Asia may once again hit the play button when it comes to either resuming or restarting nuclear construction. Any movement, of course, has been on pause since the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. But the need for those countries to achieve cleaner air and energy independence remains paramount.

Notably, China and Japan are going ahead with their plans to either resume construction of new plants or to start up those that have been turned off. In all cases, they are saying that it is about safety first, although they are acknowledging that they cannot wean themselves from the fossil fuels without nuclear power. Their ultimate decision will have major implications for the rest of the world not just environmentally but also economically.

Specifically, China, along with India, South Korea and Russia, remain committed. China, alone, accounts for 40 percent of all projected new nuclear units, says the World Nuclear Association, with 25 of them in the pipeline. Japan, meantime, only has two of its 54 units in operation right now. And while it has vowed to phase out all of them by 2040, it can’t happen if Japan hopes to reduce its energy costs and to meets its obligations under global climate change treaties.

“Nuclear energy provides about (6) percent of the world’s electricity supply right now and I personally find it hard to believe that we can have a transition to a low-carbon economy without nuclear power,” says Jeffrey Sachs, an advisor to the United Nations who spoke at an OECD conference in India.

As for China, its economy is growing at about 7.4 percent a year and it needs roughly $1.4 trillion to modernize its energy infrastructure. It is now has 15 nuclear units that supply about 12,500 megawatts of generation. It is planning on building 30,000 to 40,000 megawatts of nuclear energy, which is a reduction of about 10,000 in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis.

Now, though, national leaders there are saying that they have evaluated the nuclear portfolio, deeming those reactors to be completely safe. At the same time, they are saying that they will not build any such plants in earthquake prone areas. Among the companies that will supply China: France's AREVA, Russia's AtomStroyExport and Westinghouse, all of which have won bids and now offer sophisticated “third generation” light water reactors.

“The inspection results show that nuclear security is guaranteed in China,” says a government report referenced by the Associated Press. “China implements the principle of ‘safety first’ in the whole process of nuclear power station planning.”

Different Paths

China and Japan diverge, naturally, because they have had two different experiences with regard to nuclear power. Japan has been one of the leading advocates of global climate change action, largely because it has no natural resources of its own and had once vowed to become a nuclear energy leader, producing as much as half of its power by 2030 from those fuels. 

While it has not backtracked from its commitment to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, it did shut down its entire nuclear fleet that had generated 25 percent of that nation’s electricity. Replacing that would be a huge task. Therefore, it must focus on enacting rigid safety procedures, and then carefully monitoring the results.

Indeed, fear of energy shortages has prompted the government there to give permission to restart two of its idled nuclear plants, and just recently its leaders said that any plant already in the pipeline could go forth. Without the nuclear capacity, Japan has been forced since March 2011 to import double the amount of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which is cost it an additional $72 billion, a UPI report says.

Japan is at a fork in the road. But the signage is clear: In one region where nuclear provides almost half of the power, capacity could fall by 16-18 percent below the peak demand. If the nation import fossil fuels, electric rates could skyrocket. Minimizing nuclear power would come at “a huge cost and loss of energy security,” says Nobuo Tanaka, an analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics, in the UPI story.

The Japanese experience has caused Germany, Italy and Switzerland to swear off nuclear power. Even France, which generates nearly 80 percent of its electric generation from nuclear, is saying it will reduce its dependence on the fuel, all under the newly-elected left-of-center government there.

What happens in Asia is bound to make waves around the globe. Likewise, the choices that China and Japan are now making will have major ramifications for both the environment and the Western industries that will be supplying the tools and the fuels to power their economies.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein