Needed: Ability to manage nuclear power

By Pervez Hoodbhoy, Yun Zhou, Sulfikar Amir, April 25, 2014

Operating nuclear power plants requires sophisticated technical, industrial, institutional, and legal capacities. Even the most advanced countries can struggle to manage nuclear power when things go wrong, as emphasized by the accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—so less advanced nations, such as Iran with its Bushehr facility, can generate grave concerns within their borders and throughout their regions when they adopt nuclear energy. Below, Pervez Hoodbhoy of Pakistan, Yun Zhou of China, and Sulfikar Amir of Indonesia debate this question: How should developing nations balance their growing electricity needs against concerns over their capacity to operate nuclear power sectors?

Round 1

When the public doesn’t trust you

One day in August 2013, hundreds of motorcycle-riding students converged on a government office in Indonesia's South Bangka District. They came with a demand—not that tuition increases be reversed, or that job opportunities for young people be prioritized, but that the district head denounce plans to construct the country's first nuclear power plant on Bangka Island. The district head demurred, but an antinuclear movement persists on Bangka Island and in much of the country. Indonesians simply don't trust their government to get nuclear power right.

Following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, one might have expected nuclear power to lose much of its appeal. But in many developing countries, Indonesia among them, the desire for nuclear power has remained strong among officials, even if publics may harbor deep concerns about governmental ability to operate nuclear facilities.

To understand the dynamics of nuclear politics in Indonesia, it is useful to understand the nation's recent economic history—this is the backdrop against which the pronuclear and antinuclear camps make their cases. In the last years of the 20th century, Indonesia suffered through a bitter financial crisis. It experienced a few years of malaise thereafter. But over the past decade or so, Indonesia has achieved remarkable economic growth. Due partly to the government's efforts to battle deindustrialization, along with a program of liberalization that has included the opening of domestic markets to international products and investment, Indonesia has become one of the world's more important emerging economies. It is a member of the Group of Twenty (G-20). Its gross domestic product in 2012 was $878 billion—more than nine times its level in 1998, during the depths of the Asian Financial Crisis.

This massive economic expansion has had profound implications for energy demand—and energy has long been a fraught issue in Indonesia. Beginning in the 1970s, during the Suharto regime, Indonesia experienced an oil boom. Oil satisfied the country's energy demand and also became the government's primary means for funding development projects including a program of rapid industrialization. But the regime's reckless management of oil resources led to severe inefficiency in energy production and distribution. By the turn of the century, oil reserves were rapidly depleting, and in 2005 the country became a net importer of oil. Indonesia's electrification rate is around 70 percent, among the lowest rates in Southeast Asia. Major cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya suffer from frequent blackouts. Soaring economic growth is only widening the gap between supply and demand. So the search has intensified for alternative energy sources—nuclear power among them.

Indonesia's experience with nuclear technology dates back to the late 1950s, when the Institute of Atomic Power was established. In the 1960s, a more full-fledged entity—the National Nuclear Power Agency, known as BATAN—was created. A research reactor funded by the US “Atoms for Peace” program was installed. Later, two more research reactors were built. Indonesia developed its capacities in fields such as isotope production for medical and agricultural purposes. Today, Indonesia's decades of experience in operating research reactors would seem to indicate that the country has the capacity to operate power reactors as well.

Plans to develop a nuclear power sector have been discussed since the 1970s. But oil so dominated energy policy under Suharto that little progress was made for decades. In 2004, however, the government adopted a new energy policy according to which nuclear power would account for about 2 percent of electricity production by 2025. Four reactors would be built, producing 4,000 megawatts of electricity among them. Nuclear energy was portrayed as a clean, cost-effective energy source.

The first reactor was to have been completed by 2016 but it has been delayed repeatedly due to antinuclear protests—in particular, protests against nuclear power plants on the highly volcanic island of Java. Facing strong public opposition, the government in 2010 abandoned plans for reactors on Java. Plans now center on Bangka Island. The change has had implications for the project's scale—plans now call for two reactors instead of four, and lower electricity output.

