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Story Publication logo February 8, 2017

Safety First: The Future of Nuclear Energy Outside the United States

Nuclear power

Can and should nuclear power play a significant role in combating climate change?

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The Doomsday clock, the logo of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, showing two and a half minutes to midnight.
The Doomsday clock, the logo of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, showing two and a half minutes to midnight.


Nuclear energy, hydroelectric power, and renewables are all needed to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and the 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gasses all plan to use nuclear power in some way to deal with the climate crisis. In some countries it will be an essential part of low-carbon electricity; in others it will contribute only marginally. While Asian countries plan to have a growing reliance on nuclear power, European nations expect it to play a diminishing but still necessary role. Yet although each country has different plans and faces different obstacles, the main requirement for carrying out nuclear plans will be the establishment of a cooperative safety culture agreed to by as many nations as possible.


Climate change, nuclear energy, Paris Agreement

On November 4, 2016, the international climate accord organized by the United Nations and agreed to in December 2015 officially went into effect. Aimed at slowing global warming by reducing greenhouse emissions, the Paris Agreement primarily represents a collection of voluntary national declarations to reduce carbon output over the next two decades. Given that it accounts for about 30 percent of global greenhouse emissions—a figure that is likely to rise—electricity generation will play a significant role in those reductions, which means the world will be turning to low-carbon energy solutions like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and of course nuclear power. These sources, the latter two in particular, currently account for about 30 percent of global electricity generation; if the nations of the world follow through on their Paris declarations, that number could rise to 50 percent by sometime in the 2030s, with nuclear power providing more than a quarter of that estimated output. But the likelihood of that happening is still uncertain. In most of the places outside the United States where nuclear growth is planned—namely China, India, the European Union, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Canada, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia, which along with the United States are the 10 largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world—governments face various hurdles that could slow their progress. These differ from country to country, but tend to involve some combination of high up-front costs, social stigma about rare but spectacular accidents, and safety and security concerns—the last being perhaps the greatest challenge to the global growth of nuclear energy in the coming decades.

Asian ambitions

It's impossible to consider the future of nuclear power, and especially nuclear power in growing region like Asia without taking into account the disaster that struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011. The worst nuclear accident in a generation, it has not only reconfigured Japan's energy outlook but raised significant concerns about safety for neighbors like China and South Korea as well.

Japan itself is still recovering from the disaster, after which the portion of its electricity coming from nuclear power dropped from 30 percent to zero. The accident greatly weakened the political and financial power of Japan's electrical utility firms, especially Fukushima's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Ltd., which had been largely untouchable. The reversal was indicative of a larger sea change in Japan's nuclear industry that would have been politically impossible before Fukushima. One result has been the creation of an independent oversight agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, to replace the largely advisory and toothless Nuclear Safety Agency. Another has been the deregulation of Japan's electricity market—a four-year effort begun in 2016 and designed to encourage competition, technological innovation, and pricing schedules that encourage conservation.

Though most Japanese accept the need for nuclear power, if only for economic reasons, popular and local faith in safe nuclear power has greatly declined since Fukushima, and faith in the country's new nuclear authority to regulate facilities effectively has not been established yet. Reactors are being restarted where the need is greatest and prefectures are most ready to accept them, but only after regulators approve. At this point, five reactors have resumed operation, though at least two were subsequently shut down by technical problems or court order. According to the government's 2015 draft plan for electricity, nuclear energy is to provide about 20 percent of total power by 2030, down from a pre-Fukushima plan of 50 percent. In part as a result of the lower role anticipated for nuclear power, Japan's planned contribution to emission reductions under the Paris Agreement is significantly smaller than those of most other major emitters like the United States and the European Union, although its longer-range plans are more ambitious.

