Japanese Tsunami 2011
On March 11, 2011, a devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, claiming the lives of more than 15,000 people. It was the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world. In the aftermath, a state of emergency was declared following the failure of the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in the evacuation of nearby residents. Radiation levels inside the plant were up to 1,000 times normal levels, and those outside the plant were up to eight times normal levels.
The next chapter
The events at Fukushima took place at a time of global revival in nuclear power development, with an estimated 360 gigawatts of additional generating capacity projected to be developed by 2035, on top of the 390 GW already in use.
Technological advances in nuclear power played a part in the renewed interest, and so did nuclear's potential as a low-carbon energy source, providing security as the global competition for fossil fuels intensified.
Most relevant to Hong Kong were developments in China. By March 11, 2011, the day of the Fukushima accident, China had a substantial nuclear expansion programme already in place, with half the committed reactors located in Guangdong.
Hong Kong has been buying electricity from the Daya Bay nuclear plant across the border since 1994, which now meets 23per cent of the city's need. The government has proposed to increase the nuclear share to 50per cent by 2020. By also increasing the use of natural gas, Hong Kong could reduce coal use to below 10per cent of its energy mix, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
In the aftermath of the Japanese accident, the Chinese government put on hold the approval of new nuclear plants and announced a full safety review of existing plants, although its continuing commitment to nuclear energy was not in doubt. The review was completed in October last year. Beijing will soon publish the reports on nuclear energy safety, governance and expansion.
The Hong Kong government will obviously not push ahead with any plan of its own until Beijing's policies are clarified. The question is, should we view ourselves as a passive importer of nuclear electricity from Guangdong, or do we have a role to play in nuclear safety and governance as an importer, investor and, most importantly, as Guangdong's neighbour, since any major accident there could affect a large number of people in the whole region?
Four perspectives have emerged post Fukushima. First, nuclear energy is unsafe. Although Fukushima's old reactors shut down as designed after the earthquake, the subsequent power outage caused by the tsunami resulted in a failure of the cooling systems, eventually leading to a major release of radioactive materials across four reactors.
Second, nuclear energy is safe, but the residual risks are still too high when something goes wrong.
Third, nuclear energy can be safe but the nuclear industry, governments and regulators cannot be trusted to manage risks responsibly.
Fourth, nuclear energy is safe and systems and institutions operating and regulating it can be well-managed.
The post-Fukushima debate has led to two outcomes: withdraw support for nuclear energy, or improve safety and continue support.
Japan, Germany and Italy fall in the first group, emphasising the risks, while Britain, the US, France and China are among the second group, emphasising the need to fight climate change and achieve energy security.
Germany, for one, will increase its use of coal and import electricity from France. Britain, by contrast, is pushing ahead with eight new nuclear plants, while the US approved two new reactors last month. France, where 74per cent of its electricity is generated by nuclear power, is improving protection for nuclear plants, with further investments pledged.
Whichever the choice, there is a trade-off. Fukushima has led to a reversal of nuclear energy development in some countries, but others have ratcheted up their efforts. Many have also undertaken reviews of their safety procedures.
Among them, China has already announced supplementary safety measures. The US looked at how their plants would deal with power losses or damage to large areas of a reactor site following extreme events, and concluded that all but a few reactors would be safe. In Britain, while the government has stressed that nuclear power was safer than it has ever been, it has also identified lessons learned from Fukushima.
Countries have also adopted different ways to finance their nuclear plants. Britain will rely on the private sector without government subsidy, while the US administration has offered conditional loan guarantees. In China, the development, expansion and financing of nuclear energy is tightly controlled by the authorities but minority ownership of nuclear plants is possible, such as with Daya Bay.
Irrespective of who owns the investment, in the event of a serious accident, compensation could be enormous and public resources would be involved, as Fukushima served to remind us.
The degree of public acceptance of nuclear power differs from country to country. Hence, in some places, public opposition will make it hard for both government and private investors to push ahead. Where reactors are sited also makes a difference - when proposed sites are on or near existing reactors, people may be more amenable to further development, as was the case with the two new reactors just approved in the US.
Hong Kong cannot avoid taking a position on nuclear energy because it is already a major nuclear user, although this fact is not appreciated by many people. The government and public must take an interest because the outcome affects the city's energy future. This requires some understanding of energy issues and a basic literacy in nuclear issues.
Given that neighbouring Guangdong already has several nuclear reactors and is building more, Hong Kong should pay attention to nuclear safety and governance issues, irrespective of whether it imports nuclear power from the province.
At a minimum, Hong Kong should increase its understanding of not only the basic features of nuclear power operation and its many mandatory safety systems, but also significant safety issues such as accident prevention, mitigation and evacuation procedures.
At the same time, Hong Kong should explore how it could play a constructive role vis-a-vis China's oversight and development of nuclear power.
These are vital issues the next Hong Kong administration, and legislature to be elected in September, must get to grips with.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange, which has a longer report on the subject. firstname.lastname@example.org