03/21/2014 - 04:53

Building public acceptance

Sulfikar Amir’s Round One essay presents a somewhat extreme example of a fairly typical scenario—one in which a democratic public vetoes a government’s plans for nuclear energy.

In any democracy, including an emerging one such as Sulfikar’s Indonesia, public acceptance is the first challenge that must be surmounted before nuclear projects can move forward; public opinion must be taken into account and opportunities must be provided for public participation in decision making. In countries with closed, centralized governments, publics are generally excluded from the decision making process. But in the long run, no country can avoid contending with public opinion on nuclear energy. Even within a closed political system, sustainable plans for development of nuclear energy require strong, durable public support.

In many countries with nuclear energy sectors, China and Pervez Hoodbhoy's Pakistan among them, governments have not properly informed their publics about the issues involved in nuclear energy development. Accordingly, public knowledge about nuclear safety in particular and nuclear energy in general is fairly low. In such situations the public will, for a time, simply accept nuclear technology as a given. But this cannot be expected to continue forever.

That is why the development of nuclear power should proceed in parallel with public communication. Governments should offer educational programs on a national level. They should allow public participation during siting and licensing processes. They should respond proactively to concerns about accidents and nuclear safety. Ultimately, any significant decrease in public acceptance of nuclear power could jeopardize goals for developing reactors and fuel cycle facilities.

No novelty. I appreciate Hoodbhoy’s essay regarding plans for nuclear energy expansion in Pakistan—but I don’t necessarily agree with his worries about the ACP-1000 reactors that Pakistan is slated to import from China. In fact, I find his concern on this point excessive. He refers to the ACP-1000 as "a new design that has never been installed before or even tested." But the ACP-1000 is derived from the French M310 design and borrows passive safety features from the US-designed AP-1000. I do not consider the ACP-1000 some novelty, featuring new design concepts that have never existed before or even been tested. Rather, it is an upgraded version of mature designs.

In any event, Hoodbhoy presents a number of legitimate concerns about nuclear safety and security in an emerging nuclear nation such as Pakistan—and I would argue that my Round One discussion about building sound regulatory systems for nuclear safety is quite applicable to Pakistan. Then again, Hoodbhoy’s discussion of nuclear safety in Pakistan is relevant to China too. Recent separatist-oriented terrorism in China has led to increased concern in some quarters about nuclear sabotage there—but governments in all emerging nuclear nations, including China, likely underestimate the risk of nuclear terrorism. The risk of sabotage increases as more power plants are built and more spent fuel is transported, so governments and nuclear industries must acknowledge the potential for nuclear terrorism and take judicious steps to prevent it.