Japan’s Nuclear Accident: Implications for Nepal and Beyond

[This article was published on Nepalnews.com on 03/23/2011]

Perhaps Japan’s nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 is only second to Chernobyl
nuclear accident of 25 April, 1985 in terms of radioactive fallout. As radiation
effects are demonstrated even after thousands of years since nuclear meltdown,
it is really difficult now to conclude whether Fukushima Dai-chi Nuclear Plant
accident surpasses the one in Ukraine. The news from Japan suggests that the
radiation level in the affected areas has become hazardously higher which is
evidenced by government-induced evacuation of people from the vicinity of the
damaged nuclear plant.

Following Chernobyl catastrophe the world was shocked to see a radioactive
cloud across Europe resulting in deaths of an uncertain number of people in
Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russia. Nevertheless there was no such heated
debate about nuclear safety as is seen now.

Question regarding nuclear industry has been raised at a time when nuclear
energy has gained its credence as a source of clean energy against the backdrop
of mounting concerns over environmental hazards of fossil fuels. This concern is
more serious for Japan, the world’s third largest economy whose dependence on
nuclear energy is almost one third of its total consumption. Its dilemma is that
Japan has no fossil fuels and thus has no luxury of replacing nuclear energy.
Japan is the only country in the world where nuclear bombs were dropped in 1945
and consequently, radiation-related deaths have left deep scars on the Japanese
psyche. The present crisis is bound to force Japan to rethink its nuclear
policy.

There may not be precise predictions about the economic losses Japan suffers
from this disaster. It is estimated that it will exceed $120 bn. which cost the
country in 1995 Kobe earthquake. Whatever the amount of losses it is definite
that nuclear accident will bring about wider implications for Japan and far
beyond. Whether such likely implications will also reignite a debate about
reliability on nuclear power and technology that is paradoxically
proliferation-prone is too early to predict.

In this regard Steve Heitmann, a resident of Oregon has made an interesting
remark participating in a discussion on “Japan’s crisis and lessons to be
learned“. He has suggested that alternative to nuclear power plants now
dependent on uranium and plutonium would be molten salt reactors, which are less
hazardous. His suggestion may be a subject of scientific scrutiny and research
but current nuclear plants have also increased the risks of nuclear
proliferation. It is because ingredients like uranium and plutonium can be used
both for power generation and bomb-making purposes. The festering nuclear
standoff in Iran is a fine example of this where the UN believes that its
programs are not entirely peaceful. If an alternative can be developed to
existing nuclear power reactors, Japan’s nuclear crisis will have made a
positive contribution too despite the following immediate negative fallout.

The politicians especially in those countries where construction of new
nuclear plants are proposed will be under tremendous pressure to revisit their
decisions. This may have adverse impact on the growth of nuclear industry, which
has experienced a renaissance as global warming tops global agenda emphasizing
clean energy.

The news of stricken Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear reactors has pushed up the oil
price to $116 per barrel though price had started to rise after the Libyan
crisis. Japan’s nuclear catastrophe will increase the demand for oil as power
has been severely cut after reactors are shut down. It will be months if not
years before normalcy will be brought back with all nuclear power reactors
functioning at pre-tsunami level.

As safe disposal of nuclear waste has been an issue for long because such
waste remains as radioactive as it was 30-40 years ago, present accident will
only compound the existing problem.

Because the Japanese people are exceptionally-sensitive to the ravages of
nuclear destruction, the likely effect of acute form of radiation exposure
leading to damage in multiple organ systems will severely test their patience
and pave the way for soul searching about benefits of nuclear energy in Japan
where the government has considered it as an alternative to oil and other fossil
fuels since the 1960s.

The details of damaged nuclear reactors remain sketchy and it will be years
before the true scope of radiation release will be known. Nepal is very much
likely to be affected in these fronts, among others.

1. Japan has been a generous donor country for Nepal. The disaster will
overstretch Japan’s external responsibilities as reconstruction efforts to be
launched in the near future will drain away the resources and aid to foreign
countries will shrink including Nepal.

2. Although Japan does not welcome unskilled Nepali workers formally, there
are thousands of them working in different menial jobs earning considerable
amount of remittances coming to Nepal. With economy already stagnated and having
to bear the extra burden of rebuilding on a massive scale Japan may soon be
forced to feel the pains of recurring recession. Such scenario may limit the
opportunities for our laborers, whatsoever may be their skills.

3. No less serious consequence for Nepal will be the possibility of its
citizens getting exposed to harmful level of radiation due to imports from
Japan. Nepal is well-advised by physicist like Udaya Raj Khanal to immediately
go for preparing radiation mapping so that we can find out the risks posed by
radiation.

Though Nepal has rare chances of developing nuclear energy owing to cost,
resources and scientific manpower factors, she may not be necessarily immune
from the perils of radiation exposure, if accidents occur in her neighborhood,
where both China and India are aggressively pursuing the nuclear energy
programs. Therefore, the UN’s nuclear watchdog like the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) should engage in developing trustworthy and transparent
regulations relating to the operation of nuclear power plants around the
world.

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