Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Re-examining the mighty atom

24 MARCH 2011: The earthquake-tsunami double whammy wrought huge physical and financial destruction in Japan but the real fallout will be far wider as countries respond to the Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis. Writing in The Guardian, John Vidal predicts a daunting future for nuclear energy. Aside from having had “three catastrophic failures in 25 years and dozens more close shaves… the world has a generation of reactors coming to the end of their days and politicians [are] putting intense pressure on regulators to extend their use well beyond their design lives.” He identifies “more than 100 reactors sited in areas of high seismic activity.”

China said it is watching events at Fukushima very closely, but would not change its current course. A few days later China suspended approvals on nuclear plants. India will stay on track with its nuclear power plans. Jyoti Thottam from Time Magazine believes that aside from worrying about where its future nuclear power plants are located, India should focus on “how well equipped its public health and safety agencies are to deal with any natural disaster.”

The immediate US reaction in Japan was to advise Americans within a 50 mile radius of the Fukushima plant to evacuate. A writer in the New York Times argues: “Why wouldn’t a worst-case accident [in America] merit the same caution? The difficulty, of course, is that some plants are within 50 miles of millions of people.”

Christopher Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, describes how new and improved nuclear reactor designs have been “officially adopted in China for all inland nuclear projects where earthquake risks are more prevalent.” He also calls for regulators in vulnerable countries, to “candidly assess” their ability to cope with similar crises.

Reports from a recent national opinion poll in the UK show support for nuclear power dropping by 12 percent. However, writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot offers a contrarian viewpoint. He argues that the alternative to nuclear power is not green energy so commonly championed, but fossil fuel: “On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power”. He concludes, “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small.”

World opinion is more cautious. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Paula Simons quotes a senior economist as saying: "When it comes to designing for earthquakes, nobody does it better than Japan, and still this happens. It will definitely set back enthusiasm for nuclear power." Brahma Chellaney comments in the Khaleej Times: “Fukushima is likely to stunt the appeal of nuclear power in a way similar to the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, not to mention the far more severe meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986”. He closes with the wry footnote: “If the fallout from those incidents is a reliable guide, nuclear power’s advocates will eventually be back.” – Kanishk Verghese