As part of a larger commitment to reducing pollution and carbon intensity, China plans to expand nuclear power, now responsible for 3 percent of the country's electricity generation, to 8–10 percent by the 2030s. China has a full capacity to research, develop, fund, and build nuclear plants, and a record of fulfilling its nuclear plans. However the country also faces continuing decline in GDP growth and current excess electrical capacity, which may delay further investments in clean power and make it hard to say whether China will meet its 8–10 percent goal by the 2030s. It's also worth noting that China's full use of low-carbon resources is hampered by policies favoring the use of coal, such as price subsidies and employment incentives. This means that China is continuing to build and allocate generation to power plants of all kinds, despite current overcapacity.

China also has something of a mixed outlook when it comes to safety concerns. In reacting to Fukushima more quickly and substantively than any other nuclear-power user, Beijing has put in place a new plan to use nuclear energy more safely and is currently making a transition from pre-Fukushima Generation II reactors to new post-Fukushima Generation III+ reactors, with quality and reliability to be tested over the next decade (Zhou 2012). Yet given the rapid growth of the Chinese nuclear industry, outside observers, as well as the relatively independent State Research Office, have expressed concerns over the effectiveness of its licensing and regulatory structure—concerns that only intensified after Fukushima. China has carried out a review of the vulnerability of all its reactors and intensified its contacts with other regulatory bodies, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency. It has also started a network with South Korea and Japan to cooperate on nuclear safety and established detailed agreements and protocols with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These steps place China on the right track, but the extent and growth of the safety culture can only be determined by experience.

Beijing has public opinion to consider as well, although that is less of a factor in the Chinese system than in others. Until Fukushima, there was very little opposition to nuclear power in China; the accident, which was widely covered in Chinese media, changed that. A 2012 survey carried out in Shandong Province found that more than 80 percent of its respondents only paid attention to nuclear risks after Fukushima and an earlier survey there "found that before the accident only 20% of respondents had knowledge of nuclear power and 65% of them had never heard of nuclear power" (He et al. 2012). It is not likely, however, that popular opposition will do more than delay the selection of sites, given the Chinese government's determination to expand non-hydrocarbon generation and given the lethal pollution from the use of coal as a fuel in power plants.

Rounding out the region, South Korea—currently the tenth-largest electricity generator in the world and the fifth-largest producer of nuclear power—has plans to increase the number of its nuclear reactors from 24 today to 35 by 2029, and increase the nuclear share of its total generation from 22 percent currently to 28 percent during the same period. Although the physical impact of the Fukushima accident was minimal in South Korea, it nonetheless caused renewed concern over the safety of nuclear energy there. South Korea has not endured any major accident but has experienced safety and quality concerns, including falsification of safety-related documents in 2012 and 2013. Nevertheless, given the lack of energy supplies in South Korea, its modern and effective nuclear industry, and a large nuclear-plant export program (including a $20 billion contract with the United Arab Emirates now under way), the nuclear sector seems likely to grow approximately as planned. South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy plans to make the country the third largest nuclear exporter by 2030.

Uncertainty on the subcontinent

India's nuclear program has been part of its search for self-sufficiency from the first days of independence—and is now part of its plan to make sure 40 percent of its installed energy capacity by 2030 comes from resources that do not use fossil fuels. Nuclear energy would provide a quarter of that clean power under present plans. As of the end of 2015, India's nuclear reactors generated a little over 2 percent of its total electricity. Eight large reactors under construction or on order would double that capacity, and ambitious longer-term plans call for an 8–10 percent nuclear contribution to overall electricity generation by 2030. Yet while there is little doubt about India's commitment to developing its nuclear sector, history counsels a great deal of caution regarding the timing of any particular achievement. Factors such as limited funding, lack of agreement on liability, and popular opposition to foreign suppliers contribute to this uncertainty (Ebinger 2016).

