host six French-supplied reactors, is the target of anti-nuclear groups who say it is being constructed in an earthquake prone zone that also poses a danger to the local fishing industry.
But safety worries over nuclear power in Asia may well be overridden by climate change concerns, especially in China.
China’s low-tech mass manufacturing mega boom has been based around coal. But this has had a terrible impact on the health of many Chinese cities, some of which are regularly rated the most polluted in the world. In 2007, for example, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 600,000 Chinese were dying prematurely each year because of air pollution.
If nuclear fears really do hit Japan’s nuclear sector hard, or lead to more protests in India, then supply and demand could ensure that nuclear manufacturing ultimately moves to China in the same way that many other industries are now almost wholly concentrated there. This could also allow China to eventually possess the most carbon-competitive industrial sector in the world, and raises the prospect of China one day becoming a net nuclear exporter, with all the geopolitical leverage that implies.
One day the United States and Europe may have no choice but to look beyond gas and once again embrace nuclear energy. When they do, they might just find the only place to turn is China.
Saurav Jha is the author of 'The Upside Down Book Of Nuclear Power'' (HarperCollins India 2010). He researches global energy and security issues and writes regularly for World Politics Review, Deccan Herald and Geopolitics.