Asia – Filling the Energy Gap with Nuclear Power

25 July 2007 (Last Updated July 25th, 2007 18:30)

As the so-called tiger economies of Asia grow, so too does the demand for power. And with oil and gas prices rising, Asia seems to have little choice but to look towards nuclear power to fuel its new economies. Mitch Beedie reports.

Asia – Filling the Energy Gap with Nuclear Power

Asia – it could not have picked a tougher time to grow, both in population and in economics as trade opens the continent's nations to new global markets, and bigger and better business. But growth has put new requirements on infrastructure and services, including power.

As the rest of the world tries to ease off on consumption, with environmental concerns in mind, Asian electricity demand is growing rapidly. Oil and gas prices have also added pressure to this new market, meaning Asian nations have seen little other option then to start looking towards nuclear power to fill the energy gap.

There is little doubt that this is having an effect on world nuclear energy output – of the approximate 3,500GW energy capacity of the world, nuclear now makes up 400GW. It is predicted that Asia will add nearly 40GW a year to this figure until 2010. After this date, analysts say, Asia will produce an extra 60GW a year until 2020 – a figure that will only grow if fossil fuel expansion is limited by environmental constraints and higher greenhouse gas taxes.

Today, more than 100 nuclear plants operate in six countries across the continent, with another 20 being built and a massive 100 being put through planning stages. And while virtually all the Pacific Rim countries (except Singapore and New Zealand) have research programmes for nuclear energy, there are four countries leading the pack – China, India, Japan and South Korea.

"Asian growth has put new requirements on infrastructure and services, including power."

CHINESE GROWTH – FUELLING THE ASIAN FIRE

About 80% of China's total installed power of above 500GW comes from fossil fuels – mainly coal. Most of the rest comes from hydroelectric generation.

China alone has seen an annual growth in demand for electricity of 10% a year but a despite recent growth in supply, meeting this demand has still been difficult. Power shortages occur mostly due to the difficulties, including transportation, that come with sourcing coal from remote parts of the country.

Coal-fired plants have also caused much of China's air pollution and CO2 emissions. On top of this, China has been forced to deal with criticism that the locations chosen for some hydroelectric dams have destroyed villages and displaced residents.

CHINA EYES A NUCLEAR FUTURE

Before the Clinton administration, US suppliers were barred from supplying nuclear equipment to China. Technology for the Chinese nuclear power programme, which began in 1970, came from Russia, France and Canada.

China currently has nine nuclear power plants in operation which account for about 2% of the nation's total energy output.

It aims to add around 2GW of nuclear capacity a year, though, taking capacity to 36GW by 2020. The country is likely to be the biggest buyer of nuclear technology in the world next 25 years.

"More than 100 nuclear plants operate in six countries across Asia, with another 20 being built."

Today, Chinese groups have joint venture negotiations with major foreign suppliers. These range from Westinghouse and AECL of North America to Russian groups, with present systems using French, Canadian, US, Japanese and Korean technologies.

A cooperation agreement with Russia led to the construction of the country's largest plant – the two reactors at Tianwan. The 1,060MW reactors use Russian VVER-91 PWRs with Finnish safety features and Siemens-Areva instrumentation and control systems. China's 1,870MW Lingao plant, on the other hand, is based on French PWR technology.

Like South Korea, China is developing a standard design that can be reproduced without needing international suppliers. And with a nuclear programme based largely on French designs, it is concentrating on PWRs, with the aim of using as much equipment as possible domestically. China is also researching high-temperature reactors for hydrogen production.

China relies heavily on imported uranium. Nuclear fuel for Tianwan will initially come from TVEL's plant in Novosibirsk, but China plans to produce its own fuel under license from the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry. But the world is also concerned about China's issues with spent fuel – China currently has a legacy of about a thousand tons of spent fuel from its nuclear reactors, and with the predicted growth, this is expected to rise rapidly. China is, however, making moves to resolve this issue, and is currently investigating sites where it can bury high-level nuclear waste.

INDIA – BUILDING A NEW ECONOMY

India's extractable coal reserves as expected to dry up by 2050 and the nation already imports 70% of its crude oil. And while India aims to gain 60 billion kg (60 million tonnes) of equity oil a year by exploration and production it has not been able to rule out economic growth with a nuclear future.

India's first nuclear power station, at Tarapur, Maharashtra was built by GE as a turnkey plant which was opened in 1969. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) began establishing indigenous sources of manufacturing equipment for nuclear projects not long after, leading to the second Indian plant at Rawatbhata (Rajasthan), which was built by Indian manufacturing companies in collaboration with Canada, and opened in 1972.

"India's extractable coal reserves as expected to dry up by 2050."

In 1974, following India's first nuclear weapons test, the US banned the supply of nuclear equipment to India. The growing nation refused to hold to the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) because of the treaty's bias in favour of those countries already having atomic weapons. India's reaction was to build a self-reliant nuclear power industry.

INDIA'S NUCLEAR DESIGNS

Up until the 1960s, Indian manufacturing had largely concentrated on consumer goods, machine tools and cars. Designs, tools, jigs, fixtures and training mostly came from foreign partner companies.

After 1974, many Indian companies were involved in the nuclear projects and almost all the major pieces of equipment for the third nuclear station, at Kalpakkam, were made in India. Manufacturers include L&T (Larsen & Toubro), BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited) and WIL (Walchandnagar Industries Limited).

Stainless steel fabrication shops were set up in India especially for the project, as well as clean rooms for welding and assembly and horizontal boring machines. Many more companies have since joined this bandwagon, designing goods onshore using imported raw materials, and gradually they have lead to new achievements, such as advanced features from double containment, passive containment energy management systems and seamless calandria tubes to all-welded fuel bundles.

