Meltdown fears spark nuclear debate

Japan's nuclear woes reverberate around the world, rattling fuel and stock prices as well as national and regional energy plans. Link: Mar 15, 2011: Japan crisis forces world to examine nuclear position

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The earthquake disaster in Japan has rattled international markets and prompted debate over nuclear power as a major energy source.

Events unfolding in the north-east of the country could still culminate in a meltdown. They are shaping up to be the worst catastrophe the nuclear industry has faced since a reactor explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986 spewed radioactive material across the northern hemisphere.

Yesterday, Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister, ordered the evacuation of the area within a 20km radius of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. He asked 140,000 people within 30km of the plant to stay in their houses or offices, seal windows, doors and ventilation shafts, and refrain from using air conditioning and drying laundry indoors.

"In Japan, the situation clearly got out of control. Three reactors are now in a precarious condition after suffering explosions," said JBC Energy in Vienna.

"More critically … the containment around reactor 2 might have burst after the explosion. More radiation, and at higher levels than previously recorded, has been released into the atmosphere from this development. With a change in the wind direction, the situation is getting more dangerous to the local population centres and more worryingly to Tokyo."

So far, experts do not expect even the worst-case scenario in Japan to approach the severity of the Chernobyl disaster. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that there will be delays to the worldwide "nuclear renaissance", which has already endured an extended gestation.

"Meltdown is a very big word in people's minds, so I think that the public sentiment is probably going to swing against nuclear power," said Edward Sterck, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. "But I don't think this is the end of the nuclear industry."

Investors' initial reaction to yesterday's news of a third explosion at the Fukushima plant, about 240km north of Tokyo, has been to dump any stock connected with the sector.

Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the Japanese utility that operates the plant, has been the hardest hit, with analysts predicting its stock could sink to a record low.

The share prices of uranium miners such as Cameco in Canada and the French Areva, which also designs nuclear plants, have fallen sharply. Neither have investors spared the US conglomerate General Electric or Japan's Hitachi, which both have large nuclear divisions, despite their wide holdings in other industrial sectors. They have also punished electric utilities outside Japan that operate nuclear plants, such as the US power companies Entergy and Exelon.

On international commodities markets, uranium prices have fallen sharply, and other energy commodities have also been affected.

The physical and human devastation from the triple disaster of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear crisis could derail Japan's fragile economic recovery, curbing energy consumption and causing oil prices to fall.

Natural gas prices, in contrast, have risen around the world, on expectations that Japan will need to import large extra volumes of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The battered country will need to press more of its spare thermal power generation capacity into service to compensate for the nuclear shutdowns as it starts to get back on its feet. In the long term, gas is expected to be the fuel of choice for economic and environmental reasons.

In the UK, futures contracts for gas deliveries next month rose to levels last seen in December, when demand was at its winter peak. US and Canadian gas prices also rose, after months of lacklustre trading because of the recent surge in output from "unconventional" shale gas deposits.

"What can only be described as fear gripped the curve [on Monday] with stratospheric increases recorded," the London consultancy JHA said yesterday in a note about UK gas futures. "The gains were at their strongest in contracts out to March 2012 given concerns over the availability of LNG supplies in the wake of the Sendai mega-quake, which has dislocated Japan's energy infrastructure."

Sendai is the region of Japan that sustained the brunt of the damage from the tidal wave and the magnitude 8.9 earthquake that preceded it.

In the short term, Qatar, the world's leading LNG exporter, is expected to divert cargoes of the fuel bound for the UK and continental Europe to Japan if customers there offer higher prices. Longer term, international oil consortiums developing a cluster of large Australasian LNG projects also stand to benefit from higher Japanese demand.

Global gas demand would be boosted further if countries outside Japan delayed or cancelled plans for nuclear development, as many now expect. That would also boost investment in renewable energy, especially in Europe, which imports most of its gas.

Indeed, the shares of companies in the renewable energy sector have risen sharply this week, including European wind and solar firms such as Conergy. The stocks of Chinese and US companies in those sectors also rose.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, declared a three-month freeze of plans to extend the life of 17 ageing nuclear reactors for up to 14 years, during which seven plants installed before the end of 1980 would be shut down. The plans will be reviewed after a safety enquiry.

The Swiss government has already halted applications to replace atomic plants, and the UK asked regulators to study the situation in Japan before approving new projects. Chinese, Indian and US officials called for reviews of their countries' nuclear programmes.

Turkey asked Russia to raise safety standards for the first Turkish nuclear plant, to be built by a Russian-led consortium on the country's Mediterranean coast, but said it would press ahead with its nuclear programme.

The UAE is forging ahead with its plans to bring the Arab world's first atomic power plant into service by 2017. Yesterday it signed a regulatory co-operation agreement with South Korea. In December 2009, the Government awarded to a South Korean consortium a US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) contract to build the Emirates' first four reactors.