What going nuclear means for renewables

Japan and South Korea are ramping up nuclear power to meet their emissions targets – will it push renewables off the grid?

New year, new energy policies. For South Korea, 2023 meant ushering in its government’s 10th Basic Plan for Long-Term Electricity Supply and Demand, and an emphasis on nuclear power in helping to curb its carbon emissions.

Nuclear power is now expected to account for one-third of South Korea’s generation capacity by 2030, compared with 24 percent outlined in a previous proposal. In contrast, renewable energy is expected to generate roughly 22 percent by 2030, down from circa 30 percent.

Japan has also recently renewed its stance on nuclear power generation, with prime minister Fumio Kishida announcing last August the country would restart its idle nuclear power plants and look to develop new generators. This was despite Japan walking away from nuclear energy following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, which resulted in the suspension of all 54 of its nuclear plants, with only nine in operation since that time.

In both countries, resulting consternation as to how this increased focus on nuclear energy will impact each market’s respective renewables sectors is understandable. But to what extent is going nuclear really expected to hinder renewables’ growth?

According to David Thoo, Fitch Solutions APAC power and renewables analyst, there’s no doubt that, in terms of delivering a steady and reliable supply of electricity, “nuclear power does it better than renewables”, based on current technologies for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

“With the concern of a stable energy supply for energy security, nuclear power plants could prove to be the optimal low-carbon, non-fossil fuel choice for power generation,” Thoo says.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean this comparative reliability will have a negative impact on renewables’ growth. For example, a major factor to consider when assessing the relative outlook for renewables in countries like South Korea and Japan is the corresponding expected acceleration in winding down fossil fuel generation in those markets over the coming years.

“The drop in conventional thermal power could outweigh new nuclear power coming online. This difference would then be met by renewables as nuclear power plants take significantly longer to construct, test, and equip, as compared to solar and wind power installations,” Thoo explains.

Added to that, public opposition to nuclear energy and a lack of new nuclear power projects is also bound to play a part in potentially delaying a market’s ability to bring more nuclear power online.

For anyone looking to Asia-Pacific for clues on how a renewed nuclear push might impact our energy mix, the message seems to be that while nuclear energy may pack a powerful punch, there’s no need to write off renewables just yet.