VIENNA, Austria – Global warming and rocketing oil prices are making nuclear power fashionable, drawing a once demonized industry out of the shadows of the Chornobyl disaster as a potential shining knight of clean energy.
Britain is the latest to recommit itself to the energy source, with its government announcing support Thursday for the construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants produce around 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity, but all but one are due to close by 2023.
However, some countries hopping on the nuclear bandwagon have abysmal industrial safety records and corrupt ways that give many pause for thought.
China has 11 nuclear plants and plans to bring more than 30 others online by 2020. And a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report projects that it may need to add as many as 200 reactors by 2050.
Of the more than 100 nuclear reactors now being built, planned or on order, about half are in China, India and other developing countries. Argentina, Brazil and South Africa plan to expand existing programs; and Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt and Turkey are among the countries considering building their first reactors.
The concerns are hardly limited to developing countries. Japan’s nuclear power industry has yet to recover from revelations five years ago of dozens of cases of false reporting on the inspections of nuclear reactor cracks.
The Swedish operators of a German reactor came under fire last summer for delays in informing the public about a fire at the plant. And a potentially disastrous partial breakdown of a Bulgarian nuclear plant’s emergency shutdown mechanism in 2006 went unreported for two months until whistleblowers made it public.
Nuclear transparency will be an even greater problem for countries such as China that have tight government controls on information. Those who mistrust the current nuclear revival are still haunted by the 1986 meltdown of the Chornobyl reactor and the Soviet Union’s attempts to hide the full extent of the catastrophe. Further back in the collective memory is the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.
The revival, the International Atomic Energy Agency projects, means that nuclear energy could nearly double within two decades to 691 gigawatts – 13.3 per cent of all electricity generated.
“We are facing a nuclear renaissance,” Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of the French nuclear energy firm Areva, told an energy conference. “Nuclear’s not the devil any more. The devil is coal.”
Philippe Jamet, director of nuclear installation safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency, describes the industry’s record as “second to none.”
Still, countries new to or still learning about nuclear power “have to move down the learning curve, and they will learn from (their) mistakes,” he said.
The Vienna-based IAEA, a UN body, was set up in 1957 in large part to limit such trial and error, providing quality controls and expertise to countries with nuclear programs and overseeing pacts binding them to high safety standards.
But the agency is already stretched with monitoring Iran and North Korea over their suspected nuclear arms programs, and IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says his organization cannot be the main guarantor of safety. The primary responsibility, he says, rests with the operators of a nuclear facility and their government.
Issues of national pride may also come up.
A Vienna-based diplomat whose portfolio includes nuclear issues told The AP that in the 1990s the Canadian government offered India troubleshooting information for its reactors, but the Indians “did not want to know about it.”
The diplomat, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information, said: “It reflected the attitude that national pride is more important than safety.”
The AP’s efforts to obtain Indian official comment were unsuccessful.
Developing countries insist they are ready for the challenge. But worries persist that bad habits of the past, both on safety issues and corruption in some countries, could reflect on nuclear operational safety.
In China, for instance, thousands die annually in the world’s most dangerous coal mines and thousands more in fires, explosions and other accidents often blamed on insufficient safety equipment and workers ignoring safety rules.
A Finnish study published in 2005 said India’s annual industrial fatality rate is 11.4 people per 100,000 workers and the accident rate 8,700 per 100,000 workers.
Overall, Asian countries excluding China and India have an average industrial accident fatality rate of 21.5 per 100,000 and an accident rate of over 16,000 per 100,000 workers, says the report, by the Tampere University of Technology in Finland. The study lists a fatality rate of 5.2 people per 100,000 for the United states and 3 per 100,000 for France.
Countries with nuclear power are obligated to report all incidents to the IAEA. But the study said most Asian governments vastly underreport industrial accidents to the UN’s International Labour Organization – fewer than one per cent in China’s case.
Separately, China and India shared 70th place in the 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by the Transparency International think tank that ranked 163 countries, with the least corrupt first and the most last. Vietnam occupied the 111th spot, and Indonesia – which, like Hanoi, wants to build a nuclear reactor – came in 130th.
“Are there special concerns about the developing world? The answer is definitely yes,” said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert with the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Corrupt officials in licensing and supervisory agencies in the region could undermine the best of IAEA guidelines and oversight, Thayer said.
“There could be a dropping of standards, and that affects all aspects of the nuclear industry, from buying the material, to processing applications to building and running the plant.”
Permanent storage of radioactive waste – which can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years – is another major problem, as is shutting nuclear plants that are no longer safe.
In China, permanent dump sites are not expected to be operational before 2040, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy. So for now, China – like India – stores the waste in temporary sites, usually close to reactors, where it is more vulnerable to theft and poses a greater environmental danger.
Nuclear proponents say new generations of reactors now on the drawing board come with better fail-safe mechanisms and fewer moving parts. But even some of these supporters are skeptical about creating the foolproof reactor.
Hans-Holger Rogner, head of the IAEA’s planning and economic studies section, says he is “suspicious when people say the next (reactor) generation will be safer than the one we have.”