The decision to scale down the nuclear project may seem an appropriate response to public opposition. But the question is why public attitudes toward nuclear power in Indonesia are so dominated by fear of nuclear hazards—a fear that has only intensified since Fukushima, which demonstrated that even a country with a strong safety culture can struggle in the face of a nuclear catastrophe.

In Indonesia, the root of public concern is the government's notoriously poor capacity to ensure public safety and security—as demonstrated, for example, in failed disaster mitigation and in frequent transportation accidents. Public resistance is not rooted in concerns about nuclear technocrats' competence—BATAN has had 50 years of experience operating research reactors. But BATAN isn't the issue. The issue is that the public distrusts the entire institution of government. Indonesians perceive their government as inefficient, poorly coordinated, and widely corrupt. When it comes to operating high-risk technology, these are grave problems. They can only be solved through a program of institutional reform, but an effective reform process can take years.

In an emerging democracy like Indonesia, a nuclear power sector cannot be developed without public deliberation and public acceptance. So until Indonesia's government can improve its efficiency, coordination, and quality of governance—traits that underlie the capacity to operate a nuclear power sector—establishing such a sector will remain a political challenge.

Before reactors, appropriate systems

Roughly four dozen countries that lack nuclear power are considering its adoption, but expressing interest in nuclear power and actually establishing a nuclear sector are different things. This is especially true for developing countries, as a majority of the four dozen are. Nuclear energy is a complex engineering proposition. It requires a major financial commitment. It cannot be justified unless a relatively large electricity grid is already in place. For these reasons among others, the majority of the developing countries that are contemplating the adoption of nuclear power will build no reactors in the foreseeable future.

A few will forge ahead—Turkey, for example, is now preparing for the construction of its first nuclear power facility. But most of the growth in the developing world's nuclear capacity will come in countries, notably China and India, where nuclear power already exists and where economic growth is driving strong electricity demand. In any event, developing countries that do embrace nuclear power—whether they are new entrants such as Turkey or established players such as China—face serious challenges that go beyond engineering, financing, and electricity grids. In particular, they must establish three things: a well-planned, sustainable process for nuclear development, an appropriate framework for safety, and a productive approach toward public attitudes on nuclear power.

A well-planned, sustainable development process establishes realistic expectations about the pace and scale of establishing a nuclear sector. It puts in place reliable procedures for issues such as choosing reactor designs. It encourages continuous review and improvement. Without such a development process, nuclear power programs can become very costly and time-consuming.

Well-functioning frameworks and organizations for nuclear safety can minimize the risks inherent in nuclear power plants. Though improvements in reactor design over the decades have improved safety at power plants, developing countries often must work hard to overcome shortages of qualified, experienced personnel and shortfalls in technical capability.

Public acceptance of nuclear energy is key to the expansion of nuclear sectors and also, ultimately, to their safe operation. In nations where policy making is not transparent, public opinion usually gains little attention at the early stages of nuclear development. This can become a major problem later on.

Challenges for China. The most ambitious nuclear energy state in the world today is China, which operates 20 reactors, is constructing 28 others, and is about to start construction on yet more. But China has faced, and in some cases struggled with, each of the three challenges identified above.

Regarding nuclear development and planning, China has made an extraordinary commitment to nuclear energy—even if plans have been altered somewhat by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. In that accident's immediate aftermath, the Chinese government declared that it would not adjust its overall policy on nuclear power development. But it temporarily suspended approvals for new projects and toughened safety requirements as well. It also reduced its goal for installed nuclear capacity. The government now expects that 58 gigawatts of nuclear capacity will be installed by 2020, instead of the 80 gigawatts that were contemplated just before Fukushima. In addition, China has cut back on its plans for building second-generation reactors and has switched instead to third-generation designs. The advanced designs are safer, of course. But the switch has delayed the development of nuclear power in China, made it more expensive than expected, and significantly impacted manufacturers of nuclear equipment. And it has highlighted the fact that China's previous plans for nuclear energy depended too much on second-generation designs.

