The revival of nuclear energy in Asia

After Fukushima, Japan considered decommissioning its nuclear facilities due to the risk of further catastrophes.1 Other countries around the world have also opted to lower their share of their energy mix deriving from nuclear power.2

And yet, the struggle between needing energy and wanting that energy to be risk-less forbids many to actually move away from nuclear generation.

Japan. Not long after Fukushima, Shinzo Abe, the then newly elected PM openly declared his support for new nuclear plants.3 Abe’s actions were in no way against the desire of the public. On the contrary, the previous government’s intention to phase out nuclear energy was met with a severe backlash by many who consider that a non-nuclear energy matrix would be too expensive.4 Similarly, as noted by Financial Times, regardless of the fact that Fukushima’s handling was highly defective, Fukushima is not considered as being the nuclear industry’s fault.5

In consequence, nuclear power has been gradually revived in the country. Based on safety reasons – Japan is an earthquake-prone island – Japanese citizens have recurred to courts to block the restart of reactors. Some of the challenges have been ruled against the government. For example, Japan’s nuclear regulator approved the restart of the Takahama reactors back in 2014,6 but Fukui’s prefecture courts ruled against it on April of 2015.9

It is too early to tell how many of the 24 reactors that have applied to restart will get to do it but the government’s intention is to have at least 20% of the energy matrix sourced with nuclear power.10

South Korea. Almost at the same time with Mr. Abe announcing the intentions to retake nuclear power after Fukushima, South Korea restarted a nuclear facility that had been shut down as a result of security concerns.11 Alone, this bespeaks about the commitment for nuclear energy in the country.

The concern here is that South Korea is considered to be one of the most dangerous nuclear hubs, due to both political factors12 and the fact that it is plagued with safety incidents.13 However, the country considers nuclear generation vital to its future and foresees it covering 29% of the energy demands by 2035.14 Likewise, there is strong support for being a player of global importance in the field of nuclear energy. In fact, the country’s sector is so developed that South Korea is amongst the few countries in the world with the capacity to ‘export’ reactors, as demonstrated by the fact that it is currently building four reactors in the United Arab Emirates.15

Moreover, South Korea just finalized negotiations for the renewal of a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, which signals that the country will remain committed to coal for the foreseeable future.16

China. After Fukushima, China declared a moratorium on the development of new nuclear reactors.17 This continued to the the case until 2012, when the government lifted the moratorium and decided that it wanted to become a global leader in nuclear power generation by 2020.18

As a result of this ambitious goal, the country recently approved its first reactors after the moratorium,19 and has 26 reactors currently in operation plus 24 currently under construction.22 a warning that is particularly concerning due to risks posed by the rapid pace at which China’s planning to develop the nuclear sector.23

In conclusion. The idea that Fukushima was a turning point that would make everyone realize the dangers of nuclear power was naive, at best. It did, to a point, and in some places, catalyze a process of reconsideration. Whilst this could serve for the improvement of standards in the industry, there is litte point in hijacking disasters to call for unrealistic solutions. Economic imperatives led to the re-activation or furthering of the nuclear agenda even in the very country where Fukushima took place. Having said that, downplaying the risks of nuclear generation due to short term economic goals is the other extreme. In this sense, whilst it is clear that cost considerations underlied the revival of nuclear power in these Asian countries, the safety improvements that should have derived are not so evident.

Image credits: Tomari Nuclear Plant Construction (Japan). IAEA Imagebank via Flickr (Unmodified). License: CC BY-SA 2.0.

  1. Soble & Blas, 2012 via FT.
  2. Smedley, 2013 via theGuardian.
  3. Tabuchi, 2012 via NYTimes.
  4. See for example Energy Trends Insider, 2012.
  5. Butler, 2015 via FT.
  6. World Nuclear News, 2014.
  7. Johnston, 2015 via Japan Times.7 That said, other courts have given the green light for restarting reactors elsewhere in the country.8theEconomist, 2015.
  8. World Nuclear Association, 2015.
  9. BBC, 2012.
  10. Daly, 2012 via
  11. Kwon, 2012 via CNN.
  12. World Nuclear News, 2013.
  13. World Nuclear Association, 2015.
  14. Mundy & Jung-a, 2015 via FT.
  15. Yi’nan, 2013 via ChinaDialogue.
  16. Chen, 2014 via South China Morning Post.
  17. Spegele, 2015 via WSJ.
  18. World Nuclear Association, 2015.20 This has led some detractors to issue warnings due to the insanity of the nuclear agenda,21Graham-Harrison, 2015 via theGuardian.
  19. The Economist, 2014.