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Fukushima nuclear disaster

World cannot escape the need for nuclear power plants

Climate change has shown the need for cleaner sources of energy; the challenge is to put safety first

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2016, 2:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2016, 2:18am

The Chernobyl disaster will always be a powerful argument for those opposed to nuclear power. Three decades after the explosion and meltdown of the plant’s fourth reactor, those exposed to the radioactive cloud in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia continue to suffer. The accident at Fukushima’s Dai-Ichi plant five years ago after the earthquake and tsunami did not cause as great a tragedy, but renewed the fears. They are constant reminders that no matter how necessary the energy source is at a time when cutting carbon emissions is so important, safety has to always be a priority.

China is acutely aware of that as it forges ahead with the world’s most ambitious nuclear programme. No other nation has embraced the energy source with such enthusiasm, nor set goals so ambitious to meet obligations agreed to at last year’s Paris climate change summit. The nation has 30 plants and another 24 are being constructed; programmes in Western nations remain frozen, have been scrapped or are tentatively moving forward. Beijing has a strong argument: despite the high cost, there is no more reliable or cleaner way of producing electricity.

Chernobyl taught that reactors have to be built, operated and maintained with a focus on safety. The plant’s design was flawed and on April 26, 1986, during testing of turbines, emergency systems failed, with catastrophic results. About 50 emergency workers died and thousands more deaths have been attributed to cancers. With 250,000 people evacuated, 200,000 sq km of land contaminated by radiation and the health impact still showing up in tumours, diseases and deformities in babies, the disaster remains a living reality for the region.

The Soviet Union tried to cover up the tragedy; Chernobyl was partly responsible for its demise. Transparency is as important with nuclear power plants as safety. Lessons have been learned with each accident and the result has been safer and better reactors. Many more are needed, along with ramped-up solar and wind programmes, to meet the challenge of climate change, but safety always has to come first.