Not long ago, the future of nuclear power was in Asia. Nine of the 10 reactors that opened globally in 2015 were on the continent.
However, recent declarations by Taiwan and South Korea that they will “go green” have called into question nuclear power’s long-term viability, at least in East Asia. Indeed, this year might mark the end of the region’s nuclear power love affair — and the start of a new one with alternative energy sources.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have both set ambitious national agendas to boost renewable energy generation while calling for the phasing out of nuclear.
Last year, responding to public opposition to nuclear energy in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, Tsai vowed to make Taiwan nuclear-power-free by 2025.
Today, coal and natural gas provide more than two-thirds of the nation’s electricity needs, with renewable energy sources accounting for 5 percent.
Tsai has called for the share of renewable energy to increase to 20 percent over the next eight years, with the capacity coming primarily from solar and offshore wind.
South Korea’s strategy calls for a phased withdrawal from the nuclear industry through nonrenewal of existing licenses and bans on future plants.
Last month, Moon, who was elected in May and campaigned on a nuclear-power-free agenda, called for an increase in the use of renewable energy to 20 percent of the country’s total power generation by 2030, up from the current 5 percent.
He has also pledged to close 10 coal-fired power plants by the end of his term in 2022. Coal accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s energy consumption.
Natural gas would be used as a “bridging fuel” during the transition to “greener” power.
Given that South Korea operates 25 nuclear reactors and had plans to build six more, the shelving of nuclear power is a significant shift in the country’s energy strategy.
Critics contend that green technologies are not mature enough to replace traditional fuels for industrial-scale energy use.
However, these claims are a few years too late. Significant declines in start-up costs and energy storage prices, as well as improved battery performance, have made renewable energy more competitive than ever.
Taiwan and South Korea are not the first East Asian powers to go green. China has been moving in that direction for years and now leads the world in installed renewable energy capacity.
However, by joining the renewable energy revolution, Taiwan and South Korea will make it easier for other regional players to enter the market, because expanded investment opportunities will increase competitiveness and further drive down already declining costs.
In fact, if there is one valid criticism of Tsai’s and Moon’s visionary goals, it is that they could be realized even faster. For example, if both leaders were to allow the purchase of renewable power from the planned Global Energy Interconnection or the Asian Super Grid, they could increase the share of green energy more rapidly.
Taiwan and South Korea have few natural resources of their own and are heavily reliant on imported fuel to generate electricity. The introduction of competition to the national monopolies in both nations would also speed the shift to renewable energy.
However, for now, what is most important is the precedent that Taiwan and South Korea are setting. The renewable energy market in East Asia is about to blossom. When it does, the region’s decades-old dependence on nuclear power will finally be broken.
Kim Sung-young is a lecturer in international relations at Macquarie University in Sydney. John Mathews is a professor of management at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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