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Asia Goes Nuclear to Meet Rising Energy Demands

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Asia's energy needs are soaring, and the region is increasingly turning to nuclear technology to meet the rising demand. Many governments see nuclear power as a way to cut air pollution and ease the need for imported oil.

In the face of rising oil prices and chronic air pollution, Asian nations are looking to nuclear power to solve their energy problems.

Reactors are being built across the region. Japan and South Korea have the most developed nuclear industries, but China and India are leading the charge with new projects.

John Ritch is the director general of the World Nuclear Association.

"The two largest nuclear planned programs in the world right now are those of India and China," he said. "I would expect that each of those countries, by the middle of this century, will have 250 nuclear power reactors. Now that sounds like a lot, but it won't be a very substantial portion of their electricity."

China alone plans to build 30 reactors by 2020, up from nine now. Eight of those are under construction, with two nearing completion. The reactors are part of an ambitious government effort to rapidly expand electricity output to keep up with its booming manufacturing industry.

China has been moving to alternative energy sources such as wind, hydroelectric and nuclear in an effort to cut its use of coal. Pollution from coal burning plants blankets most Chinese cities. And moving coal from the mines in the north and west to the industrialized east is straining the transportation system.

India has 15 reactors operating, and nine are under construction. Although nuclear power provides only about three percent of India's electricity, the World Nuclear Association estimates that could increase to 25 percent by mid-century.

Unlike China and India, which only recently began rushing to build reactors, Japan and South Korea have long relied on nuclear technology to reduce their need for foreign fuels.

Japan depends on imported oil, gas and coal for about 80 percent of its energy needs, which leaves its highly industrialized economy vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Nuclear reactors account for about a third of Japan's energy production, and the government says it plans to increase that to more than 40 percent by 2014, after adding more than 10 new reactors.

South Korea is even more dependent than Japan on imported fuel - as much as 97 percent of its fossil fuel supply is imported. South Korean government reports show 20 reactors provide 40 percent of electricity production, and at least eight new reactors are planned.

There are concerns, however, about this rush to go nuclear. Reactors present the risk of a radiation accident that could kill or sicken thousands of people. They also are expensive to build.

Liu Changxin of the China Nuclear Society says one of the main factors in China's nuclear plan is the need to reduce air pollution. Still, he says, it is only part of the solution.

"I don't think nuclear power can play the most important, or even a very important role in China's energy supply," he said. "Just a part of our energy policy, just one of the choices."

Liu says that China's energy needs are growing so rapidly that the country needs to consider all options.

Greenpeace wants to see countries such as China and India explore other choices. Szeping Lo, a Greenpeace spokesman in Hong Kong, says China has taken steps to develop renewable energy sources.

"Just last November the deputy minister of energy announced that China will increase its wind energy development target from 20 gigawatts to 30 gigawatts by 2020," he said.

That is almost the same amount of energy China plans to produce using nuclear power.

Lo opposes all uses of nuclear power because of the dangers and costs.

"The nuclear industry is a dying industry. No new nuclear power plant has been built in the U.S. in the last decade, and there's no new nuclear power plants being built either in Western Europe, in many other countries," Lo said.

John Ritch at the World Nuclear Association is frustrated by the opposition to nuclear technology. He says nuclear energy is clean and safe and should stand side by side with other clean energy technologies.

"The catastrophic effects of an intensifying concentration of greenhouse gasses are going to make the planet unlivable," he said. "And it is incumbent on the governments of Asia and the governments of other regions of the world to shift as quickly as possible to clean energy technologies, and nuclear is the quintessential clean energy technology that can be expanded on a large scale."

As the economies of Asia continue to grow, so will the energy needs. The Asia Development Bank says that from 1973 to 2003 Asia's energy consumption grew by 230 percent, compared with an average worldwide increase of 75 percent.

With much of Asia seeing economic growth rates above six percent over the past few years, electricity needs are likely to continue expanding rapidly. That means despite concerns over safety and cost, some of the region's smaller economies, including Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, are looking to nuclear power to fuel their futures.

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