Most nuclear plans on track outside Japan, Germany
TOKYO – Japan and Germany are limiting or phasing out reliance on nuclear power after the Fukushima accident — moves that could raise petroleum prices — but most of the rest of the world is undaunted in its pursuit of nuclear energy.
Energy-hungry developing nations such as China, India, Mexico and Iran are moving forward on plans to build more nuclear plants, even as authorities around the world intensify safety inspections of existing plants after Japan's March 11 disaster.
Initial fears that erupted in the wake of the crisis, threatening to derail the nuclear renaissance of the last several years, have largely subsided. Many of the 30-plus countries with nuclear energy programs continue to promote them as a way to combat pollution and global warming — despite radiation risks and questions on what to do with nuclear waste.
"We're not going to stop eating for fear of choking," Chinese nuclear safety official Tian Jiashu was quoted in state media as saying after the Japanese disaster.
Chinese officials say they are revising their regulations to make sure no plants lack high exterior walls or access to emergency power — problems that contributed to the crisis unleashed at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant when a tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. Ensuing radiation leaks have forced the evacuation of 80,000 residents.
Beijing has said it will forge ahead with an ambitious scaling up of nuclear power. China has 13 nuclear reactors in operation, more than 25 under construction and even more under consideration, according to the World Nuclear Association.
The expansion is necessary, officials say, to fuel an economy that is overwhelmingly dependent on coal and demands more energy as more Chinese enter the middle-class.
India, which has also stepped up safety measures, is championing nuclear power as a clean and environmentally friendly alternative to polluting coal-fired power plants. It aims to increase the share of nuclear energy from 3 percent to 13 percent by 2030.
"Many of them think that what happened in Japan is a one-off," said Ravi Krishnaswamy, an energy analyst with consultancy Frost & Sullivan in Singapore. "As long as they improve the safety structure and have a stringent regulation, they feel they should be able to manage it."
Many countries also want to ensure they aren't too dependent on any one kind of energy, he added.
In Britain, the government's climate advisory panel said this week that the country should considering investing more — not less — in nuclear power as it "appears likely to be the most cost-effective form of low-carbon power generation" in coming years.
The panel's report envisioned more than doubling Britain's dependence on nuclear energy to 40 percent, and played down risks of a Fukushima-like crisis.
"The likelihood of natural disasters of this type and scale occurring in the U.K. is extremely small," the report said.
After the Japanese crisis erupted, French Energy Minister Eric Besson launched an impassioned defense of nuclear power — which accounts for more than 70 percent of the country's energy — saying it "will stay in Europe and the world and be one of the core energies of the 21st century."
Germany's reaction was the opposite.
It is accelerating a 25-year plan to phase out nuclear energy. Now the country's leaders seem determined to reach that goal as early as 2020. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a previous proponent of nuclear energy, said Tuesday that Fukushima had changed her attitude.
Japan, like Germany, is a developed nation with strict safety rules, but "nevertheless there was a chain of events that wasn't expected," she said. And while Germany isn't prone to quakes or tsunamis, it could fall victim to events "we didn't previously view as likely or possible," Merkel said.
Elsewhere, anxiety over the Fukushima accident has contributed to anti-nuclear protests in India, Taiwan and Turkey.
The crisis has shaken Tokyo's faith in nuclear energy, which provided 30 percent of the nation's electricity.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced Tuesday that Japan will scrap its plans to raise that to 50 percent by 2030. He said the government also will promote renewable energy such as solar and wind and further step up conservation.
Japan — already grappling with electricity shortages with several nuclear plants taken off line — is likely to turn to oil and natural gas to meet the energy shortfall. That could mean higher energy prices globally, several experts said.
"They're not going to get the missing pieces from wind and air and other renewables and they're not going to get it from conservation," said Richard Samuels, head of MIT's Center for International Studies and the founder of its Japan Program. "They're going to have to fill in the missing pieces with liquefied natural gas and with oil. ... We should expect it to have an inflationary effect in Japan and maybe globally."
Samuels and Granger Morgan, head of the engineering and public policy program at Carnegie Mellon University, predicted that the Fukushima accident could slow but not stop the nuclear energy renaissance.
"I just don't see how the world continues without nuclear as part of the portfolio," Morgan said. "It looks like a few years until we get back on an even keel as a result of this."
In Mexico, Japan's crisis has not put a halt to plans being studied to add six new reactors to the two it has, said Ricardo Cordoba, deputy director of nuclear security at the Federal Electricity Commission. Nuclear energy should still be considered a clean source of power, he said.
And Iran says it is determined to build a 20-reactor nuclear network across the country, one of the most earthquake-prone in the world.
In the U.S., nuclear energy remains a key priority for the Obama administration as part of a "diversified energy mix" that includes solar and wind power, said Department of Energy spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller.
But the crisis in Japan did contribute to a decision last month by Princeton, New Jersey-based NRG Energy to write down its $481 million investment in two planned nuclear reactors in South Texas. One of NRG's partners was to be Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Japanese utility that owns the Fukushima complex and is likely on the hook for enormous compensation.
Top officials with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have said repeatedly in the wake of the Fukushima accident that — while inspections at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors have redoubled — operations are safe and no immediate changes are needed.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is continuing with its review of applications for licensing recently submitted for 12 nuclear power plants, said Gregory Jaczko, the commission's chairman.
"We are doing a very thorough review of the lessons from Japan. If there is information that comes out of that review, we will certainly apply it to the existing plants," he said.
Jahn reported from Vienna. Charles Hutzler in Beijing, Nirmala George in New Delhi, Seth Borenstein and Matthew Daly in Washington, Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, New York, and other AP writers worldwide contributed to this report.