A police officer guards the construction site of the Sanmen Nuclear Power Plant in Sanmen, Zhejiang Province, China.
PHOTO BY FENG LI/GETTY IMAGES
Value of reactor projects delayed or canceled after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan
Estimated increase in global nuclear generation capacity by 2040
Number of reactor construction projects now underway worldwide
Sources: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, International Energy Agency
Four years after the Fukushima meltdown caused Japan to close all 48 of its nuclear plants and prompted Germany to pledge to shut down its 17 plants by 2022, nuclear projects are making a comeback. Yet, in the wake of Fukushima, the project teams overseeing new reactors must navigate heightened safety concerns and complex technology amid increased public interest and, at times, opposition.
After Fukushima, 24 reactor projects around the world, representing over US$135 billion, were postponed or canceled. Now 70 reactor construction projects are underway worldwide, the most since 1989, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. By 2040, nuclear generation capacity will increase 60 percent globally, the International Energy Agency estimates.
The Asia Pacific region, especially China and India, is home to nearly two-thirds of the reactors under construction. China plans to complete 29 new reactors from 2018 through 2030, raising its total to 49, according to Bloomberg. China's increased nuclear capacity will exceed the current capacity of the United States and Russia combined.
“We see most of the construction in the growing economies, in the parts of the world where you see strong economic growth,” Agneta Rising, the head of the World Nuclear Association, told Bloomberg.
“We see most of the construction in the growing economies, in the parts of the world where you see strong economic growth.”
—Agneta Rising, World Nuclear Association, to Bloomberg
Meanwhile, nine of the new reactors, or 13 percent of the total, are going up in developed countries. For the first time in more than 30 years, new nuclear plant projects are underway in the United States, with four due to come online by 2020. In September, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would provide up to US$12.6 billion in loan guarantees to nuclear projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, these initiatives face sometimes fierce opposition from public stakeholders. The Japanese government sees nuclear power as critical to the country's growth, as it now relies mostly on imported natural gas and coal for its power. However, in late 2014, when Japan announced it would restart two nuclear reactors, hundreds of citizens protested.
“Gaining local residents’ understanding is very important,” Yoichi Miyazawa, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, told The Associated Press. In advance of launching projects to bring the two reactors back online, government officials have held explanatory meetings with local residents.
The ITER fusion reactor project site in April 2014, in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France
A Better Breed
The new wave of reactors looks to improve upon the old, especially when it comes to safety.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a five-year, US$452 million program to create first-of-their-kind small modular reactors. They'll not only be one-third the size of current nuclear plants but also will aim to be cheaper, faster to build and safer than conventional reactors.
Last year, Russia and China announced their intention to pursue a joint project that will build six nuclear reactors floating on barges, supplying power to remote villages and oil platforms. Placed in deep ocean waters, floating nuclear plants should be safer because they'll be less susceptible to tsunamis or earthquakes, and in a worst-case meltdown scenario, they would be cooled by the surrounding waters, according to Jacopo Buongiorno, PhD, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
“The biggest selling point [of floating reactors] is the enhanced safety,” Dr. Buongiorno, who is researching and designing waterborne nuclear plants, said in a statement.
In France, an international consortium is executing the estimated US$20 billion ITER project, which will be the world's largest nuclear fusion reactor. It won't generate as much long-lasting radioactive waste as typical nuclear fission plants, and will be incapable of a meltdown. Seven state sponsors—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States—are contributing to the project, with the understanding that each member will have access to the technology needed to produce its own nuclear fusion plant in the future.
By 2030, these countries will build the most new nuclear reactors worldwide.
|COUNTRY||REACTORS UNDER CONSTRUCTION||REACTORS PLANNED|
|Source: World Nuclear Association, 2014|
“Coordinating so many different countries, cultures and locations is a bigger challenge even than the technology. Not everyone has the same objective.”
—Joseph Onstott, ITER, Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France, commenting on a project to build the world's largest fusion reactor, a project with seven country sponsors
Russia and China are pursuing a joint project to build nuclear reactors floating on barges.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ITER ORGANIZATION
“Coordinating so many different countries, cultures and locations is a bigger challenge even than the technology,” says Joseph Onstott, ITER's budget management section leader, Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France. “Not everyone has the same objective: Some want things done as quickly as possible; others are more cost-conscious. It takes a lot of discipline to oversee the schedule.”
As dozens of new nuclear reactors get built, hundreds of aging reactors will be decommissioned.
Almost half of the 434 nuclear reactors currently operating—most of them in Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States—are slated to be decommissioned by 2040, at an estimated cost of over US$100 billion, if not much more. The budget for decommissioning projects involving just two reactors in the U.S. state of California, set to launch in 2016, will come to US$4.4 billion.
Teams overseeing these complex initiatives will have to negotiate uncertainty around costs, given the relatively limited global track record of dismantling and decontaminating reactors. In the past 40 years, only 10 reactors have been shut down.
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