Regarding safety, China's nuclear sector has maintained a relatively clean record so far. But it is very debatable whether sound safety systems and a robust safety culture have been established within the nuclear industry. Some manufacturers of nuclear safety equipment, for example, once they have obtained all necessary certifications, can become free and easy about following regulations and implementing quality assurance procedures. They are known to purchase substandard raw materials and outsource work to unqualified subcontractors. Likewise, some utility companies neglect quality controls, accepting products from manufacturers that ought to be rejected. China's nuclear regulatory system needs improvement as well. Areas of concern include understaffed work forces for on-site safety inspections, inadequate procedures for on-site inspection and supervision, and a lack of advanced testing technologies and analytical methodologies.

China's government is centralized and its political system is closed. But that doesn't mean that public opinion about nuclear power is irrelevant. True, debate about nuclear power was scattered and disorganized before Fukushima, reflecting the public's low awareness of nuclear power (especially safety issues) and limited opportunities to participate in nuclear decision making. But after Fukushima, the public began to pay more attention. Debate intensified, protests broke out, and some local governments found nuclear projects hindered or even halted by public opposition. Going forward, enactment of China's plans for nuclear development will require strong, sustained public support. To ensure such support, the government should allow greater public participation during siting and licensing processes. Government and industry should respond more actively and transparently to public concerns about nuclear safety or nuclear accidents. (Withholding information and covering up mistakes only undermine public trust in government.) The government should also seek to educate the public about nuclear energy and safety; educational initiatives will be more effective if they are carried out by the government instead of electrical utilities.

Hard work. Around the world, safety concerns surrounding nuclear power have intensified as a result of Fukushima. But because of some developing countries' huge electricity demand and severe environmental stresses, the world nuclear industry has managed to keep moving forward. Still, any developing country that is considering the development or expansion of a nuclear energy sector must be aware of the challenges involved. These include engineering complexity and financial demands. They also include public acceptance, an issue that should be studied carefully ahead of time. Nuclear energy also requires a comprehensive development plan, one that takes into account a country's electricity demand, energy mix, economic characteristics, technical capabilities, geography, and so forth. In the realm of safety, developing countries can borrow regulations, rules, and standards from vendor countries—but challenges will remain. Some standards won't be applicable, or will need to be applied differently in their new environments, and standards in any event must continuously evolve. Developing nations must understand that, if they are to establish a strong safety culture, a well-functioning quality assurance system, and an effective system for regulatory enforcement and supervision, a great deal of time and effort is required.

Good reasons to worry

After the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, many observers expected that countries seeking to establish nuclear power sectors, or expand existing ones, would ask this question above all: How safe is nuclear energy? Instead, many developing countries still claim that nuclear energy is a solution to their energy woes and have dismissed Fukushima as a freakish, tsunami-induced disaster. Several developing nations—including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Iran—are forging ahead toward the installation of new reactors.

Pakistan, my own country, suffers from severe energy stresses. Blackouts occur daily. Electricity riots have left the government feeling shaken. So Islamabad, buoyed by a $6.5 billion soft loan from China, has just inked a contract to purchase two 1,100-megawatt reactors from the China National Nuclear Corporation for $4.8 billion apiece. The two reactors are slated to operate in close proximity to Karachi, a city whose estimated population is 23.5 million.

The type of reactor that Pakistan will purchase, the ACP-1000, is a new design that has never been installed before or even tested, but the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission is confident that Karachi faces no danger. Although the Pakistani government places deep faith in Chinese nuclear technology, some Chinese are not so sanguine. A former vice president of the China National Nuclear Corporation was recently quoted as saying, "Our state leaders have put a high priority on [nuclear safety] but companies executing projects do not seem to have the same level of understanding."

