Despite a slew of developed nations putting the brakes on nuclear programs in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, global nuclear energy generation is expected to increase significantly, climbing 30 percent by the end of the decade, according to recent research.
But it isn't going to be the usual suspects fueling the increase in nuclear adoption — an influx of nuclear-free nations pursuing programs will drive growth, according to research and consulting firm GlobalData.
Rapidly increasing demand for electricity coupled with surging fossil fuel prices is making nuclear power an increasingly attractive option for many countries, especially in those where large-scale alternative-energy generation—such as wind and solar—is impractical. Around 45 current nuclear-free nations including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Poland and Bangladesh are looking at adding the controversial power source to their energy portfolio, the GlobalData report noted.
"In these countries, there's very rapidly increasing electricity demand," says Jonathan Lane, GlobalData's Head of Consulting for Power and Utilities. "It's not a question of them managing that [demand] with a single technology — it's going to have to be a mix of technology and nuclear is an important part of that."
In more mature economies, declining or flat power demand has somewhat dampened the sense of urgency when it comes to considering nuclear power, especially in the United States, where massive discoveries of natural gas have ushered in a new perspective when it comes to the nation's energy outlook.
With the abundance of natural gas and the resulting low prices, nuclear power is too expensive to pursue in the United States, Lane says, and private investment in the sector has suffered. Although five reactors are currently under construction, further expansion of nuclear power won't advance until certain policies are changed when it comes to permits and waste disposal, experts say.
"There are 16 other reactors the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is considering, but they've been put on the back burner because investors want to see what happens with things like nuclear waste disposal and whether the five being built are on time and on budget," says Jack Spencer, senior research fellow on nuclear energy policy at The Heritage Foundation.
But in other places such as China, India, and South Korea, nuclear power generation is looking increasingly attractive, especially given the technological advances that aim to make nuclear power more economical and manageable when it comes to spent fuel. According to Lane, new nuclear reactors produce much less waste than older generation models and countries looking at adopting the technology have the benefit of being able to plan for challenges associated with waste disposal.
"It ultimately comes down to economics," Spencer says. "It looks like the South Koreans are really close to figuring out how to build reactors on time and on budget. If they're able to export that capacity, it's going to introduce a new reference point in the marketplace that others will have to compete with. More competition will yield better products and allow those countries who want to build nuclear to build nuclear."