A week into Japan’s triple tragedy—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident—the implications are still unfolding. Analysts are beginning to map out how the nuclear accident could affect global energy trends for nuclear, conventional energy, and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
It’s useful to recall the response to past nuclear accidents. Following the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, a decades-long run of building nuclear plants in the U.S. stopped. New nuclear expansion stalled following the Chernobyl melt-down in Russia in 1986, as well.
This time around, global reaction looks more nuanced, given heightened energy demand, global warming anxieties and huge ongoing commitments to nuclear in developing Asia. Europe and the US are both showing signs that further extensions of existing reactors may run into heightened opposition, and plans to build new facilities face higher hurdlers. If conditions continue to worsen in Japan, prospects for nuclear energy, particularly in Western democracies are likely to erode.
Here’s a snap shot of thinking roughly one week after Japan’s mega-quake.
* Fuel switching means more coal. While the impact on Japan’s energy supply can’t yet be determined conclusively, analysts at Bank of Americas Merrill Lynch predict the impact on total energy consumption will be limited, and that near term will see fuel switching away from nuclear. In their Global Energy Weekly note, analysts note that Japan has taken 9.7 gigawatts of nuclear power offline and, should it be possible to ever bring the plants back on line, Japan is historically cautious in okaying restarts.
As a result, Japan is likely to see a pick up in LNG imports and will rely more its coal fired power plants, which are operating at or near maximum their top output. (BOA-ML notes that 2.5 gigawatts of coal-fired power plant capacity was destroyed in the quake and tsunami.)
This shift away from nuclear towards fossil fuels may be mirrored by other economies. Longer term, CCS could be a logical beneficiary of such fuel switching, as analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance noted in their Week in Review:
The debate is however likely to roam much more widely also during coming weeks and months. Nuclear building programmes from India to the US and Germany will face much greater scrutiny, and some governments are likely to choose to build less nuclear, and more gas-fired plant or wind capacity, in the 2020s. There may even be more appetite to pay for carbon capture and storage technology on coal-fired power stations.
* Backlash in Europe. The backlash to nuclear appears most intense in Europe where, not coincidentally, renewables have made their biggest inroads. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel announced a three-month freeze on any extensions of the lifespan on the nation’s 17 nuclear facilities, emphasizing that Germany would ramp up a shift to renewables. The government also announced plans to test security and control systems at all of its reactors.
Commenting on Germany’s move, analysts at Jefferies & Company, Inc., a New York-base cleantech investment bank wrote that the chancellor’s “very strong words” amount to “an incredible u-turn” given policies that last year promoted the extension of German nuclear plants operating licenses. “This is a major event that may end up being a significant turning point for the renewable energy industry,”
* In the US, a complicated outlook. In the US, the outlook for nuclear looks is more complicated. President Obama defended the technology in the days immediately following the Japan disaster. With five new plants in some stage of approval or construction in the U.S., nuclear has emerged as a bargaining chip in the struggle to pass broader clean energy policy. Both the left and right find reasons to like, or at least tolerate, the technology.
If nuclear building is curtailed, creating a national compromise to craft CCS-friendly clean energy policy suddenly gets much harder, Angus McCrone writes in a recent analyst’s note for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Still, any defunding of nuclear could benefit renewables and CCS. “In the long term, renewable power sources and coal-with-CCS should be able to share with gas the crumbs left behind by a more modest nuclear building programme,” he notes.
* Developing Asia remains pro “all of the above”. If the outlook for nuclear remains positive anywhere, developing Asia is the place. In China, Beijing remains committed to a push to build to about 250 GW of nuclear plants over the next two decades. Power hungry India is likewise staying on track to continue construct reactors designed domestically, with Russian input, the New York Times reports.
Longer term, nuclear anxiety could lead China to boost its nascent efforts “to shift its focus for the 2020s further onto efficiency, wind and coal-with-CCS,” adds McCrone.