Untested reactor designs are by no means the only reason to worry about reactor safety in Pakistan. Another concern is a terrorist attack against a reactor—which, even if officials discount the possibility, is a distinct worry. Religious terrorists have carried out successful attacks on many of Pakistan's highly-guarded military institutions, including the general headquarters of the army, the Mehran naval base, and the Kamra air force base. There is no reason to believe that nuclear reactors would be invulnerable to attack.

Another worrying possibility, though it is also dismissed by officials, is operator error. At a nuclear power plant, there is simply no way for people outside the plant to know about bad practices within it. Indeed, the Chernobyl disaster was the result of imprudent actions on the part of reactor operators, and it underscored the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to poor judgment. These problems could be exacerbated at a Chinese-designed, Pakistani-operated reactor because operators would lack the intimate knowledge of design and software issues that they might have at an indigenous reactor.

Another issue of concern is the prevalence of industrial accidents in Pakistan. Though the country has suffered no single incident on the scale of the 1984 gas leak at Union Carbide's facility in Bhopal, India, industrial accidents occur frequently—partly because individuals who ignore safety standards are rarely punished. Disaster response capabilities such as firefighting are very limited and mobility is hampered by frequently clogged roads.

Even taking all this into consideration, the probability of a serious accident is still low. But what if such an accident were to occur? How well would the machinery of the state respond? On this count, there is ample reason to worry.

The government's response to past disasters has often been poor. Amid the country's 2010 floods, which left one-fifth of Pakistan inundated, the president and prime minister displayed a notable lack of urgency. The National Disaster Management Authority performed sluggishly. Populations downstream from the floods were not given the warnings they needed. Pakistan's ubiquitous armed jihadist groups substituted for the state in many places, just as they had done following the country's 2005 earthquake.

All this bodes ill for Pakistan if a serious accident at a nuclear reactor near Karachi forces an evacuation—which would be extremely chaotic and very different from Japan's disciplined evacuation of the Fukushima area. Pakistan suffers from sharp divisions between haves and have-nots, so widespread looting would be probable. Many people would therefore refuse to evacuate, preferring to wait out the danger. Emergency and law enforcement personnel, who are often poorly trained and demonstrate low motivation, might simply disappear from the scene. Pakistan also suffers from deep ethnic and religious tensions, and it is likely that members of minority groups would receive less help than others during an evacuation (as was true during the floods)—if in fact they received any help at all.

The Pakistani public's awareness of radiation hazards is nearly non-existent. Television stations freely propagate unsubstantiated rumors when reporting on both political and technical matters, so ill-informed views might become widespread during a nuclear disaster, resulting in either complacency or panic. To top things off, low consciousness of safety issues is simply an element of Pakistani culture. Pakistanis often accept high levels of risk and are satisfied to place their faith in God as their protector. Evacuation of Karachi amid a nuclear disaster is a terrible prospect to imagine.

Opaque and surreptitious. To argue against nuclear power in Pakistan is not to deny the severity of the country's electricity challenges, which are entrenched and multifaceted. To begin with, though Pakistan's installed electric capacity of 20 gigawatts is adequate in principle to meet daily average power demand of around 17 gigawatts, a mere 14.3 gigawatts, on average, are actually generated. That is, because of a financial management problem known as circular debt, about 30 percent of existing capacity is not used. Worse, Pakistan's distribution system is both leaky and subject to widespread theft, and these problems can eat up a staggering 25 to 30 percent of total production.

Even if it can address these problems, Pakistan will need to rely on a broad range of energy sources to meet its future needs, ranging from fossil fuels to renewable sources such as hydropower, solar, and wind—but at present, installed wind power amounts to only 50 megawatts, less than one one-thousandth of the estimated potential of the country's "wind corridors." Nuclear energy is no quick fix for these challenges, but the government behaves as if it is one.

Pakistani citizens have had little or no input on nuclear issues such as plant location and safety and the disposition of nuclear waste. This is partly because, in a country where the headlines every day concern terrorism and various other crises, citizens have little time or leisure to formulate and articulate positions on nuclear issues. But it is also because all of Pakistan's nuclear projects, whether civilian or military, are highly opaque. The authorities, pleading national security, strictly control all nuclear regulatory mechanisms and allow little scope for citizen involvement. Individuals not affiliated with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission or the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority are forbidden from monitoring radiation levels near any nuclear facility. People who raise questions about the safety of nuclear power plants are sometimes labeled agents of foreign powers. And when officials sought approval last year for a required environmental impact assessment report for the envisaged Karachi Nuclear Power Plants, they did so surreptitiously, without a public hearing.

No publicly available government study shows that nuclear reactors are the best or lowest-cost option to solve Pakistan's energy problems, and the case for nuclear energy is far from persuasive. But with billions of dollars at stake, commercial interests are working actively to promote these reactor sales. Concerns about Karachi's safety are being put on the back burner. One fears the consequences.

Round 2

Reducing risk through good governance

All technologies involve risk, but perhaps no technology is perceived as riskier than nuclear energy. Its risks, however, are not solely a function of technical issues—organizational and institutional capabilities play a crucial role as well. For example, though a developing country may utilize technologically advanced reactors, the country's nuclear risk will still be relatively high if institutional preparedness does not measure up. I have argued elsewhere that, in less advanced countries, nuclear energy's risks are more associated with the institutional sphere than with any particular reactor's design and safety systems.

In her first essay, my roundtable colleague Yun Zhou wrote that any nation developing a nuclear energy sector or expanding an existing one must establish three things: a sustainable development process, an appropriate safety framework, and a productive approach toward public opinion. Zhou did not use the term herself, but her prescriptions fall under the rubric of nuclear governance, which I would define as the way in which multiple stakeholders manage nuclear risk. Governments in the developing world must establish good systems for nuclear governance if they are to avoid controversy and maximize their chances to operate nuclear power safely. The foundations of nuclear governance include, from my point of view, at least three things: transparency, accountability, and trust.

Providing appropriate information to the public, as Zhou and Pervez Hoodbhoy have both discussed, is among the most critical issues surrounding the operation of nuclear power plants. Nuclear industries have a tendency to treat much critical information as secret—but the history of nuclear disasters has demonstrated that secrecy only increases the risk of a meltdown when a nuclear power plant experiences a crisis. Nuclear risks are too complex to be managed properly by plant operators alone. Potential hazards must be detected before they turn into crises. This means that nuclear risks must be communicated to the public and external stakeholders must have a chance to recognize risks at an early stage. For developing countries that lack traditions of transparency, establishing transparency in the nuclear realm may be challenging. It is also indispensable.

Accountability, an equally necessary component of nuclear governance, requires that regulators and plant operators, on a regular basis, report to and consult with the public regarding decisions made and actions taken. Accountability is a two-way street. Public assessment of officials' performance must become an essential element of nuclear safety practice and a regulatory framework must be established that facilitates this process. And any healthy system for nuclear accountability requires that civil society groups play an active role in monitoring official performance.

A third key element of nuclear governance is trust, the primary topic of my first roundtable essay. When the public lacks trust in nuclear authorities and plant operators, good nuclear governance is unlikely to be realized. When trust is present, the public and the nuclear industry can engage in balanced communication about nuclear risk (sine qua non for comprehensive risk assessment). Building such trust requires that the public be given ample opportunities to participate in decision making. When such opportunities are withheld, good nuclear governance is not possible—and a nuclear power sector is unlikely to be operated safely.

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.

Conspiracy-mindedness and nuclear machismo

My Round One essay has attracted a lot of apparently orchestrated criticism in the comments section. Sadly, the commenters don't usefully address the safety issues that surround the untested Chinese nuclear reactors that are to be installed close to Karachi, my home city. Rather, they exemplify the mindset of nuclear nationalists everywhere, especially nuclear officials in countries such as Pakistan and India.

