Nuclear Power & Generation Ethics

A retrospective look at Fukushima Disaster (March 11, 2011) in Japan reveals the fact that nuclear power, though involving high-level risks due to possible release of radioactive materials in worst case scenario of meltdown of nuclear reactors, remains an important part of the global energy mix. Appropriately, in this vein Yukiya Amano, the incumbent Director-General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has opined through his thoughtful essay of March 8, 2012 entitled “Beyond Fukushima” that it will be difficult to achieve the twin goals of ensuring sustainable energy supplies and curbing greenhouse gases.

Available statistics demonstrate that current number of nuclear reactors worldwide (437) will likely be increased at least by another 100 by 2030 as estimated by former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose administration faced the worst nuclear accident due to unprecedented earthquake measuring 9.0 at Richter scale that triggered tsunami and heavily damaged 40-year old Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

IAEA Chief also believes that global use of nuclear power is most likely to grow steadily in the next 20 years, although at a slower rate than previously forecast, the nuclear accident of last year nevertheless. He has compelling reasons for this such as rising demand for energy, alongside concerns about climate change, volatile fossil-fuel prices, and the security of energy supplies.

The most notable expansion of nuclear industry in the recent years has been visible in Asia, where emerging economies like China and India have become the major users of nuclear power. The rapidity of their industrialization drive has been a major contributor to their increasing reliance on this source of energy. It may not be unfair to observe that India’s prospects to become an important producer of nuclear energy have been boosted by its 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. Reasonably, China as world’s second largest economy attempting to rise peacefully, has been aggressively expanding its nuclear energy production operating a large number of nuclear reactors.

Notwithstanding the above reality, some concerns about the future of nuclear energy have been raised in Europe, where a number of users of such power have started rethinking whether they should continue relying on this source of electricity in the aftermath of Fukushima nuclear meltdown. As Germany, Belgium, Italy and others decided to cut down the use of nuclear energy for safety reasons, European Commission President Jose Manual Barroso even remarked that the time had come for the renewable sector to fill the gap left by the declining nuclear power.

In line with this thinking the European Union looks set to increase the share of renewable sources in future production of energy. As mentioned by Christian Kjaer, Chief Executive Officer in European Wind Energy Association in his essay “Blowing Away Nuclear Power” (March 14, 2012) 3% of all new power capacity installed in European Union from 2011-2020 will be nuclear, compared to 71% share of renewable.

In articulating the use of renewable Christian Kiaer further argues that wind energy has zero fuel costs, minimal waste-disposal and decommissioning costs, and a tiny fraction of nuclear power’s risk to human health or the environment. According to him, with high oil prices, a higher EU carbon price from 2013, and the high cost of nuclear energy, onshore wind power is the most economically viable carbon-free power option.

While some European countries seem to favor renewable sources of energy willing to invest more on such option compared to nuclear power, the future of nuclear industry is not sealed even after Fukushima disaster in the words of Ana Palacio, the former Foreign Minister of Spain. Commenting through her argumentative piece “Fukushima, Europe’s Nuclear Test” of March 14, 2012 she has said that the predictions made by Germany’s Der Spiegel that nuclear era will end after Fukushima accident, have been proved hopelessly wrong.

In her opinion, against the background of shift of gravity to the East as evidenced by the rising powers like China and India, among others, nuclear energy has become a “gateway to a prosperous future”. This optimistic assessment was made by “The Hindu” in its November 2011 commentary, which was also the time when U.S. President Barack Obama was paying an official visit to India. As written by Ana Palacio in her above piece, Barack Obama has boldly bet that loan guarantees and research into creating small modular reactors will reconfirm America’s global position at the forefront of civilian nuclear technology and its reliance in the new global order.

However, when one weighs safety measures against the tremendous risks, it is clear that no amount of precautions will make a country completely safe from nuclear energy, an established fact reiterated by none but Japan’s former Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, whose “Changing view of nuclear power ‘ has been carried by Foreign Affairs magazine recently.

In a succinct analysis of the security related problem of nuclear energy Naoto Kan talks about “Generation Ethics” issue which in his views should be the common problem of the international community. He explains that as far as nuclear power is considered, there are insufficient mandates when it comes to safety. Citing an example from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the global norm to promote nuclear non proliferation, the former Prime Minister of Japan says that so long as a country’s nuclear program does not involve nuclear weapons production, its operation and control are supposed to be the responsibility of that state alone.

Similarly, the export of nuclear power plant technology is also often just a business issue, not one of the international community. Herein lies the real dilemma as opined justifiably by Naoto Kan who rightly suggests that every nation seriously consider a new framework for international rules regarding the safety of nuclear power plans and the disposal of high-level of radioactive waste. This has implications for us as well as we live in a neighborhood where a growing number of countries such as China, India, and Pakistan are operating nuclear power reactors increasingly.

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