Energy Crisis Makes Nuclear Power Generation Attractive Again

Soaring fossil fuel prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have renewed interest in nuclear power, most of which have been shelved after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Governments across Asia and Europe, who are scrambling to find ways to boost electricity generation, are extending their aging fleet of nuclear plants, restarting reactors and dusting off plans for projects shelved.

In Japan, public opinion has been against nuclear power since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, but the public mood has changed due in part to power shortages in the summer when electricity demand surged. Meanwhile, soaring energy prices have ramped up utility bills.

Japanese Industry Minister Hagiuda said the country is planning to restart up to nine more nuclear reactors in time to avoid any power crunch during winter. Japan’s pro-nuclear ruling Liberal Party won a landslide victory in upper house elections in early July.  

Japan has seven operating reactors with a capacity of 7,080 megawatt (MW), while three others are offline due to maintenance. Many others are still going through a relicensing process under stricter safety standards imposed after the Fukushima disaster.

In the financial year to March 2021, nuclear accounted for 3.9% of Japan’s power mix, but the government still aims to boost it to as much as 22% by 2030.

South Korean President Yoon pledged to encourage more investment in nuclear energy and said he wanted to revive his country’s status as an exporter of safe nuclear reactors. South Korea’s previous government had planned to phase out nuclear. 

The primary aim for South Korea is to increase the contribution of nuclear in the country’s energy mix to 30% or more by 2030 from 27% in 2021. The country resumes construction of two reactors. 

South Korea has 24 nuclear reactors in operation and has four more units under construction which will be completed soon.

China is the world’s third-largest nuclear power producer in terms of installed capacity after the United States and France.

As of 2021, mainland China operated 53 reactors, with a total capacity of 54.65 gigawatt (GW). The amount is slightly behind an initial goal of 58 GW by 2020 as project approvals slowed after Fukushima.

In 2020, China said it would build six to eight nuclear reactors a year between 2020-2025 and raise total capacity to 70 GW.

In the first six months of 2022, China added another 2.28 GW of capacity.

Beijing approved three new nuclear power generator projects earlier this year.

Nuclear power generation in India constitutes just 3% of total generation, as the sector is hampered by a lack of foreign investment and opposition from critics over safety matters.

In France, the government is in the process of taking full control of power company EDF, in a buyout deal that gives the French state a free hand to run Europe’s biggest nuclear power operator.

The British government meanwhile allowed the construction of Sizewell C nuclear plant in southeast England. The 3.2 GW plant is majority-owned by EDF. EDF said discussions are ongoing with the government over funding for the project and it expects to take a final investment decision in 2023.

Germany, which has long opposed to nuclear power and shut down many of its reactors, may extend the life of its three remaining nuclear power plants. Public support for nuclear is on the rise in the wake of a possible gas cut off by Russia. The three plants made up 6% of Germany’s power production in the first quarter of 2022.

Belgium has reached an initial accord with French utility group Engie to extend the use of nuclear power by 10 years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced the government to rethink plans to rely more on natural gas.

Finnish-led consortium Fennovoima said in May it had scrapped a contract for Russia’s state-owned Rosatom to build a nuclear power plant in Finland.

The United States has more reactors than any other country, but the number has fallen to 92 from 104 ten years ago due to rising security costs and competition from renewable energy and plentiful natural gas.

Policymakers, including the Biden administration, have so far failed to keep the reactors open, despite efforts. The latest shut was the 800 MW Palisades plant in Michigan in May. The Biden administration prepared a $6 billion subsidy plan called the Civil Nuclear Credit (CNC) program to keep it open but it wasn’t enough. It is uncertain whether the CNC, which aims to prioritize aid to plants that previously announced plans to shut, will help save California’s 2,200 MW Diablo Canyon plant set to fully close in 2025.

A deal in the U.S. Senate announced on July 27 could spark both traditional and advanced nuclear power if the Democrats pass it in Congress. The deal contains a “zero-emissions” production tax credit for some existing nuclear power plants as a carbon-free source of electricity. It also contains about $700 million for making fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, fuel that’s typically made in Russia.

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