For nuclear nationalists it is quite common to vilify, as agents of foreign powers and nongovernmental organizations, people who are concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants. Even Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India—whom I consider a decent man otherwise—recently raged against protesters at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and attributed their opposition to the influence of American nongovernmental organizations. (Whom does Singh blame for antinuclear sentiment in the United States—the commies?) Meanwhile, a rightwing Hindu movement called the Sangh Parivar sees a Christian proselytizing hand behind the Kudankulam protests.

All this conspiracy-minded nonsense detracts from serious discussion of nuclear power in developing countries. Yes, more energy is desperately needed, but can the risk of nuclear disaster be made acceptably small? And just how does one define "acceptably?" No single answer exists, and I don't pretend to provide one. But surely people can learn to debate an important issue reasonably, without imputing foul motives to those with whom they disagree.

Concerns about nuclear power are prevalent in every country where the technology exists or is being developed. In a number of developing countries, these concerns are having an impact on policy. We learn from my roundtable colleague Yun Zhou that even energy-hungry China has become less gung ho about nuclear power since Fukushima. The Chinese government now expects that 58 gigawatts of nuclear capacity will be installed by 2020 instead of the 80 gigawatts contemplated earlier, and design requirements are being tightened. Even in a country where dissent is generally not tolerated, public fears about the negative environmental consequences of nuclear power have made some difference. We learn from Sulfikar Amir that nuclear ambitions have been downsized in Indonesia as well—two reactors are now slated to be built there instead of the four reactors planned a few years ago. This stems from public doubt about the government's capacity to ensure public safety and its poor mitigation record following natural disasters.

But Pakistan and India, two nations with abysmal records in disaster management, have simply shrugged off the Fukushima experience. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission has just announced that, with Chinese help and financing, it plans over an unspecified (but short) period of time to increase nuclear capacity, which currently amounts to about 700 megawatts, to an astounding 4 gigawatts. India plans by 2020 to increase nuclear capacity from about 6 gigawatts, its current level, to 20 gigawatts.

Why are India and Pakistan bucking the trend? The answer lies partly in economics—but even more in nuclear machismo. Both countries' atomic energy establishments are well-funded and also house large and growing nuclear weapons programs. Massive, rapid expansion of nuclear power is driven by a conviction that all things nuclear—whether bombs or power—are a sign of national virility, success, and progress. But this false belief means that the development of alternative energy sources takes a back seat.

India has only begun to scratch the surface of its abundant wind and solar potential—but the results so far are good. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy reports that the country has an installed capacity of about 30 gigawatts of renewable grid power (including wind, solar, and a few other categories). Although renewable sources are being utilized at rates far below their potential, they already produce more energy in India than does nuclear power. Pakistan, unfortunately, has hardly begun to develop its wind and solar potential—as I noted in Round One, the total capacity of currently installed windmills is a mere 50 megawatts, which is a pittance compared to the potential 50 gigawatts of power that the country's wind corridors are thought to be capable of producing.

Rapid development of nuclear energy sucks away scarce capital and expertise that developing countries could put to more productive uses. Wind turbines and solar plants, for example—unlike imported turn-key nuclear power plants, which are enormously complex—could be manufactured locally, providing an important stimulus to a nation's economy. But when nuclear energy is conflated with national security strategy, it is very hard for alternative energy to receive the attention it deserves.

Round 3

The transnational dimensions of nuclear risk

When Indonesia announced plans several years ago to build nuclear power reactors on Java Island—only a few days after Java's Merapi volcano had erupted—the news shocked many Indonesians, especially those living on the island. But the announcement also sparked concern in neighboring countries, most notably Singapore, a densely populated city-state where 5.6 million people are packed into less than 700 square kilometers.

Singapore knows very well how it feels when neighbors export their pollution. Singaporeans already suffer through severe haze on an annual basis due to forest fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island. So Singapore had good reason to worry about a disaster at a power plant on Java, and has even more reason to worry now that Indonesia's plans for nuclear power have shifted to Bangka Island, which lies even closer to the city-state.