The more than 300 million Indian households without electricity mean that coal use will increase along with low-emissions power. Prime Minister Modi has made clear that, when it comes to government funding, expanding that capacity will take precedent over limiting greenhouse emissions. India also needs a modern grid suited to a mix of intermittent and traditional energy sources—a major task for any country, but an especially difficult one for India given its size and the current fragmentation of its bureaucracy and infrastructure. Modi has also stated that achieving India's Paris declarations will require help from developed countries. Given the government's determination, its low-carbon electricity program is likely to be carried out but on a delayed schedule, with goals not met until late in the 2030s.

In the meantime, India could also stand to reform the way it oversees nuclear energy. According to a 2015 review by the International Atomic Energy Agency, India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board should be "separated from other entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision-making." The board, founded in 1983 under regulations established by India's Department of Atomic Energy, retains close ties with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., the builder and operator of India's reactors (Mohan 2015). A bill introduced in the previous administration to replace the board with a National Safety Regulatory Authority has lapsed and has not been reintroduced. With a variety of reactor types envisaged or under construction, the board has a tough task ahead, requiring a variety of expertise—some of which it has not yet developed.

Scaling back in Europe

Thanks in large part to investments in renewables, the European Union plans to cut the carbon intensity of its electricity production by more than half, from 450 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (a common measure of emissions) in 2010 to about 200 in 2030. By that time, nuclear energy should provide about a quarter of carbon-free electricity, a share slated to decline slowly thereafter. While member nations differ widely in their plans for nuclear energy, most are looking to scale back their usage.

Germany has shut down half its reactors and plans to shut down the rest by 2022. That nuclear capacity is currently being replaced by coal, gas, and imported electricity; half of Germany's power comes from hydrocarbons, a quarter from lignite (or brown coal). Germany plans to meet its EU-mandated emissions reduction commitment in part from a growing its renewables sector, mainly through wind, though there is popular opposition to the necessary transmission lines to be set up across the country. The move to phase out nuclear power has broad popular support but there is no lack of opposition to it, largely because of transition costs, which the Fraunhofer Institute estimates at over 1 trillion euros, and the economic impact of losing a reliable power source.

Many other European countries have also limited their use of nuclear power, or abandoned it all together, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Due to the relatively integrated grid of the EU (plus Norway), and the availability of power from nuclear and hydroelectric plants outside these countries, the loss of a nuclear contribution to carbon-free electricity in these areas is not so severe. Spain plans a large increase in solar power for domestic use and for export, principally to Germany. Nevertheless, gas and particularly coal, which is cheaper than gas under the EU Emissions Trading System, will continue to be used.

France is looking to cut back its nuclear production as well, despite its heavy usage to date. The country currently depends on nuclear electricity for about 75 percent of its consumption, with the remaining quarter split between hydroelectric and fossil fuel power, with minimal wind and sun generation. The carbon intensity of its electricity, at 82 grams per kilowatt-hour, is the lowest among the world's 10 largest electricity producers; costs are among the lowest in the EU. Yet in 2014, the administration of President François Hollande passed the Energy Transition for Green Growth bill, which placed an immediate cap on nuclear power at the present level and set a 2025 goal of reducing nuclear electricity to 50 percent of total electricity supply. The change was motivated by the need to modernize and eventually replace aging reactors, the desire not to rely on a single technology, the high cost of reactors under construction, and the governing party's political position. At least in the medium term, gas and coal would be the replacement fuels, raising greenhouse emissions. France nevertheless plans to meet its own long-standing emissions-reduction goals as well as its Paris declarations by means of a carbon tax, a combination of rebates and penalties on the purchase of cars based on their emissions, and conservation measures particularly in its large construction sector.

In the United Kingdom the 2008 Climate Change Act has set legally binding targets for greenhouse emissions to be reduced by 80 percent, from 1990 levels, by 2050, with carbon caps set for successive five-year periods. So far, those caps are being met—but nuclear power is needed to fulfill those commitments. In 2015, nuclear power generated 21 percent of total production. An additional 21 percent was imported, mostly nuclear, from France and Holland. Renewables provided 25 percent of total electricity for a total low-carbon contribution of more than 40 percent of electricity generated in the UK. Looking ahead to the mid-2030s, Britain is planning for a nuclear contribution of approximately 30 percent of total generation, part of a low-carbon generation of approximately 75 percent of a somewhat higher total electricity generation. All existing nuclear reactors, owned and operated by a unit of the French firm EDF, will have been shut down by then, and their replacements will also be built, owned, and operated by foreign entities.

