What makes God laugh? Answer – people who say they have plans.
That old one-liner could now become the motto of the world’s nuclear industry. After a decade during which nuclear power has gradually regained its credibility in the eyes of the public, a single uncontrollable event has reminded everyone of the risks associated with nuclear power plants.
The nuclear sector certainly has plans. Almost 400 new stations have been proposed around the world – many to meet Asia’s growing need for electricity but also 16 in the US, 11 in the UK and more across the European continent. Hostility to nuclear power had been reversed in Sweden and many in the industry had hoped that it could be reversed in Germany as well.
Those hopes are dashed. Many of the new stations will be put on hold as the world absorbs what has happened at Fukushima and waits for the inevitable inquiry reports.
Investors will also pause before putting funds into a sector that has come to be defined by a sequence of accidents – at Three Mile Island, at Chernobyl and now in Japan. In the public mind, these events transcend what is generally an excellent record of safety. Decade by decade far more people are killed digging for coal or drilling for oil. Germany, the UK and most of the US are not areas prone to serious earthquakes. Events in Japan may well yet prove that the multiple layers of safety employed in the modern nuclear industry have once again prevented a disaster.
But facts disappear into the cloud of fear that nuclear accidents produce. In the US and Europe, the building of new stations will be delayed and older ones will be closed sooner rather than later. In the developed world, the main business opportunity will be in decommissioning as the old stations come to the end of their lives.
For the energy sector as a whole, events in Japan complicate an already divergent story. Unless the current problems at Fukushima spiral out of control and undermine all confidence in nuclear power as a source of electricity generation, building plans in China and India are likely to remain in place. Both countries need electricity to sustain the economic growth that has become the raison d’être of both governments. For now, both countries define energy security in terms of continuity of supply and cost.
In the Asian market, the immediate question is the impact of the earthquake on Japan’s fragile economy. Japan’s energy demand will fall in the short term, taking the froth out of the surge in oil and other commodity prices during the past month. Few will bet that oil will be priced at $100 a barrel by Easter.
The bigger medium and long-term impact will come in Europe and America, where definitions of energy security are more focused on safety and environmental integrity. Any delay in new nuclear construction and any acceleration in the closure of old stations will encourage power generators to invest in natural gas as the safe and readily available source of primary energy. Gas prices have been gradually decoupling from oil as the market responds to different dynamics – led by the rapid transition to newly developed supplies of unconventional shale gas reserves in the US. US producers are already planning to develop their own export markets starting in Europe. New gas supplies are available not just from Russia and Qatar but also from Norway, central Asia, Trinidad, Nigeria, north Africa and from the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel has seen two of the most significant gas discoveries in recent years.
Relying on gas brings its own political complexities and risks, particularly given the absence of a fully integrated grid across the European Union. But compared with nuclear power, gas looks safe and easy, with lower capital costs and more rapid payback times for investors.