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China/India: Emerging Giants Look To Nuclear Power

  • Breffni O'Rourke --> As the Chinese economy grows, so does its need for energy (AFP) With increased concern about oil shortages and pollution-induced climate instability, interest has reawakened in civilian nuclear power. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in China and India, the Asian neighbors expected to be the economic giants of the 21st century. Despite the expense of building reactors, radioactive waste problems, and the threat of catastrophic accidents, nuclear power is increasingly being touted as the wave of the future.

PRAGUE, March 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- China and India are in the midst of an economic expansion that is transforming them into major powerhouses of the world economy.

Central to this transformation is the question of energy. With a combined population of some 2.3 billion people and rapid economic-growth rates, the energy mix they will use to achieve their objectives is a concern for the entire world.

If these two economies reach the present state of development of the United States, it will impose worrisome strains on the world's oil and gas resources, as well as on the capacity of the planet to cope with the resulting air pollution.

Huge And Growing Energy Demand

Stephan Slingerland, an energy researcher at the Clingendahl Energy Program in The Hague, says that India and China must consider all options as energy demands grow.

"They are faced with a huge problem," Slingerland says. "Their energy consumption is going to rise dramatically in the coming years, and they really have to explore all options they have to be able to meet that consumption."

Coal is still massively used in both China and India, but is viewed as a fuel of the past and is also a major producer of greenhouse gases. Renewables such as solar power, wind power, and biomass are widely seen as being incapable of meeting the huge scale of Asia's energy demands.

Then there is nuclear power, seen by many in the West as an evil genie following the accident at Chornobyl, Ukraine, nearly 20 years ago, which showered much of Europe with radioactivity.

Since then, virtually no new reactors have been built in the West, and many of the more than 440 nuclear reactors in the world will soon be reaching the end of their operational lives.

A Renewed Debate On Nuclear Power

But the soaring price of oil and increasing concerns about climate change have produced a new interest in nuclear power. In Europe and the United States, serious consideration is being given to new power plants, despite the radioactive waste the process produces. Slingerland says there is no way around this major drawback to the nuclear-fission process.

"There will always remain nuclear waste, which has to be disposed of for a very long period, for thousands of years. Even if research being done now shows that the amount of waste can be reduced, still there will remain nuclear waste for a very long period," Slingerland says.

For China and India, the matter has gone beyond debate to action. China brought six new reactors on line between 2002 and 2004, and plans at least another 30 in the next 15 years. India, likewise, is aiming for 30, with seven due to come on line by 2008.

Both countries are starting from a low base, in that in 2004 nuclear power accounted for less than 3 percent of each country's total electricity production.

The president of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, Christopher Flavin, is critical of this new energy focus, saying nuclear power is already outmoded.

China, India Looking At Solar And Wind Power Too

"[It is] what I consider, basically, an old, outdated, uneconomic, and highly dangerous technology," Flavin says.

Flavin says the swing to nuclear power must not be exaggerated. Even 30 new reactors each would leave China and India well behind some European countries. France, for example, generates almost 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources, and Lithuania more than 70 percent.

Flavin dismisses doubts about the practicality of renewable energy sources as a "myth" and says this is likely the way China and India will go.

"My expectation, based on actual plans I see in place, is that renewable power is actually going to be far bigger than nuclear in either case," he says.

Flavin notes China's growing expertise with wind power, and India's extensive use of solar power.

Western Encouragment

Some Western leaders support the move to nuclear energy in the new economies, as a way of relieving the stress on oil supplies and minimizing pollution. U.S. President George W. Bush signed a tentative agreement with India in early March to open up U.S. civilian nuclear technology to New Delhi, provided India takes steps to conform with international safeguards.

Bush said it makes sense to diversify. "Increasing demand for oil from America, from India, and China -- relative to a supply that's not keeping up with demand -- causes our fuel prices to go up," he said recently.

Last year, French President Jacques Chirac said on a visit to India that if the West does not help India produce electricity using nuclear power, "we would allow a chimney for greenhouse gases to develop in India."

The New Sarcophagus
Repair work being carried out at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in October 1986 (epa)

AT GROUND ZERO: The explosion and fire at Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor in April 1986 generated extensive spread of radioactive material and a large amount of radioactive waste at the plant site and in the surrounding area. Between May and November 1986, a temporary sarcophagus was built at the site with the goal of quickly reducing on-site radiation levels and the further release of radioactive materials into the environment.
The sarcophagus was erected quickly and under extremely difficult conditions, including the severe radiation exposure of construction workers. Because of efforts to complete the work quickly, imperfections were introduced in the structure. In addition, moisture-induced corrosion over the last 20 years has further degraded the construction. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, "the main potential hazard of the shelter is a possible collapse of its top structures and release of radioactive dust into the environment."
Plans have been developed to create a new structure, called the New Safe Confinement (NSC), over the No. 4 reactor. The NSC is designed to have a 100-year service life, and to allow for the dismantlement of the current sarcophagus and the removal of highly radioactive fuel from the reactor. NSC construction was originally scheduled to be completed in 2005, but has been repeatedly postponed. According to the latest schedule, the work is expected to be finished in February 2008. Actual construction work is expected to begin in the summer of 2006. (RFE/RL)

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