These are ambitious goals, not least because electricity bills are a large part of median income and low-carbon electricity is particularly expensive. Limiting total emissions will also be difficult (National Audit Office 2016). Nevertheless, the government's commitment is clear.

Ramping up in Russia

Russia has resumed an active nuclear power construction and export program after the lull caused by the Chernobyl accident and the economic and social disruptions of the early 1990s. As of 2015, it had 35 operating reactors generating 18 percent of total electricity. Eleven more are under construction or committed, and like the others they are all designed, built, and operated by Rosenergoatom, a unit of Rosatom, a state-owned corporation. Current plans call for nuclear power to provide 20 percent of the electricity generation by 2030; beyond that, Russia is committed to an ambitious program with a fully closed nuclear cycle (i.e., one that includes reprocessing and recycling) and a goal of 40–50 percent nuclear contribution to total electricity supply by 2050 and 70–80 percent by 2100 (Andreeva-Andrievskaya 2015).

Given the government's level of commitment, and given that Russia is an authoritarian country with little effective political opposition, it seems likely that the program outlined will be carried out, although the timing is currently being delayed owing to existing surplus generating capacity. Longer term, the possibility of economic downturn is the main risk to the program schedule.

Rosenergoatom has placed considerable emphasis on improved safety programs and adherence to international safety standards, in good part because of its goal of increasing exports. The current reactor designs are much safer than the RMBK design that led to Chernobyl, yet the safety of reactors under development, especially fast reactors, is not yet known.

Nuclear energy and hydropower are the only sizable carbon-free electricity programs in Russia. Russia's Paris declaration states a goal of 25–30 percent reduction of carbon emissions over 1990 levels "subject to the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests." Russia's emissions, however, have never returned to their 1990 level, and its pledge would limit 2020–2030 emissions to level higher than 2015 emissions. Russia's pledge therefore is essentially meaningless.

Business as usual in the Americas

After the United States, Canada and Brazil are the two other users of nuclear power in the Western Hemisphere on the list of the 10 largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Canada currently boasts the sixth-largest electricity-generating capacity in the world and was one of the earliest countries to develop nuclear power, using its own reactor design, the Candu, which does not require enrichment and which it has exported around the globe. Nuclear energy provides about 16 percent of the country's total generating capacity, second only to hydroelectric's 60 percent. As a result of these carbon-free sources, Canada's power generation has a very low carbon intensity, and the government currently has no plans to either expand or cut nuclear-energy generation, although most existing reactors will need to be replaced either by new units or by other energy sources within the time frame of the proposed Paris agreement. Canada plans a phase-out of its coal-fueled plants, currently less than 10 percent of total generation, and bans the construction of new traditional ones that do not feature carbon capture and storage technology.

Canada's Paris declaration calls for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030, from 2005 levels. Because Canada already has a very clean electricity sector, much of the reduction must come from other sectors, such as reducing methane emissions from the natural gas industry. The extent of overall reductions and the timing to achieve goals are highly political subjects in Canada and prospects differed between the former Conservative government and the present Liberal one.

Brazil, meanwhile, is the ninth-largest total power producer in the world, with a small nuclear component consisting of two reactors that contribute about 3 percent of its electricity. Four more reactors are proposed, primarily due to fears that climate change could affect the nation's hydropower—by far the Brazil's largest source of electricity generation. Brazil has hydrocarbon resources and biomass, so that the impact of nuclear power in Brazil on abating world greenhouse emissions is likely to remain small.

A coming Saudi boom?

Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear power, generating its electricity entirely from gas and oil, yet it plans to build 16 plants in the next 20–25 years that should cover 20 percent of its power needs. A similarly ambitious program for renewables, mainly solar, is planned to generate another 40 percent. The organization charged with developing nuclear and renewable resources is the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, a town built expressly for the purpose outside the capital city of Riyadh. The city has entered in agreements with France, South Korea (for smaller reactors in particular), Russia, and China to build nuclear reactors and provide associated technology and training.

Because of Saudi Arabia's location and complex relationship with its neighbors and extremist Islamist elements, nuclear safeguards are a particular concern. Saudi Arabia has a safeguards agreement with the IAEA but has not signed the Additional Protocol, which would provide a great deal of additional assurance of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The safeguards agreements, stemming from that treaty, have mostly worked well in identifying problem areas to date. Enforcement however depends on the UN and its member states; in most cases it has been peaceful if sometimes a little tardy. Iraq, North Korea, and, at least until recently, Iran, are the notable exceptions. Large nuclear power sectors in the Middle East planned by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will make for new challenges for the IAEA, which depends for its funding and effectiveness on its member countries. Adherence to the Additional Protocol would significantly ease those challenges.

Saudi Arabia cooperates with the IAEA and has signed a memorandum with the United States committing it to "cooperation in the development of environmentally sustainable, safe, and secure civilian nuclear energy." The independence, transparency, and competence of the forthcoming safety, security, and safeguards organizations will be crucial to the future of nuclear power in the Middle East.

Making it work

If the Paris Agreement survives and the pledges are fulfilled, the total world nuclear output would contribute just under 40 percent of low-carbon electricity. The countries surveyed here, while not the only countries that plan to have nuclear power by the 2030s, produced 60 percent of the world's nuclear electricity in 2015, and accounted for 70 percent of greenhouse emissions. They are where climate progress must be made, and although the largest growth in low-carbon electricity is planned for wind and solar, nuclear energy has an important role to play as well, not least because nuclear and hydroelectric energy are mature technologies that can (mostly) use the grids as they are and are well suited to provide base-load power—the minimum daily power demand, which remains generally constant from day to day—without large and expensive storage capacities.

Yet while all low-carbon sources present technical and funding hurdles, the main requirement for fulfilling nuclear power growth is the establishment of a world safety and security culture as good or better as the best that exist today. Statistically, nuclear power is as safe and clean as its best competitors, yet we must still confront the reality of disasters like Fukushima. Despite the catastrophic tsunami that preceded the accident, it was management and regulatory failures that really caused it. Steps to avoid it had been identified and had repeatedly been called to the operator's attention. Lesser instances of similar management failures have occurred elsewhere, for instance at the Davis-Besse facility in the United States, where warning signs of corrosion were disregarded until the containment vessel was nearly eaten through in March 2002.

There are concrete steps we can take to build a global safety culture, such as those advocated by Richard Meserve, former chairman of the National Regulatory Commission (Meserve 2009). These include enhancing global safety and security services, such as inspections, establishing "a universal, effective, and open network for sharing operating experience," and harmonizing safety standards. These will require a degree of international cooperation and shared sovereignty that will take time and sensitive negotiations to achieve. The IAEA has established a strong basis for progress through establishing standards, enabling, along with the World Association of Nuclear Operators, better communication among nuclear power users and other essentially voluntary measures. The kind of cooperation that exists for safeguards, however, does not yet exist for the safety and security of nuclear power, and there is no binding international agreement for safety such as exists for nonproliferation. If nuclear power is to make its full contribution to low-carbon electricity, it will require a globally agreed cooperative safety culture to go along with it.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Notes on contributor
Michael M. May is a professor emeritus of management science and engineering at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation and the former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.


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Meserve, R. A. 2009. "The global nuclear safety regime." Dædalus, Fall.

Mohan, A. 2015. "Nuclear Safety and Regulation in India: The Way Forward." Observer Research Foundation.….

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