PULLING IN THE POWER

Nuclear work in India has been coordinated by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which is an Indian Government-owned company run under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Now a public limited company, it designs, constructs, operates and maintains atomic power stations. The company now has 25 reactors operating or under construction.

The country is aiming to increase its nuclear electricity generation from about 4GW now (4% of installed capacity) to 20GW by 2020, and 40GW by 2030. More than 30 new reactors will be required to do this – orders for these are expected to be worth more than $100bn.

Until recently, only Indian government agencies have been able to build nuclear plants but now private Indian companies such as Reliance and Tata will be able to join in. Abroad, General Electric (US) and Westinghouse Electric Co (Britain), Areva SA and Electricité de France (France) have expressed interest.

"China relies heavily on imported uranium."

Since the 1974 US ban, the Indian economy has become the second largest growth market, second only to China, and the US is interested in increasing exports to the country. Last summer, India's nuclear power industry again opened up to US companies, and these will be hoping to take a large slice of the Indian investment on the table.

The US is, however demanding that India keeps strong nuclear export controls, isolating civilian facilities from weapons programmes and adding IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards.

GE is a likely major gainer from the US relaxation of rules. It is looking to resume fuel sales to Tarapur, as well as offering technical and maintenance services for Indian plants and building new reactors. The company predicts that revenues from India could jump to $5bn by 2010, but it will face fierce competition from non-US suppliers.

THE INDIAN ENERGY ROADMAP

India's programme can roughly be split into three stages. Stage one has used pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and light water reactors (LWRs) with several still under construction.

Stage two will use fast breeder reactors (FRBs), with a full prototype plant now under construction and stage three will concentrate on thorium-based reactors (thorium-232 can be converted into U-233 rather than the conventional U-235 to produce reactor fuel).

While an advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR) prototype is now under development, India has opted for thorium-based reactors for stage three because it has vast domestic supplies.

India is also a member of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of fusion reactors.

All in all, India has committed to investigating joint ventures for uranium mining and an increase in domestic production of nuclear fuel, and the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd has been charged with taking care of this.

JAPAN – AHEAD AND NEVER BEHIND

"Japan generates almost a third of its electricity from nuclear power."

Japan already generates almost a third of its electricity from nuclear power. It has about 50 stations in operation, two now under construction and more than ten planned.

The country suffered a setback in 2003 when inspection irregularities led to some of its reactors being closed for several months for thorough checking but this has not halted the nation's plans to double capacity to nearly 100GW by 2050.

In April 2007, Japan signed a joint nuclear energy action plan with the US. The countries will now cooperate on nuclear research and development based on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

Phase one of the plan aims to accelerate short-term cooperative activities, with six working groups for fast reactors, fuel cycle, simulation and modelling, medium and small reactors, safeguards and physical protection and radioactive waste control.

There will also be political collaboration to support the new construction of nuclear power plants. Action will be taken to guarantee supplies of nuclear fuel and there will also be cooperation with other countries interested in nuclear energy.

Japan is also working on fast breeder reactors with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) chosen as the core engineering company. MHI is setting up a new company that will produce a conceptual design of the demonstration reactor by 2015 and will conduct R&D on elemental technologies and demonstration experiments. The actual commissioning date of the reactor is set for about 2025.

SOUTH KOREA – LEADING THE ENERGY PACK

Demand for electricity in South Korea has seen strong growth. The country now has 20 units producing nearly 20GW and about another ten planned or under construction.

Nuclear power now generates almost half the country's electricity, and this should be increased to 60% by 2035. Korea hopes to have a total nuclear capacity of 13GW by 2015.

"Nuclear power will, at present, undoubtedly fill the gaping hole in energy supplies."

In cooperation with the US, South Korea has developed a standard nuclear power plant (KSNP) which is 95% locally made. This is a 1,000MW PWR first used for Ulchin nuclear units five and six. It was developed from the ABB System 80 design.

South Korea is also researching high-temperature reactors to produce hydrogen.

SMALLER NUCLEAR POWERS

Currently generating less than 5% of electricity from nuclear energy, Pakistan now has two reactors in operation and three planned or under construction. Taiwan already meets 20% of its needs from nuclear power from six plants. It is constructing another two, both advanced reactors.

North Korea, on the other hand, is looking to wind down its nuclear programs following strict trade sanctions by the US and other nations imposed as a result of fears the country has been developing nuclear weapons.

Other countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have research reactors all which add to Asia's total of almost 60 research reactors in 14 countries.

A NUCLEAR ASIA

Although sometimes included with 'renewable' resources, nuclear power depends on uranium supplies that are strictly limited. Rising worldwide demand for uranium can only push prices upwards, causing more problems for burgeoning Asian nations.

"China currently has a legacy of about a thousand tons of spent fuel from its nuclear reactors."

The first generation of nuclear power stations were introduced with promises of electricity that was 'too cheap to meter'. But after many, many billions of dollars of investment worldwide, nuclear energy is still normally 20% to 50% more expensive to produce then energy from coal is.

Coal may have the greenhouse gas taxes, which are likely to increase the price of coal closer to its 'real' costs, but nuclear also has its hidden expenses – often ignored when investment decisions are made.

Invisible costs include decommissioning and waste disposal and the perennial safety and security fears that have not yet been fully addressed anywhere in the world. In Asia, particularly, many regions suffer from frequent earthquakes with the occasional tsunami. Nuclear stations will also form a prime terrorist target, with either hardware or software attacks.

But nuclear power will, at present, undoubtedly fill the gaping hole in energy supplies. Just how Asia manages this over the next few decades will determine the cost (estimated to be at about a billion dollars per gigawatt) and how much nuclear's massive expansion into the continent will drain resources that could provide a real long-term solution to the energy crisis.