Rethinking Asia's Energy Mix
Sustainable, Reliable Nuclear Power

Interview with Hooman Peimani
March 14, 2012

Over the course of the next two decades, three billion people will join the middle class, many of them from emerging economies in Asia. The corresponding growth in energy demand will be felt most acutely in the power-generation sector. The twin challenges of meeting rapidly expanding energy demand to ensure economic growth and mitigating the associated environmental impacts are core issues on the agenda of the 2012 Pacific Energy Summit, to be held in Hanoi, March 20–22, 2012. In advance of the meeting, NBR asked Hooman Peimani, Head of the Energy Security Division and Principal Fellow in the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore, to comment on Asia’s energy mix, particularly on the role that nuclear power will play in a post-Fukushima Asia.

The 2012 Pacific Energy Summit brings power generation to the fore among a number of competing energy issues. Why is power generation an issue of critical importance now?

The reason is threefold. First, there has been growing demand for power globally due to expanding economies, growing urbanization, and efforts to address underdevelopment in rural areas, mainly in developing countries and particularly in Asia. Evidence suggests that this demand will increase on a steady basis in the foreseeable future.

Second, many countries, including those in Asia, have sought to promote electricity as the main source of energy for residential, commercial, and industrial use to decrease air pollution. Promoting the use of electricity has been highly emphasized in urban areas as a means to reduce fossil fuel-based energy consumption per capita through more efficient use of oil-, gas-, or coal-fired power generators.

Last, global warming has demanded a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), requiring a significant decrease in fossil fuel consumption. Given that power generation has been a major emitter of GHG, switching to environmentally clean power-generators, such as solar, wind, and nuclear, has become a pressing issue.

Consequently, the growing demand for power and the need for mitigating global warming have turned power generation into a major challenge and also opportunity in the 21st century.

What potential role can nuclear energy play in diversifying Asia’s fuel mix and reducing emissions?

Nuclear energy accounts for a small portion of Asia’s energy mix. Yet its share of the continent’s energy mix could, and will likely, increase significantly to help diversify it. Such diversification is becoming a necessity for energy security purposes, given that the current heavy reliance on fossil energy is not sustainable. This is due to financial reasons, as reflected in the high and growing cost of such energy, especially oil, and also due to supply uncertainty, especially in the case of large importers of fossil energy such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan.

Additionally, reducing GHG emissions requires finding environmentally clean alternatives to the large-scale, fossil fuel–powered generators that are currently in use. Given that environmentally clean renewables—mainly solar, wind, and wave/tidal energy—are unable to generate power on a large scale, nuclear energy is the only viable alternative to fossil fuels for such power generation.

Could nuclear energy compete with other fuel sources? What is needed to level the playing field? Are there additional factors that should be taken into account?

Nuclear energy is surely capable of competing with other fuel sources, provided that we address certain myths surrounding this type of energy. One is safety, which while being a legitimate concern, is not the real challenge. This is evident in the 60-year-long record of nuclear energy programs worldwide, during which time there have been only three major accidents leading to the release of radiation: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Chernobyl was the only one of these incidents that resulted in human casualties and significant damages to the environment.

Another myth surrounding nuclear energy is the perceived high cost of realizing nuclear power generators compared to the equivalent fossil-fuel generators. This view is based on an incorrect calculation. When it comes to calculating the cost of realization of fossil-fuel generators, cost is confined to the construction phase and the subsequent repair and maintenance, while the cost in human lives and environmental damage is ignored. The negative impact on air, water, soil, and greenery (such as in forests) caused by resource extraction and the heavy consumption of fossil fuel by oil-, gas-, and coal-fired power generators is a cost that doesn’t exist in the case of nuclear power generators.

The public must also be given the facts about the thousands of deaths caused annually by coal mining and oil and gas extraction that provide the required energy for oil-, gas-, and coal-fired power generators. By comparing the safety facts of nuclear and non-nuclear power generators, the public can then realize that fossil energy is far more dangerous to humans and their environment than nuclear energy.

At some point in the future, we will all have to pay for a major environmental cleanup to ensure our survival. If this inevitable cost were to be included in calculating the cost of fossil-fueled power generators, it would be clear that nuclear power generators are a far cheaper alternative.

The outlook for nuclear energy is shaped by a number of factors, including public perception, the need for human resources, fears of proliferation, and the lack of viable waste disposal. How can we tackle these issues to achieve the scale-up necessary to meet the rising demand for energy?

