Nuclear revival raises fears
Some nations building reactors have poor industrial safety records.
Published January 13, 2008
VIENNA, Austria - Global warming and rocketing oil prices are making nuclear power fashionable, drawing a once demonized industry out of the shadows of the Chernobyl disaster as a potential shining knight of clean energy.
Britain is the latest to recommit itself to the energy source, with its government announcing support Thursday for the construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants produce around 20 percent of Britain's electricity, but all but one are due to close by 2023.
However, some countries hopping on the nuclear bandwagon have abysmal industrial safety records and corrupt ways that give many pause for thought.
China has 11 nuclear plants and plans to bring more than 30 others online by 2020. And a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report projects that it may need to add as many as 200 reactors by 2050.
Of the more than 100 nuclear reactors now being built, planned or on order, about half 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 came under fire 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 will be 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.
The revival, the International Atomic Energy Agency projects, means that nuclear energy could nearly double within two decades to 691 gigawatts - 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."
Philippe Jamet, director of nuclear installation safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency, describes the industry's record as "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, and IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says his organization cannot be the main guarantor of safety.
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, for instance, thousands die annually in the world's most dangerous coal mines and thousands more in fires, explosions and other accidents often blamed on insufficient safety equipment and workers ignoring safety rules.
"Are there special concerns about the developing world? The answer is definitely yes," said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert with the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Corrupt officials in licensing and supervisory agencies in the region could undermine the best of IAEA guidelines and oversight, Thayer said.
[Last modified January 13, 2008, 01:31:09]
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