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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Asian nations take nuclear option


Tamsin Carlisle

Last Updated: May 09. 2009 4:39PM UAE / May 9. 2009 12:39PM GMT As the long-awaited nuclear renaissance shows signs of being still-born in the West, it is proceeding apace in the developing economies of Asia and the Middle East, shifting the centre of nuclear development eastwards.

While the UAE steadily lays the groundwork required for it to become the first atomic-powered state in the Arab world, China is embracing nuclear technology as it embarks on a full-scale makeover of its coal-dependent electricity sector.

In central Asia, Kazakhstan is planning to build on its unassailable position as the continent’s biggest uranium supplier to develop a civilian nuclear power industry. Elsewhere in the region, a number of states unblessed with large oil and gas resources are eyeing nuclear power as a practical means to reduce their energy imports.

Nuclear power development takes lots of time, money and political will, along with careful planning and technical know-how. In many jurisdictions, especially developed countries, it also requires a significant level of popular support. Money and support are proving to be the biggest stumbling blocks in Europe, while a lack of co-ordinated planning between governments and industry is emerging as an additional hurdle in the US.

“We are still the bad, and renewables are still the good,” Koen Beyaert, the director of communication at the Belgian Nuclear Forum, a pro-nuclear group, lamented at a nuclear energy conference earlier this year in Brussels.

Ralf Guldner, a director of the nuclear unit of E.On, the German utility, added: “So far, people have not really understood that nuclear energy can contribute significantly to solving the climate issue.”

On the money side, Xavier de Rollat, the director of corporate and investment banking at Societe Generale, has calculated that the roughly three dozen new reactors being planned for Europe outside Russia would require at least €100 billion (Dh500.04bn) of investment, which he doubts could be raised in the current financial climate. Many European countries that had announced plans to start nuclear programmes would have trouble financing them, he predicted.

Darius Montvila, the strategic projects director at the state-owned Lithuanian Electricity Organisation, told the Brussels conference: “We have chosen the technology, but financing will be difficult, given Lithuania’s size and the economic situation.” Lithuania’s economy has been hit so hard by the global recession that its government is considering seeking an emergency loan from the IMF.

Across the Atlantic, at a nuclear conference in Rockville, Maryland, organised by the energy information group Platts, delegates heard that the rules governing US federal loan guarantees for nuclear development were in conflict with state and municipal laws in parts of the country, which was hampering the federal programme’s effectiveness.

Gregory Jaczko, the commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who forecast long delays ahead for US nuclear energy development, said: “We now find ourselves making some of the same mistakes of the past.”

But China, still flush with foreign capital, does not face the financial constraints that are limiting energy investment in the West. Nor does its non-elected government have to worry about placating anti-nuclear activists. What it does face are large public health costs for respiratory illnesses related to pollution from coal-fired power plants, along with pressure from western trade partners to reduce carbon emissions. Both problems could be handily addressed by replacing ageing coal-fired generating stations with new nuclear facilities, which is apparently what China’s government intends to do.

The governments of most oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries also have money available for nuclear development, if they wish to pursue such a course. owever, only a handful of states, including the UAE, are making serious moves in this direction. Still, the region as a whole has only recently had to come to grips with growing electricity shortages caused by faster than expected population growth and industrial expansion, and public awareness that nuclear energy could help solve this problem is spreading.

In general, momentum towards the adoption of civilian nuclear power has been gathering in the region.

Despite international concerns about potential nuclear arms proliferation, it may now have reached critical mass.

Many individual Asian and Middle-Eastern countries face difficulties in their pursuit of a nuclear powered future, and new atomic power stations will not pop up overnight. But they are undoubtedly on the way, as this round-up of nuclear development activity indicates.


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