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Nuclear industry sees post-Fukushima recovery

In spite of persistent safety concerns the industry remains confident that it can return to growth

More than two years on from the Fukushima disaster in Japan, experts say the nuclear industry can still convince the world that modern plants are safe enough to play an important role in the global energy mix, as countries seek reliable, clean baseload power.

Luis Echavarri, director-general of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), told WEC 2013 delegates that, while it would take many years to absorb all aspects of the disaster, the industry remained safe. He said the shutdown of all 50 of Japan's nuclear plants was mainly due to public perceptions of safety issues, rather than actual conditions on the ground.

"Japan's reactors are shut for political reasons, not for safety reasons," he said, adding that "Fukushima questions a certain design at a certain location", rather than throwing the validity of the whole industry into doubt.

A report published last month by the NEA on safety at Fukushima highlighted lessons to be learned and incorporated into future development in terms of safety, shared responsibilities, human and organisational factors, defence-in-depth, stakeholder engagement, crisis communication and emergency preparedness.

The meltdowns and leaks at the Fukushima plant, which was heavily damaged by a tsunami following an earthquake in March 2011, triggered a rethink of nuclear power usage around the world. Germany's government decided to wind down its nuclear programme completely, while France, which relies on nuclear power for more than 75% of its power, pledged to reduce its nuclear dependence.

Last week, South Korea's energy ministry released a report by experts from the industry, academia and civil society, which recommended cutting the share of nuclear power in the country's power mix to between 22% and 29%, compared to the 41% planned by 2035 under a government plan.

However, industry players point to plans in several countries, such as the UK, US and UAE, to expand nuclear power capacity as evidence that, at least in some parts of the world, the advantages of nuclear energy are still seen outweighing the risks.

Echavarri said the recent slowdown in energy use during the recent global economic slowdown had held back recovery in the nuclear market post-Fukushima and he expected it to pick up as economies recovered and sought to invest in new power capacity.

Danny Roderick, chief executive of Westinghouse Electric noted that his company was already seeing growth in its markets. "We are actively building the United States for the first time in 25 years," he said. The company has four units under construction in the US, using new designs capable of functioning safely without power or operators for days. Westinghouse expects to have some 30 reactors under construction globally in the next five years. Roderick said the ability to build reactors much more rapidly than previously - around five years at present and possibly three-to-four years in the future - had brought financing costs down. He said interest in Westinghous's technology was stronger than at any point in the last four years, which he attributed to a growing desire among countries for energy security, rather than being dependent on imported gas or coal.

Cheap natural gas in the US would not damage the industry, he contended, because it tended to displace coal in the energy mix, rather than nuclear power. The latter could offer long-term price security to offset the sort of volatility, which plagued the US gas market in the 1980s. "Nuclear energy presents a stable hedge against over-doing it with gas," he said.

Experts also expressed confidence that concerns over the cost and environmental effects of plant decommissioning and waste disposal could be assuaged. Luis Echavarri said that while these processes were very expensive in absolute terms, this had to be judged across the lifetime of a plant, which can be as long as sixty years.

On that basis, decommissioning and waste disposal worked out to around 4% of the total cost of generation in kilowatt-hours.

Mohamed Al Hammadi, chief executive of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, said these factors were taken into account when the United Arab Emirates costed its new nuclear programme. The country is building four nuclear plants, being built by a South Korean consortium at a cost of more than $20 billion, which are expected to supply 25% of its electricity by 2020.

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