TOKYO -- Three years after the Fukushima disaster, the future role of nuclear power in Japan remains unclear, but in many other countries, the importance of atomic energy is only increasing.
With no prospect of major new projects in the domestic market any time soon, Japanese makers of nuclear power generation equipment are turning their attention to opportunities abroad.
As of the start of this year, 426 nuclear reactors were in operation around the globe, according to a report by Japan Atomic Industrial Forum. Their combined power generation capacity stood at roughly 386 million kilowatts.
Last year saw tree new reactors -- two in China and one in Iran -- come online. But six -- two in Japan and four in the U.S. -- were shut down.
The two that went off line in Japan were the No. 5 and the No. 6 reactors at Tepco's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Though they were not damaged by the 2011 tsunami, the decision was made to decommission them because cleaning up the radiation leaked from the damaged Nos. 1-4 reactors will take years.
The net decrease of three reactors over the past year, as well as Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power, gives the impression of an industry on the wane. But according to JAIF, "nuclear power development is continuing to expand."
The number of reactors around the globe is expected to rise as more emerging countries in Asia and elsewhere join the nuclear club or build additional reactors. In addition to the many projects still in the planning stage, 81 reactors are being built right now, the highest tally in 20 years.
In the U.S., the first new nuclear plant projects in 35 years began last year. These projects involve building four reactors. All told, five countries, including South Korea and China, began construction of a total of eight reactors in 2013.
Nuclear power looks to have a particularly bright future in Asia, where demand for power is rising in pace with economic growth. Of the 81 reactors currently under construction, more than 60% are being built in Asia, with China alone accounting for 31.
When projects in the planning stage are included, China is looking to have 71 new nuclear reactors with a power-generation capacity of around 74.82 million kilowatts. At this pace, the country will likely surpass Japan and France and become second only to the U.S. in terms of nuclear power generation by the end of the 2020s.
In the Middle East, Iran began operating a nuclear reactor commercially for the first time last year, while the United Arab Emirates commenced construction of a second reactor. Elsewhere, Belarus and Bangladesh are developing plans to build nuclear reactors.
Earnings aside, it is difficult for manufacturers of nuclear plant equipment to keep their technology current and train new generations of workers if they have nothing to work on. With no new domestic projects on the horizon, Japanese players are looking to win orders in emerging countries, as well as in the U.K. and other industrial countries that are planning to up their nuclear power capacities.
Hitachi said Thursday it will establish a nuclear technology R&D base in the U.K. By working with European universities, the new research facility aims to develop a range of technologies, including ways to increase the operational efficiency of nuclear plants.
The Japanese infrastructure giant already has a foothold in the U.K., having acquired local nuclear power company Horizon Nuclear Power and secured power plant contracts. The company aims to bolster its ties with the country and facilitate its nuclear plant construction projects.
Having positioned nuclear technology exports as one of the pillars of its economic growth strategy, the Japanese government aims to help its nuclear industry by signing nuclear cooperation agreements with Turkey and the UAE.
This will likely give a leg up to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is part of an international consortium currently in the lead in bidding for a nuclear plant project in Turkey.
Even with new contracts, however, Japanese nuclear equipment makers will still face an uphill battle. New projects that are launched today are unlikely to see their reactors start operating until the 2020s at the earliest.