Debate, protest, and radiation leaks continue unabated as countries decide which side of the nuclear power fence they are on. Fukushima, one year on.
By CHRISTINE LOH
Hong Kong, March 2012
Police officers wearing radioactive protection gear search through debris for missing people in the Ukedo area, 7km from the Fukushima plant, on 19 February, 2012. - Photo: Getty Images
THE Japanese earthquake and the powerful tsunami that immediately followed on 11 March, 2011, resulted in terrifying consequences that continue to be widely reported. On top of all the deaths, injuries and property loss is the much-publicised radiation leakage from the crippled nuclear plants at Fukushima. While the four old reactors did shut down as designed, the subsequent power outage caused by the tsunami resulted in a failure of the cooling systems that eventually led to a major discharge of radiation. Large numbers of people were evacuated and the surrounding land and water were contaminated. The legacy of the catastrophe will remain with us for a long while.
The Fukushima event happened 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 – much of it in Asia – on top of the 390GW already supplying about 14 percent of the world’s electricity. The renewed interest was a result of both technological advances in nuclear power generation as well as the pressure of rising energy demand and competition for traditional fossil fuels across the world.
The Fukushima event happened 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 – much of it in Asia
Fukushima brought an emphatic pause. Four perspectives immediately emerged from the ensuing debate. The first held that nuclear energy was diabolically unsafe. The second point of view was that while nuclear energy may be safe, the long-term risks were just too high if something went wrong. The third position was that nuclear energy may be moderately safe but the nuclear industry, governments and regulators could be trusted to manage risks responsibly. The fourth viewpoint averred nuclear energy was entirely safe and systems and institutions operating and regulating it could be effectively managed.
A year after Fukushima, the positions have been more sharply polarised. One camp underlines the risk and has withdrawn all support for nuclear energy; the other focuses on more and better safety reviews to reduce risk. Fukushima has proved a watershed in dividing opinion around the world with serious consequences for nuclear development and the extension of power to the people.
Prior to Fukushima, 30 percent of Japan’s electricity was nuclear even though Japan is located in one of the world’s most active seismic zones. Today, most of the country’s nuclear plants have been switched off and are idling. Japan has had to go on a massive energy diet just to have enough power to keep necessary activities ticking which, in the world’s third largest economy, is an enormous challenge. In October 2011 the Japanese government published a White Paper stating that Japan’s dependency on nuclear energy would be reduced as much as possible in the medium and long term and that a new energy policy would be developed by mid-2012.
Even more aggressive is Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, whose reliance on nuclear energy was 23 percent in 2010. It is withdrawing completely from nuclear power by 2022. The German decision effectively insures the country against any future radiation fallout, and is based on the belief that a non-nuclear future is possible with less risky alternatives like wind and solar power.
The decision was not without controversy. Opponents argued nuclear energy was necessary to mitigate climate change and deliver a secure energy system. Before it can fill the energy gap, however, Germany has to burn more coal and import more electricity from France (where most of the electricity is nuclear sourced). The German decision represents a trade-off between potential risk versus lowered energy security.
Supporters of nuclear energy development essentially look at the other side of the equation – that risks can be managed. Fukushima caused many reviews of existing nuclear energy safety practices and governance procedures around the world. For example, the US looked at all of its operating plants and how they could deal with power losses or damage to large areas surrounding a reactor site following extreme events. The US nuclear regulator concluded that all its reactors would be within the margin of safety even if affected by extreme events (although a few plants have to do a better job). The UK regulator stressed nuclear power was safer than it has ever been and there was no reason to curtail the operation of nuclear power plants in Britain. It made wide-ranging recommendations following lessons learned from Fukushima.
The British government solidified its support for eight new nuclear plants last year on the basis that they could be operated safely and that nuclear power was important for Britain to achieve its carbon reduction goals. The US just approved two new reactors in February 2012. France already generates 74 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources and it is not cutting back. China – now the world’s biggest carbon emitter – had the largest nuclear expansion plan prior to Fukushima. Its government will publish later this year a series of policy reports on the scale and pace of further expansion, better safety, and improved nuclear governance.
