Asia's nuclear dilemma

TOKYO, Japan and TAIPEI, Taiwan — East Asian governments are pushing nuclear power as part of the answer to global warming. The move is causing no small amount of dismay among some environmentalists.

Like the Obama administration in the U.S., governments here are saying nuclear power must be part of any realistic plan to reach targets for aggressive carbon emissions cuts while meeting energy demands.

Activists counter that governments should focus more on renewable energies and conservation. And skeptics say nuclear power is a dicey business that could leave taxpayers holding the bag.

For now, those concerns don't appear to be stopping what some have billed a global "nuclear renaissance."

The U.S. is planning the first new nuclear plants in 30 years, aided by the Obama administration's generous loan guarantees. In East Asia, global warming has given an extra push to nuclear expansion plans that were already underway.

The leading Asian nuclear power, Japan, plans eight or nine reactors by 2020, adding to its current 54, and hopes to begin reprocessing its spent fuel in Japan later this year.

South Korea plans six to eight more reactors by 2016, adding to its fleet of 20.

China has the most aggressive expansion plans, with 21 reactors now under construction to nearly triple its current fleet of 11. (Beijing wants a whopping 70 gigawatts, or 9.7 percent of the country's electricity needs, to come from nuclear by 2020, compared to just nine gigawatts and 2.7 percent of its electricity now.) Its plans have already sparked safety concerns.

Taiwan is the least ambitious East Asian country on nuclear power, due to a strong anti-nuclear movement that briefly halted expansion of nuclear power in 2000.

But under its current, more nuclear-friendly administration, it's hoping to renew the licenses of its small fleet (six reactors at three plants) for another 20 years, and to open a fourth nuclear power plant in 2011. And it wants to install three new reactors at its existing plants by 2025.

Both Japan and Taiwan are boosting renewable energies such as solar and wind power. But both governments say that in the near term, such sources are too pricey and unproven to provide more than a fraction of energy demands. In the meantime, they say, they can't do without nuclear power.

Land of the rising nukes

Japan's new government has pledged some of the world's most ambitious carbon emissions cuts. Under its center-left prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, it aims to cut emissions to 75 percent of 1990 levels by 2025, provided other big powers make similar cuts.

How it would actually get there is another story. In an interview in a bland meeting room in Kasumigaseki — the heart of Tokyo's bureaucracy — nuclear energy official Katsuyuki Tada marshaled graphs and numbers to show where the cuts would come from.

Out of 329 million tons of CO2 equivalent to be cut by 2020 — the "maximum improvement" under government projections last August — 61 percent will come from energy conservation. Meanwhile, 4.5 percent would come from control of chlorofluorocarbons. Just 5.4 percent of cuts are expected to come from "new energy" like wind and solar. And the rest of the cuts, almost 30 percent?

You guessed it: nuclear power, based on the assumption of nine new reactors by 2020.

Even those cuts only get Japan to 92 percent of 1990 emissions levels, still far away from Hatoyama's target.

"We think nuclear power plants are essential to combat climate change, because nuclear power doesn't emit any carbon dioxide," said Tada.

The prime minister agrees. On March 7, according to the Japan Times, he told reporters: "Although nuclear power presents problems of waste and safety, it is my understanding that it is an essential energy for saving the global climate and reducing carbon dioxide," remarks that
promptly drew criticism from a staunchly anti-nuclear junior coalition partner.

Japan wants to boost nuclear power's proportion of total electricity generation to 40 percent in 2020, up from roughly 30 percent today, by building new nuclear plants and raising capacity at existing reactors. It wants another 10 percent of electricity to come from other zero-emissions sources such as wind and solar.

Tada said nuclear power has the advantage of being far cheaper than renewables: 4.8 to 6.2 yen (about five to seven cents) per kilowatt hour, compared to 10 to 14 yen/kwh for wind power, and 46 yen/kwh for solar. Renewables are just too expensive to be a bigger part of Japan's energy diet in the near future.

Nuclear not the answer: activists

Philip White, of the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, disputed those figures. "Renewable energies like wind and solar are not too expensive," wrote White in an email. "Wind is cheaper than nuclear now. Solar will soon be cheaper when economies of scale and the associated development advances get operating."

He says energy sources should be compared based on the retail cost to the consumer, since some renewable energies can be produced on-site, for example with rooftop solar panels. By those calculations, renewables are more competitive.

Activists like White cite studies pointing out nuclear power's shaky business model, such as this report on nuclear power in the UK, or a study from MIT that concluded that the drawbacks of reprocessing spent fuel outweigh the benefits.  (Japan hopes to begin reprocessing its own spent nuclear fuel this year.)

"Renewables are a realistic replacement for fossil fuels at this point," White insisted. "Nuclear energy is an obstacle to solving problems associated with climate change."