Nuclear energy's risks are usually conceived of as national risks, but nuclear power possesses a transnational dimension as well. The Chernobyl disaster provides a dramatic example of nuclear hazards traveling from one country to another—and though Chernobyl was a worst-case scenario, it could easily be replicated in Southeast Asia. Nuclear risks—including the dangers surrounding nuclear waste, which Yun Zhou discussed in her third essay—simply cannot be confined within individual countries.

Across Southeast Asia, planning for nuclear energy has quickened over the last decade or so, and a number of countries in the region continue to see nuclear energy as viable despite the Fukushima disaster. At the moment, no nuclear power plants exist in Southeast Asia, except for the Philippines' abandoned Bataan facility—but, in addition to Indonesia, Thailand and especially Vietnam have proceeded fairly far with plans to construct nuclear power stations.

The construction of a nuclear plant anywhere in the region will strongly motivate other governments to build their own facilities. The logic is simple. If only one country in the region has a nuclear power plant, only that country will enjoy the benefits. But the geography of the region dictates that many nations will share the risks—Southeast Asia is a "community of risk," an area where physical proximity means that hazards can easily spread. This means that nuclear power "proliferation" is probable: Why would governments endure exposure to nuclear risk without taking advantage of nuclear energy's benefits?

What's needed is for neighboring states to develop a strong regulatory framework for managing risk at a regional level, a system that would take into account nuclear energy's transnational dimensions and whose main goal would be an equitable distribution of benefit and risk. A regional framework would include an agreement about building national systems for standard emergency response that neighboring countries could accept. It would establish a network of resources—manpower, technical knowledge, financial support—that could be circulated across the region. Last but not least, it would require implementing the ASEAN Power Grid project. This project would facilitate electricity sharing among member states, including the electricity generated by nuclear reactors.  

Establishing such a framework will be no easy task in Southeast Asia. Nations in the region are quite diverse in terms of their national interests, institutional capacities, and desire for nuclear power. Their diversity will complicate negotiations toward a regional framework. Nonetheless, governing nuclear risk should not be left to individual states. Risk can best be managed if neighboring countries work together to further their common interests.

Reprocessing: Only where appropriate

The presidents of China and France recently brought renewed attention to the issue of nuclear waste management when they issued a joint statement discussing their nations' plans to establish a commercial reprocessing plant. But waste management has not come under discussion so far in this roundtable, which has focused mainly on public attitudes toward nuclear power. Waste management should not be ignored, however—it is a critical element of any nation's capacity to operate a nuclear sector, and indeed a 2003 MIT study identified waste management as one of four critical challenges (along with cost, safety, and proliferation) that must be overcome if a large expansion of nuclear energy is to occur.

When a nation first considers adopting nuclear power, its nuclear development plan is likely to be modest. Management of spent fuel and other nuclear waste might not seem a pressing concern at that point. But in reality, any nation that establishes a nuclear power sector—particularly a developing nation with limited resources—must devote careful thought to the policies that will govern long-term management of waste.

To date, no country in the world has implemented a permanent solution for managing nuclear waste in either of its two main forms: the spent fuel that emerges directly from reactor cores and the high-level radioactive waste that results when spent fuel is reprocessed. Establishing a permanent repository for either spent fuel or high-level waste requires vast geological resources and often encounters public resistance. Reprocessing spent fuel allows a portion of the fuel to be reused, which reduces the overall volume of waste—but it presents its own challenges.

Establishing a long-term policy of reprocessing spent fuel is natural enough for a large developing nation such as China—a country with tremendous projected energy demand, a huge commitment to nuclear energy, and a strong infrastructure in science and technology. But reprocessing is a complex and uneconomical process compared to interim storage of spent fuel. It requires huge financial inputs, a fairly strong science and technology infrastructure, a consistent national energy policy, and cooperation with other countries on advanced nuclear technology. So smaller developing countries might choose to forego reprocessing. For that matter, nations that don't intend to establish large-scale nuclear energy programs and that lack the geological resources to establish a permanent repository might choose to depend on interim, rather than permanent, storage of spent fuel.