Apart from Japan and Mainland China, other Asian nuclear jurisdictions are Taiwan, South Korea, India and Pakistan. Taiwan has three nuclear plants providing about nine percent of its electricity and is moving ahead to finish construction of a fourth one. South Korea currently relies on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its electricity and is planning to expand it to about 60 percent by 2040. While nuclear energy only supplies a few percent of India’s electricity, the plan is to expand it to 25 percent by 2050. Pakistan has major expansion plans too. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand all have nuclear ambitions, with Vietnam planning two plants.
How is new nuclear energy development going to be financed? In Britain, new facilities are expected to be developed with private sector investment without government subsidy, while the US administration has offered conditional loan guarantees for the two recently approved reactors. 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 the Daya Bay plant in Guangdong that was initially financed through selling 70 percent of its electricity to Hong Kong. In Asia, the government has to play a major role one way or another.
Hong Kong has been buying nuclear power from the Daya Bay nuclear plant located in Guangdong province since 1994, representing 23 percent of the city’s electricity. Daya Bay is China’s first commercial scale nuclear plant
Irrespective of who owns the investment, in the event of a serious accident, Fukushima serves as a reminder that compensation could be enormous. Thus, governments have to be involved, which means public resources are involved.
Public and very vocal opposition to nuclear energy will make it harder for governments to push ahead and for private investors to finance nuclear development, but the degree of public acceptance of nuclear power differs from country to country. Where reactors are sited also makes a difference – when proposed sites are near existing reactors, they tend to be more acceptable. In the case of the two newly approved reactors in the US, they are located close to an existing nuclear plant in Georgia.
One of the most interesting places to watch is Hong Kong – a special administrative region within China. Though it has no nuclear plants in the territory, the existence of such plants in the neighbourhood, across the border in Guangdong, raises a number of issues. Thus, even while the Germans are withdrawing from nuclear power generation on home soil, they will maintain a keen interest in how neighbours assess and manage nuclear risks.
Hong Kong has been buying nuclear power from the Daya Bay nuclear plant located in Guangdong province since 1994, representing 23 percent of the city’s electricity. Daya Bay is China’s first commercial scale nuclear plant. A private Hong Kong electric utility listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange owns 25 percent of that investment.
The Hong Kong government proposed in 2010 to recalibrate the city’s fuel mix to increase imported nuclear electricity to 50 percent of local consumption by 2020. By also increasing supplies of natural gas to local power plants, Hong Kong could decrease its coal use to well below 10 percent, thereby enabling the city to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint.
With the Chinese government about to announce its future plans for the expansion of nuclear energy, and with a new local administration to take power in Hong Kong on 1 July, 2012, Hong Kong has to decide what its position is with respect to nuclear energy. In view of the fact that Hong Kong’s neighbour, Guangdong province, already has several nuclear reactors and is building more (half of all the plants being built currently in China are in Guangdong), Hong Kong should take an active interest in nuclear safety and nuclear governance irrespective of how much nuclear electricity it imports.
Green groups have argued that Hong Kong should not import any more electricity than it already does. By increasing natural gas imports instead of nuclear electricity, Hong Kong’s energy needs can still be satisfied, although it will miss its carbon emissions reduction target. The easiest option for Hong Kong’s new administration is to adopt what the green groups want because it will be the least controversial. The problem is it will miss out on the major issue of nuclear risk management.
Hong Kong already uses a lot of nuclear electricity. There are two major nuclear plants within 30km of eastern Hong Kong and within 50km of the city centre. These plants are not far from densely populated areas in Guangdong where Hong Kong people have invested in many businesses. Even if Hong Kong were to import zero electricity from Guangdong’s nuclear grid, it has a major interest in risk assessment and management across its border.
At a minimum, Hong Kong must increase its understanding of not only the basic features of nuclear power operation and the many mandatory safety systems, but also of issues such as accident prevention, mitigation, and evacuation. This requires the people and the city government to truly explore what is in their best long-term interest as they reflect on the lessons of Fukushima.
Christine Loh is the CEO of non-profit think tank Civic Exchange. She is a former legislator and was a commodities trader prior to that. Christine has been keenly involved with several NGOs, including environmental groups and human rights organizations.
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