Veteran anti-nuclear activist Makoto Kondo agrees. He disputes the notion that nuclear is a "clean" energy source, pointing out that parts of the nuclear generation process, such as mining uranium for fuel, do produce CO2. And he insists nuclear power is a risky gamble, especially in a country like Japan that's prone to frequent earthquakes.

One of the most recent big quakes, in 2007, toppled more than 100 barrels of nuclear waste at one plant, caused a fire and dumped 317 gallons of water with trace amounts of radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan.

Due to that and other accidents, as well as halts after falsifications of reports at other plants, Japan's nuclear fleet operated at only 58 percent of capacity in 2008, far below the 80 percent capacity assumed in government projections on emissions cuts.

"We need to develop more clean energy, not depend on nuclear energy," said Kondo. "This is the only way to fight global warming."

But Kondo admitted his longtime activism had had little impact. "I didn't do enough in the past 40 years," he said, shaking his head. "But I still hope we can stop nuclear generation some day. We can't give up."

Ambivalent island

By contrast with Japan, Taiwan's activists have successfully slowed, if not stopped, the island's nuclear expansion.

Now, however, a nuclear-friendly government is quietly turning back to nuclear power, and making the case that it's an essential part of any carbon-cutting plan.

Taiwan's government targets a modest reduction of carbon emissions to 2000 levels by 2025. It backs energy efficiency and renewables, hoping to get 55 percent of its electricity from "low carbon" sources by 2025, according to the Bureau of Energy.

"Nuclear is a non-carbon energy source," said Tu Yueh-yuan, spokeswoman at Taipower, Taiwan's state-run power firm, and its only electricity provider. "If we don't use nuclear, we'd have to increase energy supply from fossil fuels."

Like the Japanese nuclear power official, Taipower's Tu presented a graph showing Taiwan's CO2 emissions soaring from about 76.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2000 to 180 million tons by 2025 under "business as usual" assumptions.

Of possible emissions cuts from that level, only 7 percent come from boosting renewables like wind and solar. Some 25 percent comes from boosting liquid natural gas. Meanwhile, 38 percent of cuts come from extending the operating licenses on Taiwan's three nuclear plants. And another 30 percent would come from installing three new nuclear reactors at existing plants.

Even then, emissions would only be reduced to 98.7 million metric tons, still far above 2000 levels. Energy conservation will have to kick in to get the rest of the way.

Tu notes that Taiwan has an independent electric grid and can't buy supply from any neighboring country, reducing its options. Meanwhile, wind and solar power are far more expensive than nuclear.

And if you hope to store electricity generated from wind or solar power, that will double those costs, said Tu. "In Taiwan, wind power is much more expensive than nuclear power," said Tu. "Solar will get more and more cheap, true, but there's not much land for solar panels,
and most people in Taiwan live in condominiums, so there's not much roof space."

"So if you don't use nuclear, what are you going to do?" she said.

Save energy, don't produce more

Kao Cheng-yan has some ideas about that. He was studying computer science at the University of Madison, Wisconsin when the 1979 Three Mile Island accident happened. Like many of his generation, that accident — and even worse, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 — set him
against nuclear power.

Like many anti-nuclear activists, he says the key to curbing emissions is cutting energy use, not planning ways to meet ever-increasing energy demand. "Taiwan's energy is too cheap," he says (it's about NT$2.67 per kilowatt hour for the consumer, according to Taipower). "Our biggest problem is the need to cut energy consumption."

He points out that many nuclear plants are in low-lying coastal areas that could be inundated by rising sea levels. And in terms of the power that is used, he still thinks nuclear is too risky, particularly in earthquake-prone Taiwan, which experiences a magnitude 6 or greater quake every 100 days.

He and other Taiwan activists have long opposed any expansion of nuclear power, especially the long-delayed fourth nuclear power plant.

When an anti-nuclear party came to power in 2000, it immediately made good on campaign promises and halted construction of that plant. But after the ensuing political crisis, that government was forced to compromise. Construction of the plant resumed in line with a Supreme Court ruling, but lawmakers passed a resolution supporting an eventual "nuclear-free homeland."

That may have disappointed Kao and other activists. But it was far more than the anti-nuclear movement has achieved elsewhere.

Asked why Taiwan was more ambivalent about nuclear power, Kao speculated, "Taiwan is smaller, and when earthquakes happen, everyone feels them."

For now, anti-nuclear forces are focused on opposing any plans for a nuclear dumping ground. Like the U.S. and Japan, Taiwan has not found a final resting place for its nuclear waste, another reason not to expand nuclear power, say activists. Activists also want a referendum on the fourth nuclear plant.

Kao insists nuclear power can only hurt, not help, the battle against climate change.

"There's no way to solve global warming with nuclear power," he says. "Only renewable energy can solve the problem."