Revisiting Nuclear Power

( This article was posted on April 6 issue of The Rising Nepal )

Japan’s nuclear tragedy and continuing struggle to recover from earthquake and resultant tsunami has generated a debate whether nuclear industry will fall into disfavor. If Fukushima nuclear plant accident heightens safety concerns and public panic rises it may discourage investors to rely on power generation from reactors. There is concern that nuclear industry may suffer a setback although nuclear renaissance is a very recent phenomenon.

The last decade has witnessed the largest number of countries interested into nuclear power. There are  440  nuclear reactors around the world.  60 countries have demonstrated interest in constructing nuclear plants this year as per the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Interestingly China and India, as emerging economies have started heavily investing in nuclear industry and if present trend continues they may one day surpass even Japan in terms of reliance on nuclear energy.

Regardless of lower competitiveness of nuclear energy compared to fossil fuels nuclear industry had generated renewed interest as global warming emanating from consumption of traditional fuels like coal etc. captured the world attention. The share of nuclear energy at present is 14% of global electricity generation. Countries like France and Japan rely predominantly on such power. One estimate shows that France and Japan are meeting their 80 and 30 per cent of energy needs from nuclear power. But the demand for nuclear reactors is intensely rising in Asia and particularly China and India as their economies are rapidly booming which need more energy to maintain their industrial drive.

Nuclear experts like Charles Ferguson and Michael Marriotte have contended that nuclear power’s greatest impediment is economic because it is expensive and slow-developing. Ferguson even notes that “When U.S. utilities even mention interest in nuclear power they face their stocks downgraded”. Preparation, construction and finally operation of nuclear reactors require long gestation period accompanied by scientific manpower and huge resources. This is why this scribe has argued in his previous article that Nepal may not afford to build nuclear reactors to generate power though the country is forced to have unbearable long hours of blackout.

Nevertheless the carbon emission concentration in atmosphere due to use of fossil fuels has resulted in global warming. This factor is pushing countries both developed and emerging economies to get into nuclear energy. Such rush for nuclear plants has simultaneously put pressure on developing regulatory mechanisms for nuclear safety in most of the countries with nuclear reactors. Older generation reactors lacking adequate safety measures have now become more burdensome following devastating tsunami that has damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

Regarding the immediate fallout of Fukushima nuclear accident Nathan Hultman, a climate expert with  the Brookings Institution says that the impact will be felt by different countries differently. Some countries revisit their nuclear policy quickly as Germany has shut down seven reactors since the March 11 nuclear accident in Japan. It has even announced that there might be more drastic steps to diminish country’s dependence on nuclear power in future.

Not surprisingly the U.S., which in 1979 faced partial nuclear meltdown in Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, has begun new safety evaluations of its plants to see how well they can withstand catastrophe due to earthquake, terror attacks, flooding and loss of power. Its Nuclear Regulatory Commission responsible for devising safety procedures for nuclear plants in the country has also felt the urgency of reviewing the functioning of older nuclear reactors that may be less efficient in worst case scenarios.

A number of questions have been raised by Japan’s nuclear accident. These are obviously connected to scrutiny of nuclear plant safety regulations and emergency measures, nuclear design and spent fuel. The issue of spent fuel is more serious as it can be misused for making nuclear weapons. The proliferation concerns of Iran’s ongoing nuclear program have dominated the UN agenda for some years. So has the nuclear issue of North Korea attracted UN attention and the world body has imposed economic sanctions for country’s cheating of its treaty obligations of not diverting nuclear fuel to produce nuclear bombs.

Reprocessing activity that takes place in many nuclear reactors for fuel recycle has been one of the greatest proliferation concerns in the world ever since the advent of atomic age in 1940s. To meet this concern some initiatives have been in place i.e. Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines to supply nuclear fuel to aspiring nuclear powers. These norms are supposed to discourage the suspected diversion of weapons-usable materials like uranium and plutonium to the production of atomic bombs. Unfortunately, application of above guidelines have been uneven and discriminatory as evidenced in the case of Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which violates the prescribed norm of not supplying nuclear fuel to any country outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the wake of Japan’s nuclear disaster, which is fourth of its kind after incidents in 1979 (U.S.), 1982 (France) and 1986 (Ukraine), question has been raised if a worldwide revisiting of nuclear power is inevitable. John Ahearne, former Head of American Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has said that “it took several years of analyzing what happened and what could have prevented the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, and we are a long way from having that kind of knowledge about Fukushima”. According to him Germany has declared the policy of considering phasing out of nuclear power entirely and Sweden might follow suit though South Korea or China or India may decide otherwise.

Chernobyl had an explosion that drove a large amount of radioactive debris-parts of the fuel rods-30000 feet high in the air. Compared to this Fukushima accident is small. If nuclear industry continued expanding since 1986, it is uncertain whether Japan’s accident will be decisive in influencing the global demand for nuclear energy. Notwithstanding this the world scientific community faces a challenge to develop nuclear safety design in a way that mitigates the adverse impact, should another natural calamity wreak havoc as in Japan.

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