Report: Fukushima a "Speed Bump" on the Road to Massive Nuclear Power Expansion

The worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl still is echoing loudly through the industry, less than a year and a half after the earthquake and tsunami did their work on the Fukushima plant. But a biennial report on uranium resources and nuclear development thinks that 20 years hence, those echoes will have faded. According to the UN's Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear power will expand between 44 and 99 percent by 2035, with a total added capacity between 165 and 371 gigawatts.

To be sure, some countries, notably Germany, which has pledged to shut down all of its 17 reactors by 2022, are headed in the opposite direction. Even if they follow through, however, this might not make a dent in the industry overall growth. The report, known informally as the Red Book, predicts nuclear will expand between 125 and 185 percent in East Asia, with heavy construction in China, South Korea, India, and Russia. (Notably though, the low end of that prediction does not include the possibility that Japan will fully disavow the use of nuclear in Fukushima's wake.)

It seems striking that a disaster that captured the world's full attention might have so little lingering effect. Gary Dyck, the head of nuclear fuel cycle and materials at IAEA, told Reuters that "we see [Fukushima] as a speed bump. We still expect huge growth in China." That's a hell of a speed bump; after Chernobyl in 1986, global nuclear capacity growth did slowfairly dramatically, though this could be attributed to a number of factors.

One thing that won't hold up nuclear growth is fuel supply. The Red Book, which focuses on uranium mining and availability, indicates that total identified resources have grown 12.5 percent since 2008. Costs of production have also increased, but overall the "total identified resources are sufficient for over 100 years of supply based on current requirements." And it could be even longer if a few very rich people are right about the potential of some novel nuclear reactor designs. The future of nuclear power might be a bit rosier than it has seemed over the last 18 months.

Image: Nuclear plant at Qinshan, China, via Jeremy Whitlock/AECL

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