Risks and reward

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am

Following the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, attention has fallen not only on how the country is coping with the aftermath. There has also been an urgent response to the danger that the Fukushima No 1 nuclear plant, some 240 kilometres north of Tokyo, might go critical.

An official at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency was quoted as saying there was a high possibility of a partial meltdown. Just going by the numbers of people affected so far by exposure to radiation and mass evacuations, it is already perhaps the worst nuclear incident in Japan to date.

The Japanese are taking all possible emergency measures to cool the radioactive core, including pumping in seawater. Whether the worst is eventually avoided, questions are being asked about the future for nuclear power, not just for Japan itself - but, even more so, for its Asian neighbours contemplating the nuclear route.

A rising Asia needs energy, and faces uncertainties of fuel oil supply especially in the wake of events in the Middle East. Countries have set plans for nuclear power to ensure their energy security. This is notwithstanding many experts' argument that energy efficiency should be the first and more cost-effective effort, and the calls to explore the potential of renewable sources such as geothermal energy.

China is speeding up construction plans for nuclear power plants, especially in its southern provinces including Guangdong. Across Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are moving towards nuclear power while Malaysia and Singapore are open to the possibility. None have experience in nuclear power generation on this scale.

China has 13 working reactors delivering some 11 gigawatts; it has not had a major nuclear disaster so far. But its plants occasionally leak, such as during the incident last year at Shenzhen's Daya Bay plant. Looking ahead, China's plans are to expand its production of nuclear-generated power to at least 40GW by 2015 and 70GW by 2020 - enough to power Spain. And with the country's growing hunger for energy, the goal might even increase exponentially to 400GW by 2050.

This would rank China's nuclear programme as among the most ambitious building drives on record, and such rapid expansion can strain the capacity to build and manage plants safely.

The plans of some Southeast Asian nations are on a smaller scale, but are also based on a rushed timescale. Vietnam is committed to building two plants by 2021, the first by Russians and the second by Japanese. Another eight more plants are being proposed, according to sources.

In Indonesia, lawmakers have approved the steps towards nuclear power, notwithstanding protests and popular concerns. Thailand, too, has been stepping up preparations after some initial delays, to aim for the first plant by 2020.

The Japanese situation is a sharp reminder to be humble in the face of the risks and to bring a pause to breakneck ambitions. Countries that have been exposed to earthquakes - especially Indonesia, but also some provinces in China - would be well served to look again at safety issues. Even for countries without seismic activity, there are cautionary lessons about risk management. This is especially as many do not have the high safety culture that Japan has.

This is not to say that no nuclear power plants should or can be built. But following the Japan quake and tsunami, there must be a welcome and renewed awareness of the risks, and greater deliberation in the process.

The appropriate response is for greater transparency and consultation within each society, and also with neighbouring states that could be affected. In the wake of the latest happenings, Chinese authorities have already responded by announcing that they will strengthen the evaluation of their plans.

There are gains to be made from greater regional co-operation. These include safeguards, financing and questions of nuclear liability and insurance. Issues of relations between governments and nuclear energy suppliers who will build and perhaps operate the plants also need to be discussed. Only when all this is done - and seen to be done by their populations - can Asian governments expect their people to have sufficient confidence in bureaucrats' nuclear dreams.

The task of getting such a buy-in will now be even more difficult, and not just in Asia where online forums are already abuzz. In Europe, policymakers such as those in Britain are braced for stronger opposition to nuclear plans.

The Japanese have lived with energy insecurity for many decades. In tandem with establishing Japan as a world leader in energy efficiency and alternative energy, they have developed their nuclear energy capabilities over the decades with what appear to be the strictest safeguards - although fresh doubts are being cast by the Japanese media and international groups.

In the wake of the tragic quake and unfolding nuclear concerns in Japan, other Asian countries that wish to pursue the reward of nuclear power must be advised to take the time to ensure they meet the highest standards.

Even if they do, they and their people must also understand, and be prepared, that even the highest standards may still not prove to be enough.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This article first appeared in Singapore's Today newspaper