Nuclear power not ideal but it may still be best bet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

The nuclear industry's credibility has been seriously undermined with the explosions at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power station. Just as nuclear power was enjoying a renaissance after decades apparently trouble-free, the prospect of switching to carbon-neutral reactors as an alternative to polluting fossil fuels suddenly seems less attractive to many. In the space of a week, all of the fears and doubts that had gradually subsided in the decades since the Chernobyl disaster have re-emerged. Even Beijing is reacting to concern and has suspended approvals for new plants and ordered a review of its plan.

Given that the nation has so much invested in nuclear energy, it seems unlikely the authorities would shelve these plans. Design, construction and safety standards have improved markedly since the Fukushima reactor was built 40 years ago. And there is no suggestion of problems with mainland facilities. Still, Japan's crisis is reason to redouble inspections, review and, if necessary, revise.

If the crisis was in a far-flung country with low standards, there would be less concern. The world's worst nuclear accident happened almost 25 years ago in such a place, Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The lesson was that well-built, properly maintained reactors and sound emergency systems would prevent a repeat. A country as sophisticated and famed for its technology as Japan was seen as the ideal site to operate nuclear power plants.

That it has seemingly been so overwhelmed by the current crisis has come as a shock, even if some of the reporting has been wildly exaggerated. As a result, what appeared to be a global embrace of nuclear power is faltering. That's especially so in nations on the verge of breaking ground on their first nuclear projects since the 1970s. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed the sentiment best, saying Japan's crisis 'is a turning point for the world'.

Japan got off to a bad start. The facility is one of the country's oldest and wasn't designed with an earthquake and tsunami of such magnitudes in mind. The snapping of water pipes for cooling led to unconventional contingencies - the flooding of the reactors with seawater is one example. That doesn't look good for an industry that has assured it's got the best possible emergency plans in place.

But with the lessons of Fukushima learned and proper safeguards in place, there seems little option for an energy-starved world than to press ahead with plans to build new reactors. Even if dire warnings of global warming through greenhouse gas emissions are discounted, there is wide agreement that extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels exacts a fearful environmental and human price. The appalling death toll in the nation's coal mines alone far exceeds any harm from the peaceful use of nuclear power so far.

There are other choices - hydro-electric, solar and wind among them - but they're either dependent on location or can't be counted on to provide baseload power at all times. Clearly, nuclear power carries risks. In a perfect world, we'd have less dangerous power sources, but researchers haven't yet found another that adequately meets our needs. There is one further lesson to be drawn from the current crisis - to exploit a technology as complex and potentially dangerous as nuclear power, it is essential all checks and balances of an open society are brought to bear to ensure that design and safety meet the highest standards. Even democratic Japan has come under fire for shortcomings in oversight and public disclosure. The review of the nation's nuclear programme should be open to the public.