[Viewpoint] Science: not a finite frontier

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[Viewpoint] Science: not a finite frontier

The catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan is a scientific irony: the world watches as green energy is being turned into an atomic weapon.

This situation is like the two faces of Janus, the Greek god of beginnings and transitions. It is tragic that the only country in the world to have been bombed with nuclear weapons is now being exposed to radiation. The Japanese people’s sorrow and distrust cannot be measured. When and how the magma of rage will explode?

Yasuhiro Nakasone, former prime minister of Japan, is probably feeling the most devastated. He is the architect of Japan’s nuclear energy policy.

Only seven years into his political career, Nakasone led the initiative to approve the budget for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in 1954. At the time, the Japanese people were still suffering from the cruel aftermath of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anti-nuclear and anti-American sentiment had reached a peak and many called it a “devil’s budget.”

Amidst such obstacles, Nakasone laid a foundation for nuclear energy development. He sponsored eight bills on nuclear energy. His actions prompted the government to open an agency for atomic energy policy and establish the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute and Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

Nakasone’s belief in nuclear energy began when he became aware of the might of nuclear power after the United States’ atomic bombings of the country. He realized that without science and technology, Japan would remain an inferior agricultural country. He did not miss U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech in 1953. Matsutaro Shoriki, then the Yomiuri Shimbun owner, supported Japan’s policy to develop atomic energy. Through the media, a massive campaign to promote the policy took place. The popular comic “Astro Boy” also appeared at this time.

Even after he retired from politics, Nakasone continued to support the issue. In 2006, he gave a lecture on the 50th anniversary of Ibaraki Prefecture’s atomic energy industry. “The most important thing we can do to prevent an accident is do constant inspections. We must be fully prepared for an earthquake or terrorist attack. The nuclear reactors are now about 30 years old. Will they be safe if we are hit with a 6- or 7-magnitude earthquake? It is urgent that we reinforce the facilities to prepare for such emergencies.”

The Fukushima nuclear plant is now 40 years old. The solon who had made Japan the world’s top nuclear power after the Untied States and France must feel heartbroken at the current situation there.

The current nuclear crisis will likely create strong repercussions. In 2008, Japan supplied 26 percent of its power through nuclear energy. That amount was to be increased to 49 percent by 2030. The plan, however, will inevitably be reconsidered. And it will not be easy to overcome public resistance against a plan to build 14 new reactors.

Two years ago, the cabinet conducted an opinion poll and 42 percent of respondents said they felt confident about safety, while 54 percent said they felt insecure.

Japan remembers the nuclear bombings and terrifying aftermath. Memories of that horrible time have been handed down through the generations.

The catastrophe in Fukushima has put a serious damper on the global nuclear energy renaissance. New construction projects have been postponed and existing plants have suspended operation.

There are also growing concerns in Korea. As of now, Korea supplies 31.4 percent of the country’s power with 21 reactors. That amount was to be increased to 48.5 percent with 35 reactors by 2024.

But it is impossible to turn back time. The 19th century was the era of coal and the 21st century was the era of petroleum. Global warming is the product of both. If we suspend nuclear energy use and turn to fossil fuels, we will be taking a step backward.

Coal and petroleum will run out quickly. Are we ready for skyrocketing oil prices? How will we reduce carbon emissions?

Commercialization of wind and solar power generation is far away. Korea lacks natural resources, so it will be hard to find an alternative to nuclear energy. Electricity from nuclear power is the pillar of Korea’s industrialization.

The key is safety. Our nuclear plants must be safe from earthquakes and tsunamis. We need to develop advanced reactors with emergency systems that pump cooling agents onto the nuclear fuel rods. And we must remember that science is a frontier with no limits.

*The writer is editor of foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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