Ultimate solutions to the problem of nuclear waste may one day be identified. Nations able to do so should carry out research and development that may hasten that day. For now, though, many emerging countries must be satisfied with dry storage of spent fuel, on-site or off-site, as an interim solution to the problem of nuclear waste.

How to get away with almost anything

I was intrigued to learn from Sulfikar Amir’s Round One essay that when the Indonesian public, fearing a nuclear disaster of the Fukushima type, insisted that the country's nuclear electricity program be scaled back—the people's demands were largely met. It is difficult to imagine that public opinion could force either the Pakistani or Indian government to similarly change course. Why? Because both countries are wedded to nuclear weapons. Because in both countries, the fires of nuclear nationalism never cease to burn. In both countries, it was opaque civilian nuclear programs that provided a necessary vehicle for the achievement of national ambitions in nuclear weapons. Amid this environment, decisions on civilian nuclear matters are not made in a reasoned, transparent manner, and one cannot be hopeful that things will change soon.

A case in point is the recent decision by Pakistani authorities to install two Chinese-supplied reactors near Karachi, home to more than one of out of 10 Pakistanis. The authorities claimed that national security was at stake and therefore the public could not be engaged in the siting decision (though it must be admitted that only a small segment of the public expressed any concern). An environmental impact assessment was approved by unnamed but handpicked persons—rammed through in order to comply with legal formalities. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission official in charge of the new Karachi reactor project told the press, "We requested [the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency] not to hold a public hearing because of international politics." Presumably this meant that nuclear cooperation with the Chinese overpowered all other considerations. In a similar vein, academics from Pakistani universities have in the past been denied permission, for national security reasons, to check radioactivity levels in uranium mines that local communities suspected of posing health hazards.

In India, environmentalists have had some success in mobilizing antinuclear protesters, notably on issues of land acquisition, and the Fukushima disaster energized antinuclear groups like the Konkan Bachao Samiti and the Gandhian group known as the National Alliance of People’s Movements. But though Indian activists may have mustered a few thousand protesters on occasion—most notably at the Kundankulam and Jaitapur nuclear reactor sites—they have gained no significant victories. Nothing remotely similar to movements such as European Nuclear Disarmament or the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has emerged in India. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a conservative Indian think tank, has published this dismissive language on its website: "An antinuclear movement in India would remain largely a marginal movement with sporadic spurts depending on the issue at hand, the site in question, and the political parties involved." Sadly, this seems correct.

This is music to the ears of the global nuclear establishment. In much of the West (and now Japan), the development of nuclear electricity has hit roadblocks because of deeply engaged and aware populations. But in many developing countries—especially those that now possess or aspire to obtain nuclear weapons—no such problem exists. In countries such as these, "building public acceptance" (as the title of Yun Zhou's second roundtable essay would have it) is easy. Publics indoctrinated in the virtues of nuclear weapons let their nations' atomic energy establishments get away with almost anything. Public subsidies are dispensed for nuclear power, but hidden for secrecy reasons, and are thus excluded from the real costs of electricity. Nuclear establishments need not reveal their plans for disaster management, prove these plans' adequacy, develop environmental impact mitigation schemes, or educate the population about radiation hazards. These establishments, operating almost unchallenged, feel little need to make the case for nuclear power over alternative energy technologies. Bureaucracies, shrouded in layer after layer of secrecy and relying on official secrecy acts, can continue to hide from the public gaze their appalling inefficiency and incompetence.

No matter how safe or unsafe nuclear energy in the West might be, it is constantly subjected to challenges from an aroused citizenry. But nuclear power in less open societies remains largely opaque, immune from public scrutiny. Under such conditions, one must expect lower safety standards. It might take more than a Fukushima disaster to change this state of affairs.

Topics: Nuclear Energy


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