Worldwide Nuclear Energy Expansion Continues

Japan's Shutdown Only a "Speed Bump

Global production of nuclear energy is expected to grow significantly in future years, despite setbacks in Japan and Germany, as China and the United States eyes next-generation reactors. Worldwide nuclear electricity generating capacity is expected to increase between 44 percent and 99 percent by 2035, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency said in their joint biannual report on uranium resources, released this week. Japan's decision to shut down all but two of its nuclear reactors in the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi last year played in to Germany's decision to phase out nuclear by 2022, but has apparently not slowed plans in other parts of Asia. Nuclear energy will see the sharpest expansion in China, India, and South Korea, the agencies said in a release, as well as in Russia.

Gary Dyck, head of nuclear fuel cycle and materials at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Reuters that the long-term impact of Fukushima on global nuclear energy production was a "speed bump... We still expect huge growth in China."

Capacity in East Asia will jump by 125 percent to 185 percent, according to the report.

Though China suspended new nuclear projects in the wake of Fukushima, it now appears that China will react to the incident by turning to newer, domestically produced nuclear reactors, Harvard research scholar Yun Zhou wrote last month.

"It appears that the Fukushima disaster may lead China to adopt newer, third-generation (or Gen III) reactor designs created by Chinese firms, allowing China to wean itself from purely foreign reactor technology much more quickly than was expected pre-Fukushima," she wrote. "In fact, a race to develop indigenous Gen III technology is emerging, with all three major nuclear power companies in China announcing their own Gen III reactor designs."

China's 22 Generation II reactors currently under construction will not go under any major redesigns, but its additional 14 planned reactors are much more likely to be advanced models.

Meanwhile, nuclear advocates are making a push in the US for Generation IV reactors, many of which are viewed as safer and cheaper than large-scale Generation II light water reactors currently in use.

Climatologist James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Virgin billionaire Sir Richard Branson penned a letter earlier this year to President Barack Obama urging him to reignite federal efforts to commercialize what they called "arguably the world's most powerful clean energy technology."

"Unlike today's nuclear reactors, the IFR [internal fast reactor] can generate unlimited amounts of inexpensive clean power for hundreds of thousands of years. It provides an excellent solution for what to do with our nuclear waste because it can use our existing nuclear waste for fuel and it is significantly more proliferation-resistant than other methods of dealing with nuclear waste," they wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Breakthrough Institute.

"The IFR is also inherently safe. In an emergency, unlike today's reactors, it shuts down without human intervention and without requiring electric power."

The IFR is "sitting on the shelf waiting for the US government to support its commercialization," Hansen and Branson wrote in the letter, dated April 17 and also signed by American Nuclear Society president Eric Loewen.

The US Department of Energy has backed another type of next-generation reactor, known as a small modular reactor (SMR), which is about one-third of the size of current reactors or smaller. In March, it announced $450 million in new funding to support engineering, design certification and licensing for up to two SMRs over five years. The funds are subject to Congressional appropriations.

DOE said it would solicit matching private funds for a total of $900 million and hoped the SMRs would be ready for commercial operation by 2022.

"Through the funding for small modular nuclear reactors announced today, the Energy Department and private industry are working to position America as the leader in advanced nuclear energy technology and manufacturing," DOE Secretary Steven Chu said at the time.

And this week, the Babcock & Wilcox Company and FirstEnergy Corp announced that they would study the potential deployment of a new small modular reactor. FirstEnergy currently operates two full size reactors in Ohio, and this is the second such announcement from Babcock & Wilcox.

Other states are in on the SMR competition, including Missouri, Washington and South Carolina.

The new SMR funding comes on the heels of $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to support two new 1,100 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors in Georgia, as well as $200 million to advance AP1000 certification and $170 million in grants to Universities to support nuclear technology R&D.