Crouching Tiger, Nuclear Dragon



Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

Fukushima was a truly unfortunate incident. It happened at the time when most countries in the APAC, looking to grow beyond coal, were considering the nuclear option. Today, the shadow of Fukushima – and that old ghost of Chernobyl – hang over every conversation around nuclear power.

Yet this conversation must be had. The APAC needs to cater to the energy needs of a population experiencing rapid growth in urbanization, industrialization and economic growth [FEEDING THE BEAST]. It must also balance economically sustainable growth with environmental concerns, mainly related to air pollution and climate change [THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY].

Nuclear seems to be the most logical choice here: it is powerful, the technologies involved are stable, and with over 400 nuclear power plants across the world, it has shown itself capable of supplying energy for millions while plugging into existing grid and land infrastructure. And while nuclear energy has its own waste problem, The Institute Energy Research posits that it is nowhere close to that caused by solar panels. As issues surrounding the commercial feasibility of solar, wind and geothermal energy continue to be debated, with no clear consensus in sight, India and China charge along this path – in fact, the International Energy Association forecasts that India and China will be responsible for over 90 percent of the net growth in nuclear power production to 2040.

Much can be learned from why these countries are doing this. China decided to aggressively expand its nuclear program in 2005, citing rising concerns over energy security and air pollution. By 2018, it had 45 reactors, behind only the US and France in global terms. Now, based on its “Made in China” blueprint, the country also has already signed contracts for nuclear power plants or is discussing cooperation with 20 countries.

Central to China’s ambitions of building the world’s largest nuclear power industry could be a substance that has been all but forgotten in the United States: thorium. Three times more abundant on the earth’s surface than Uranium (which powers 99% of reactors at present globally), and reportedly fail-safe with the right design. The country’s top physicists want USD 3.3 bn reactors in the Gobi Desert – and the first commercial-scale molten-salt plant operational by 2030.

China isn’t the only shark that could benefit from thorium. Key coasts and riverbanks across India may contain up to a third of the supply of thorium in the world. India’s current three-stage programme in nuclear power development is expected to culminate with the development of Advanced Heavy Water Reactors, which will burn thorium-plutonium fuels at scale. Not only does this free India and China somewhat from the politics of fossil fuels, but it also sets the stage for India to potentially become the next Middle East.

This report has been written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Merl Chandana, Sriganesh Lokanathan and Shazna Zuhyle of LIRNEasia with commissioning by the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) as an exploratory and intellectual analysis; the views and opinions published in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official position or policy of the RIC, United Nations Development Programme or any United Nations agency or UN Member States.

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