The growth of nuclear energy depends on the demystification of nuclear power. Major issues are safety, which is the chief public concern, and the true cost to public health and the environment, as well as the financial cost, as I mentioned earlier. Yet on safety I would like to add a point. Apart from a strong existing safety record in the global nuclear power sector, today’s technology provides even better features to ensure public safety and the health of the environment in case of accidents, so we can avoid another Chernobyl. Using the available safety features properly and employing a trained workforce in nuclear power, facilities can ensure safe operation.

Having an adequate number of trained workers is indeed a challenge that has slowed the expansion of the nuclear energy sector, particularly in Asia, the main arena for its expansion. Yet it is not the major challenge as it can be addressed through management and planning. A 1,000 MW reactor, for instance, takes approximately ten years from its conceptualization to become fully operational. This is adequate time for training personnel.

Waste disposal may be seen as a main challenge at the very outset, but it is manageable. It must be stressed that the prevailing view about nuclear waste—which equates it with nuclear spent fuel—is incorrect. Nuclear spent fuel is large in volume, but nuclear waste accounts only for a small fraction of it, approximately 3%. To make it a manageable issue, spent fuel can be reprocessed to reduce the nuclear waste to a very small amount, which can be stored safely, as is done in France and Russia. About 96% of spent fuel is unused enriched uranium and about 1% of the remaining spent fuel is plutonium, both of which can be used in nuclear power reactors after the reprocessing of spent fuel.

Finally, nuclear proliferation through the development of nuclear energy is often overstated. Through their nuclear energy sector, countries gain broad expertise in the nuclear field, which can also be applied to military use, but it takes more than just this expertise to embark on nuclear weapon production. Miniaturization of nuclear weapons to make them deliverable and developing the required means of delivery, such as missiles and aircraft, are major challenges. Among other factors, they create a natural barrier to nuclear weapon production for countries with a nuclear power sector.

In short, the countries that have aspirations for nuclear weapons as well as the required scientific, technological, industrial, financial, and human resources will embark on nuclear power production with or without a nuclear power sector. Addressing their security concerns, justifying such an undertaking within the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime will be a more reliable means for preventing proliferation than denying these countries a nuclear power sector.

Will there be significant changes in Asia’s energy mix in the foreseeable future? What does the influx of natural gas in the region offer? Will there be a substantially larger share for renewables and nuclear energy?

No. The relatively larger share of the renewables will be mainly due to the expansion of biomass and biofuel, which are pollutive. Natural gas is certainly expanding its share of the continental energy mix, but its expansion is being dwarfed by a large and growing consumption of coal. In Asia, particularly the Asia-Pacific region, coal is seen as a cheaper and easily available alternative to both oil and gas. This trend is evident both in large Asian energy consumers such as China and India and in small ones such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

If fossil fuels dominate Asia’s energy mix, what are the major reasons for a change in this mix in favor of non-fossil energy, particularly nuclear energy? What factors will trigger a shift?

The top factors are the financial, political, and security implications of importing fossil fuels that put importers, especially large countries such as India and China, in a vulnerable position. China, for example, with large domestic fossil fuel reserves—an estimated 14.8 billion barrels of oil, 2.8 trillion cubic meters of gas, and 114.5 billion tons of coal—still must import fuel from regional and non-regional suppliers to meet its energy needs. As a result, there is a compelling need to decrease reliance on imported fossil fuels.

A second factor is the depletion of oil, gas, and coal reserves in certain fossil energy–rich exporting countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam. Shale gas exists in many Asian countries, including China, but its development is too costly and environmentally unsustainable to make imports of LNG (liquefied natural gas) and piped gas a better option. Diversifying the energy mix with nuclear energy will add to the Asia-Pacific region’s energy security and at the same time mitigate the environmental impact of fossil-fuel consumption by decreasing GHG emissions.

This factor is becoming especially prominent as air pollution has become a major challenge for many Asian countries, both for its contribution to global warming and also because of its direct public health hazards.

Reflecting on the events of 2011, what are the most compelling reasons to opt for nuclear energy?

The looming concerns are the availability and affordability of oil and gas. Availability is challenged by major political unrest, uncertainty, and civil wars in certain oil- and gas-exporting countries: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. There is also a degree of unrest, as well as the eruption of public dissent, in the major oil- and gas- exporting countries of the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman. There are fears that political uncertainty and armed conflicts such as those in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen could spread to all the major oil and gas exporters of the region, specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

The recent sanctions imposed on Iran and the threat of escalating tension between this oil-exporting country and the United States and the European Union add to availability concerns, thus impacting affordability. We can expect to see considerable price hikes for oil, gas, and coal for as long as this situation lasts.

