Nuclear power: look before you leap

The Fukushima accident shows the value of public trust in those responsible for nuclear safety Copyright: flickr/ Beacon Radio

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The Fukushima accident raised questions that must be addressed by developing countries considering nuclear energy.

The accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in March sent a shock wave through the nuclear energy renaissance that has been gaining strength in the past few years. This had been spurred partly by the escalating price of oil, partly by safer reactor design, and partly by global warming compelling countries to seek alternatives to fossil fuels.

The shockwave was strongest in the developed world. Several countries responded to the Japanese accident — a direct result of the tsunami that flooded large stretches of the country’s north-west coast — by abandoning plans to restart nuclear programmes that had been on hold since the accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, more than 25 years ago.

Reaction in the developing world has been more mixed. A few countries, such as Malaysia and Thailand, dropped their nuclear plans, but most are still pursuing the nuclear option. Although some countries have announced that their plans are being reassessed, they have given little indication that they intend to change course.

Nevertheless, the Fukushima accident has raised fresh doubts, and some important lessons have emerged that need to be taken on board by all those still considering going down the nuclear route, particularly developing countries that are just embarking on such a commitment.

The lessons range from the need to ensure that natural hazards have been fully taken into account to the importance of building public trust in the competence of the organisations (and individuals) responsible for nuclear safety.

In addition, the Fukushima accident has spurred enthusiasm for renewable sources of energy. Each of these lessons needs careful assessment by policymakers in developing countries still considering whether to commit to the nuclear option.

Shifts in attitude

This week, SciDev.Net is publishing a series of articles looking at the impact of the Fukushima accident on plans for nuclear power in developing countries, and assessing the shifting calculus of the viability of these plans.

Two articles set the scene. The first offers a snapshot of the current state of play of nuclear programmes across the developing world, summarising some of the shifts in attitude that have taken place since the accident, as well as the many dimensions of the debate that include, inevitably, the attractions — and dangers — of using a civilian nuclear programme as a stepping-stone to a military one.

The second article is a collection of reports from SciDev.Net contributors in several key developing countries — namely Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa and Vietnam — describing on-the-ground responses to the Fukushima accident.

One message emerging from these articles is that in most cases there has not been a significant change in direction. But it is clear that there is a new and heightened sensitivity to the dangers that nuclear power can present (remember that much of today’s population was not born at the time of the Chernobyl accident) as well as an awareness that providing adequate planning for these dangers is a major challenge.

The challenge ahead

The two features are complemented by three opinion articles from experts who have been deeply involved in the nuclear debate for many years, each highlighting one aspect of the challenge ahead.

José Goldemberg, a physicist from Brazil and former science minister in that country, looks at the high level of investment required to get a nuclear programme off the ground, and revises risk estimates for a major accident in light of Fukushima. He suggests that national prestige is a main motivation for developing nuclear technology, and that renewable sources of energy may, in many cases, be a more affordable (and less risky) option.

Michael J. Mangala, a lecturer at the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, shows how developing countries can benefit from developing nuclear energy programmes. But he cautions that for such programmes to be effective and safe, countries must put in place a comprehensive training strategy to produce the required technical staff at all levels.

Finally, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist from Pakistan, raises questions about the capacity of developing countries to manage and pay for nuclear power. He also focuses on the military dangers of expanding the use of nuclear technology, suggesting that many countries may choose to move in this direction for reasons other than because it makes social, economic or environmental sense.

Informed debate

The Fukushima accident, like its predecessors at Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl, is not in itself sufficient reason to abandon the nuclear option.

And the potential of nuclear power to meet the energy needs of developing countries without contributing significantly to global warming remains a strong attraction.

But as these articles suggest, there are compelling reasons for developing countries to take a hard look before they leap into an energy future that includes nuclear power.

The Fukushima accident is a reminder that obstacles to the safe operation of nuclear power stations can come from unexpected directions, even in a country as safety conscious — and with as much reason to be wary of nuclear energy — as Japan.

It has also emphasised the need for open and informed public debate on the pros and cons of nuclear power, as well as those of alternative ‘clean’ sources of energy — a debate too important to be confined to technical experts, or to be determined by the outcome of commercial or political interests.

Hopefully this collection of articles will contribute to achieving this objective.

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net

This article is part of a Spotlight on Nuclear power after Fukushima.