January 14, 2008

With Nuclear Rebirth Come New Worries

Both global warming and rising oil prices are making nuclear power more fashionable, drawing a once demonized industry out of the darkness of the Chernobyl disaster as a potential shining knight of clean energy.

Britain is the latest country to recommit itself to the energy source, announcing support Thursday for the construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is responsible for about 20 percent of Britain's electricity, but all except one are due to close by 2023.

China has 11 nuclear plants and plans to build more than 30 in the next 10 to 15 years. And a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report projects that it may need to add as many as 200 reactors by 2050. Nearly half of all 100 nuclear reactors that are in production or on order are in China, India and other developing nations.

Argentina, Brazil and South Africa plan to expand existing programs; and Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt and Turkey are among the countries considering building their first reactors. The concerns are hardly limited to developing countries. Japan's nuclear power industry has yet to recover from revelations five years ago of dozens of cases of false reporting on the inspections of nuclear reactor cracks.

The Swedish operators of a German reactor were attacked last summer for delays in informing the public about a fire at the plant. And a potentially disastrous partial breakdown of a Bulgarian nuclear plant's emergency shutdown mechanism in 2006 went unreported for two months until whistle-blowers made it public.

Nuclear transparency poses an even greater problem for countries such as China that have tight government controls on information. Those who mistrust the current nuclear revival are still haunted by the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor and the Soviet Union's attempts to hide the full extent of the catastrophe. Further back in the collective memory is the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

The International Atomic Energy Agency theorizes that nuclear energy could nearly double within two decades. That will be 13.3 percent of all electricity generated. "We are facing a nuclear renaissance," Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of the French nuclear energy firm Areva, told an energy conference. "Nuclear's not the devil any more. The devil is coal."

The International Atomic Energy Agency describes that, even with countries that are new to nuclear power or still learning to use it efficiently and learning from their mistakes, the industry is "second to none."

The Vienna-based IAEA, a U.N. body, was set up in 1957 in large part to limit such trial and error, providing quality controls and expertise to countries with nuclear programs and overseeing pacts binding them to high safety standards. But the agency is already stretched with monitoring Iran and North Korea over their suspected nuclear arms programs. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says his organization cannot be the main guarantor of safety. The primary responsibility, he says, rests with the operators of a nuclear facility and their government. Developing nations insist they are ready for the challenge. But worries persist that bad habits of the past could reflect on nuclear operational safety.

In China thousands die annually in the world's most dangerous coal mines. Thousands more die in fires, explosions and other accidents usually blamed on lack of safety equipment and workers ignoring safety rules. China media stated on Saturday that nearly 3800 people died in coal mine accidents last year. Although that is a 20 percent decrease from 2006, their mines remain the world's worst.

Countries with nuclear power are supposed to report all incidents to the IAEA. But the study shows that most Asian governments vastly underreport industrial accidents to the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. China, among others, reports fewer than 1 percent of its industrial accidents.

Separately, China and India shared 70th place in the 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by the Transparency International think tank that ranked 163 nations, with the least corrupt first and the most last. Vietnam occupied the 111th spot, and Indonesia came in 130th.

"Are there special concerns about the developing world? The answer is definitely yes," said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert with the Australian Defense Force Academy. Corrupt officials in licensing and supervisory agencies in the region could undermine the best of IAEA guidelines and oversight, Thayer said. "There could be a dropping of standards, and that affects all aspects of the nuclear industry, from buying the material, to processing applications to building and running the plant."

A Vienna-based diplomat whose portfolio includes nuclear issues reported that in the 1990s the Canadian government offered India troubleshooting information for its reactors, but the Indians "did not want to know about it." The diplomat, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information, said: "It reflected the attitude that national pride is more important than safety."

Another major problem is the storage of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years. Shutting down plants that are no longer safe is another hazard. In China, permanent dump sites are not expected to be operational before 2040, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy. So for now, China - like India - stores the waste in temporary sites, usually close to reactors, where it is more vulnerable to theft and poses a greater environmental danger.

Nuclear proponents say new generations of reactors now on the drawing board come with better fail-safe mechanisms and fewer moving parts. But even some of these supporters are skeptical about creating the foolproof reactor.