Nuclear Safety & Nepal’s Concerns

Serious debate has been generated about nuclear safety since the world faced its fourth nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan on March 11, 2011. The previous such catastrophic nuclear accidents had occurred in 1979 (US), 1982 (France) and 1986 (Ukraine). Some reviews concerning new safety measures were made following those incidents. None of the countries with nuclear power reactors have adopted any radical measures to drastically reduce their reliance on nuclear energy.

In the immediate aftermath of world’s largest nuclear accident in Chernobyl in April, 1986 which caused long term adverse effects not only in Ukraine but in many neighboring countries it was widely thought that nuclear power would be revisited. Actually Chernobyl explosion drove a large amount of radioactive debris-parts of the fuel rods-30,000 feet high in the air. But history of nuclear power industry since then has demonstrated the increasing inclination to go for clean energy generated from nuclear reactors.

When the nuclear power plant in Fukushima faced a severe damage due to unprecedented tsunami  resulting in loss of power and consequently massive flooding killing thousands of people in Japan, many countries dependent on nuclear energy started the reorientation of their nuclear policies. Among them Germany reacted quickly by announcing the closure of a number of nuclear plants where it believed that the plants were not safe.

Sweden was also proposing to shut down some nuclear power plants and many other countries including the U.S. unveiled their desire to adopt more stringent safety measures to avoid Fukushima-style disasters. Indeed such willingness to be more safety-conscious on the part of the countries operating nuclear power reactors was a legitimate concern shown by them to prevent the occurrence of accidents and be able to mitigate the adverse impacts from events that are beyond human control. Modern science has still not been able to correctly predict earthquakes and hence tsunamis are least likely to be known in advance to warn the public for taking safety measures.

Globally nuclear power accounts for 14% of electricity generation and seen from this standpoint it has not yet dominated the power industry, however, global warming for which increased use of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil is blamed, accelerated expansion of nuclear energy is in progress. Available sources from the International Atomic Energy Agency suggest that 440 nuclear power reactors are in operation around the world. Sixty such plants are being built and most of them in the developing world this year. Nuclear energy has captured the attention of both the developed and the developing world because of ruinous effects of the carbon emission released from the consumption of fossil fuels.

Mohamed El Baradei , former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency has predicted that global nuclear power capacity could double by 2030.  Currently thirty countries already use nuclear power and prompted by rapid industrialization drive many emerging market economies are aggressively expanding their nuclear power industry. Nepal’s immediate neighbors and emerging global powers like China and India are among the top in investing in nuclear power generation. It is needless to repeat here that India’s aspiration to become a major producer of nuclear energy has been remarkably boosted by 2008 Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the U.S.

Nuclear industry is not likely to suffer a great setback which many of us feared in the wake of Japan’s worst nuclear disaster that caused deaths next to the Second World War. On security aspect of nuclear energy Mohamed El Baradei’s response to the question whether nuclear power is safe is pertinent and convincing too. He has bluntly said that nuclear power is as safe as air travel.

He further elaborates that safety concerns which deserve serious consideration by all countries relying on nuclear power will not scare the global community. This clean energy has become a key issue in international negotiations on climate change agreement, which the world is still struggling to craft with renewed momentum after the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit.

Nuclear energy is not going to be the panacea though it will be the part of global nuclear mix for the foreseeable future as observed by El Baradei who was associated with the IAEA for decades and whose agency is responsible to ensure that nuclear power is used with internationally-agreed safety standards and for peaceful purposes only.

On both fronts IAEA has not been a complete success. Nuclear accidents have occurred and nuclear power has been misused by the countries which operate nuclear power reactors to generate energy. In this regard a dilemma exists because any country with capacity to run nuclear power reactors can cheat and go for manufacturing nuclear weapons. This has been established by examples in North-East Asia and South Asia, among others.

The safety of nuclear power has to be analyzed in both contexts. One is obviously related to nuclear power plant accidents as we have noticed in America, Europe and Asia. These accidents impact on human lives and environment simultaneously and instantly, the latest demonstration of resultant destruction in Japan stands as a stark reminder. Ironically, Japan has been the only victim of the use of nuclear weapons and it has now faced a great challenge of recovery and reconstruction following March, 2011 nuclear accident.

Nepal is in need of hundreds of megawatt of hydroelectricity to meet her present requirements and is continuously forced to resort to load shedding despite its high potentials in the power sector. Going after nuclear power is not our priority, the simple reason being that building and maintaining nuclear power plants necessitate highly skilled technical and scientific manpower and enormous financial resources. Understandably, nuclear industry is not competitive in terms of costs and time lag.

Notwithstanding this reality safety of nuclear power is equally significant for Nepal especially on two counts. The foremost is the issue connected to the safety standards of our neighbors which have over the years been expanding their nuclear power programs very rapidly. Should a nuclear accident similar to Chernobyl happen in the neighborhood, there is no reason why Nepal will remain unaffected. Nuclear explosions are prone to creating radiation level on a wider scale. Secondly, Nepal can also benefit from ongoing fight against global warming if nuclear industry is enlarged and the world becomes less dependent on fossil fuels for energy supplies leading to decreasing level of carbon emissions.

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