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Asia's nuclear dilemma

Nuclear power has long been opposed on safety, environmental, security and business grounds. But Asian governments are saying they can't fight global warming without more of it.

The Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant seen through designs from a Chinese traditional pavilion, June 10, 2005. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)

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.