With U.S. demand for nuclear energy projected to flatline over the next decade, the success or failure of the American nuclear industry will depend on its ability to forge partnerships overseas, particularly in the developing world.
As it does so, though, it will have to work hard to ensure that stringent safety regulations are implemented anywhere nuclear energy gains a foothold, or risk public backlash on the world stage.
Those were two key messages delivered by industry leaders and regulators at yesterday's Nuclear Energy Assembly, held this week in Charlotte, N.C. Speakers urged their colleagues to embrace emerging opportunities in places like China, India, Thailand and Indonesia, even as low natural gas prices and a fleet of aging reactors cast doubt over the resource's domestic future.
"We are building in an era of unbelievable demand from emerging economies," said Ric Perez, president and chief operating officer at Westinghouse Electrical Co. "This is no longer just an American or a Japanese game."
"Gone are the days when you could dial 001 and reach your supplier," he noted, referring to the globalized nature of the nuclear supply chain, where components may be manufactured in Japan, imported to China and assembled by an American company. "Our ability to master that, share same nuclear ethic, is going to be a requirement for those who follow us."
At the same time, he cautioned, a global expansion of nuclear power would come without possible pitfalls. As the technology gains a foothold in the developing world, countries like the United States that have already established rigorous safety standards will have to work twice as hard to ensure that those same standards are replicated elsewhere.
Countries no longer operate in a vacuum
"We've had three nuclear disasters in history, in three countries: Russia, the United States and Japan," Perez said, referring to the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima disasters, respectively. "Those are all technologically advanced, technically savvy nations."
Many of the countries currently pursuing nuclear energy have less of a track record for stringent regulation, he noted. And as those previous disasters have taught the industry, a disaster on one continent can affect the industry the world over.
That fact was evident in the immediate wake of Japan's recent nuclear disaster. The meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March of 2011 provoked a widespread public backlash against nuclear energy around the globe, prompting Germany to start phasing out of its own nuclear capabilities and spurring an industrywide safety review in the United States.
Japan itself shut down the entirety of its own nuclear facilities with the last plant going offline earlier this month.
"A lot more [than just infrastructure] came down on shore on March 22," said Westinghouse's Perez. "The tsunami touched down here, too. We can't be insular."
"There needs to be a lot of that best practice sharing" along with technology sharing, said Scott Peterson, vice president of communications at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which is hosting this week's event. "Developed countries need to be on hand while developing countries set up their safety and regulatory culture, because when [developing countries] operate those plants, they won't operate in a vacuum -- what happens to them will impact the entire nuclear industry."
Learning lessons in crisis management
Controlling the public fallout of nuclear disasters has itself been a learning experience for the industry, Peterson said.
"One of the things that we've discovered over time is that we have to be open and transparent -- and we have to do it right away," he said. Immediately following the Fukushima disaster, the NEI rushed to share what it knew about events with its stakeholders and the public. "We got out to the people who live near nuclear plants and we told them, 'Here's what happened in Japan, and here's the steps we're taking'" to make sure a similar incident doesn't happen on U.S. soil, he said.