Why does climate change require countries to reduce their use of fossil energy? Why is this direction important for Asia?

Global warming is mainly caused by more than two centuries of large-scale fossil energy consumption and thus emissions of GHG, particularly CO2. Such a phenomenon has major negative implications for the entire planet. To a varying extent, rising sea levels are gradually affecting all island nations—Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Timor Leste—and the coastal populations of other Asian countries, including China, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, North Korea, and South Korea. Hence, retarding, mitigating, and eventually reversing this phenomenon requires a substantial decrease in CO2 emissions.

TClimate change also has a depleting impact on freshwater resources, affecting humans, agriculture, and industries that depend on freshwater for their survival. Should the current melting of the Arctic continue, it will also lead to the diversion of a share of sea traffic from the currently used Southern Sea Route, via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal, to two Arctic sea routes, which will be operational at least a few months a year—the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. This specific scenario illustrates the negative economic implications for all the Asian countries benefiting from the Southern Sea Route, apart from the increasing rise in sea levels.

All renewable energy sources tend to be branded as environmentally friendly. You contend that they are not. Why?

By mistake, renewables are often used as a synonym for clean energy: a type of energy that is not destructive to the environment. In reality, non-fossil and renewable energies are not necessarily clean. For instance, biomass includes wood in different forms, such as dead trees, branches, and tree stumps, which are renewable. Yet wood is not environmentally clean, as it produces CO2 when burned.

Although biofuels are cleaner than their fossil-fuel equivalents when consumed, biodiesel and ethanol are, by and large, actually more pollutive than fossil energy if the entire production process is taken into account. This process involves deforestation, releasing the stored CO2 in trees, and the additional impact caused by the burning of trees; the heavy consumption of energy-intensive water for growing agricultural fuel products such as corn; the processing cycle, which also requires heavy consumption of fossil energy; the extensive use of fossil-fueled machinery for the agricultural production cycle; and the means of transportation for moving and exporting biofuels to their targeted markets, namely through pipelines or overland and via sea tankers.

In comparison, the construction of nuclear reactors is only pollutive for the use of fossil fuel–consuming machinery. Such machinery is also used for the construction of other types of power-generating facilities, such as coal- and gas-fired, or for facilities that turn agricultural products into biofuel. Once they are operational, however, nuclear reactors do not generate greenhouse gasses.

Hence, non-fossil energy includes environmentally friendly types of renewable energy, such as solar, and non-renewable, such as nuclear, as well as environmentally damaging types of renewable, including biofuels. As another example, despite being largely a non-emitter of greenhouse gasses, hydro energy, which requires the rerouting of rivers, damages the environment with obviously destructive impact.

Given this reality, the types of non-fossil energy to substitute for fossil energy must be carefully considered. Among the non-fossil energy types, solar, tidal/wave, wind, compost, and nuclear all provide truly clean energy. All of them should be promoted, along with any other type of environmentally friendly energy, since no single source of clean energy could provide for global energy requirements at the current level of advancement. Thus, any given country requires a mix of these available clean types of energy to meet its energy requirements.

What about the truly clean renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar? What are their prospects for becoming a larger part of a diversified energy mix in Asia?

Wind and solar are not currently viable substitutes for fossil energy as their energy generation capacities are limited. Despite major efforts to promote wind and solar in China, South Korea, and Taiwan in particular, they still account for only a small fraction of the energy mix of those countries and Asia in general. This will likely be the case for the foreseeable future. Yet wind and solar should remain in Asia’s energy mix as part of the list of environmentally clean power-options, along with nuclear energy, to help reduce the currently large share of fossil fuel.

You have argued that Asia needs to move away from fossil fuels and further diversify its energy mix. What role can the Pacific Energy Summit play to help policymakers realize this transition?

In one form or another, the Pacific Energy Summit’s participants are involved in their respective countries’ decision-making processes pertaining to energy. The energy fuel mix across the Asia-Pacific region requires diversification. By exposing decision-makers to different factors, ranging from the economic to the environmental, the Summit can certainly contribute to the realization of this necessary move.

Hooman Peimani is the Head of the Energy Security Division and Principal Fellow in the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore.

This interview was conducted by Jacqueline Koch, Senior Media Relations Coordinator at NBR.