Pressure Over Nuclear Plants

Japan's nuclear catastrophe pushes China and other Asian nations to review atomic power plans.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Japanese evacuees receive radiation scans in Fukushima prefecture, March 16, 2011.
Japanese evacuees receive radiation scans in Fukushima prefecture, March 16, 2011.

As Japan faces an uphill battle containing the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, China and other Asian nations are moving rapidly to review their atomic power generation plans under pressure from environmental and other public groups.

The safety aspects of energy-starved Asia's nuclear drive have come under sharp focus following reported spikes in radiation emission at Japan's stricken Fukushima Dai Ichi Power Plant following Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami that are believed to have killed more than 10,000 people.

The radiation levels appear to be nowhere near those during the Chernobyl explosion in the former Soviet Union in 1986—the biggest nuclear power plant disaster of all time—but experts say action needed to be taken swiftly.

"The lesson for Asia is that we all have to take a fresh look at existing and future plants to prepare for a worst case scenario, not just the most likely scenario," Joseph Cirincione, a U.S. nuclear security expert who advised Congress on atomic issues, said in an interview.

"I think right now any reactor that is on an earthquake fault line should be re-examined—it's pretty clear that most reactors have not been built to withstand the kind of quakes we are seeing today when they should be," said Cirincione, head of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

The World Nuclear Association said most of the 155 reactors planned worldwide are in disaster-prone Asia, which is clamoring to switch to nuclear energy because it remains the least polluting and most dependable energy source.

"Asia is the main region in the world where electricity generating capacity and specifically nuclear power is growing significantly," it said.

Focus on China

In East and South Asia, there are 112 nuclear power reactors in operation, with 37 under construction and firm plans to build a further 84, as of April 2010, according to the association's website.

But all eyes are on China, which Wednesday suspended approval for all new nuclear power plants until the government can issue revised safety rules in light of the Japanese crisis.

The State Council, chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, also announced the government would conduct safety checks at the country’s existing nuclear facilities and those under construction, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Like Japan, China is susceptible to earthquakes and has grappled with nuclear safety issues. It is in the forefront of the Asia-led revival of nuclear power.
"China’s nuclear industry’s free ride may soon be coming to an end," said Elizabeth Economy, an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"While censoring environmental debate and activism on nuclear power may have made life easy for the Chinese government up until now, the devastating nuclear accident in Japan has necessitated a new, serious dialogue on nuclear safety—at least among government officials," she said.

China has 13 nuclear reactors operating at present with 27 under construction. There are firm plans to build 50 while another 110 are proposed for construction by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association.

"Despite such ambitious plans for an often contentious technology, there is virtually no public debate in China on the topic of nuclear power," Economy noted.

Even the environmental activist group Greenpeace in Beijing, which should be a natural repository for anti-nuclear activity in China, has no campaign or study underway on the issue, she said.

India's nuclear plant opposed

India, which has seven nuclear plants, is also expected to spend billions of dollars on importing nuclear reactors following its landmark deal with the United States that has allowed it to resume nuclear trade.

But the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant have revived opposition to a proposed nuclear plant—the country's largest—at Jaitapur in western India's Maharashtra state.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament on Monday that an "immediate technical review of all safety systems in nuclear power plants" would be carried out.

Location of Asia's Nuclear Power Reactors

Source: World Nuclear Association

Safety concerns

In Southeast Asia, although there is no operating nuclear plant yet in the fast-expanding, power-guzzling region, questions over safety concerns are hindering plans to turn to atomic power to fuel growth in the region of 600 million people.

"The plans of some Southeast Asian nations are on a smaller scale, but are also based on a rushed timescale," said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

"The Japanese situation is a sharp reminder to be humble in the face of the risks and to bring a pause to breakneck ambitions," he said.

Indeed, the Japanese crisis has prompted Thailand to halt, at least temporarily, plans to build nuclear power plants in the country.

"I don't want to press on with the nuclear plant construction plan, as I don't want Thai people to risk their lives," the Bangkok Post quoted deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban as saying when announcing the freeze on Wednesday.

Environmentalists and local villagers from provinces shortlisted as potential sites for nuclear power plant construction have also formed an alliance to campaign against it.

Under its 20-year power development plan, Thailand would have five nuclear power plants by 2020-2025.

In Vietnam, the government appears to be moving ahead with plans to put eight nuclear plants into operation over the next two decades.

Russia and Vietnam signed a multibillion-dollar deal in October for Vietnam's first nuclear power plant, while plans are underway to join forces with Japan to develop two other nuclear reactors.

"In our development plan of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, Vietnam puts nuclear safety issues [as] a top priority," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga.

Earthquake-prone Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest nation, made a presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency last month, saying it was planning "in earnest" for nuclear power, but the government's chief economic minister Hatta Rajasa played down the possibility on Wednesday.

"As long as we have alternative energy or mixed energy, nuclear is the last option. It's not that we are not open to it, but it's the last option," he said, according to a Reuters report.

But Indonesia's National Atomic Energy Agency (Batan) chief Hudi Hastowo told AFP Wednesday that it will press on with plans to build a nuclear plant close to a volcanic fault line in Bangka island, east of Sumatra island where a 9.1-magnitude undersea earthquake triggered a tsunami in 2004, killing 220,000 people in countries around the Indian Ocean.

In Malaysia, a nuclear power plant is being envisaged by 2025, if not earlier, according to its Economic Transformation Program, but the government is under pressure to shelve the plan.

"Malaysia may not be sitting on the Ring of Fire, but no one is going to be comforted by any assurance that whatever plants we build will conform to the highest standards possible, and are able to withstand human or natural disasters," Malaysia's The Star daily said in an editorial.

Cambodia, which is luring foreign investment to build several hydropower plants, is also looking into nuclear power as a future energy source to meet rising domestic demand, although construction of a plant is still years away, a top government official said last year.

'Lasting blow'

While Asian nations are likely to continue with their atomic power plans to fuel their growth needs, public and investor perceptions of the safety of nuclear power around the world "has been dealt a serious and lasting blow" by the Japanese disaster, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear security expert at Harvard University.

"This did not take place in a developing country that had just built its first plant and hadn’t had time to develop a proper safety culture. This took place in Japan, one of the wealthiest, most experienced, and most safety-conscious nations on earth—though one that also has had a history of safety issues that were covered up and not reported to the regulator in a timely way," he said.

"My guess is that while we will still see some growth of nuclear power in some places, the prospects for growth on the scale required for nuclear to be even a noticeable part of the answer to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions have been substantially reduced."

Germany has moved to shut down seven aged atomic plants amid the safety concerns while all of Europe's atomic power reactors will be subjected to natural disaster tests in the wake of the Japanese disaster.

The United States, which has 104 plants across the country in operation with applications for 19 new reactors, is also facing increasing pressure over its own nuclear policy amid the safety concerns.

President Barack Obama said there is a need "to think through constantly how can we improve nuclear technologies to deal with additional safety concerns that people have."





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