The nuclear dilemma
It is still hard to draw attention to a new topic when the country hasn’t gotten anything done involving the April 16 Sewol ferry sinking, beyond an agreement to pass a special law to thoroughly investigate the incident. But other problems are close upon us as neither time nor the world will wait. Across the sea, Japan is socially and politically divided over whether to continue to use nuclear power in the country after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.
The country shut down all 48 reactors for safety checks under toughened regulations. But Tokyo abandoned the plan to increase nuclear’s share of the country’s energy use to 40 percent from 30 percent and pledged to phase out nuclear power until pro-growth and pro-nuclear energy Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. When he promised to restart idled plants, he was challenged by former and incumbent politicians, including Abe’s former boss and political mentor Junichiro Koizumi. The former prime minister, who had been highly popular during his five years in office through 2006, joined with ex-premier Morihiro Hosokawa, who while running for Tokyo’s mayoral post in February adopted a nuclear-free policy as his main platform. Naoto Kan, the prime minister who served during the Fukushima crisis, and his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama also support the zero-nuclear campaign.
They all raised their voices after the Nuclear Regulation Authority declared that Kyushu Electric Power Company’s two reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Station passed tougher safety tests and are ready to restart. Adding to the feud, a former power company executive confessed he has been making secret political donations to Japanese prime ministers for nearly two decades. Despite political risk and public protests - with most of the population favoring a phase-out policy - local authorities began handing out iodine tablets for protection from radiation to residents living within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the Sendai plant.
The 2011 Fukushima disaster dealt a setback no less shocking to power companies around the globe that had high hopes for a renaissance of nuclear to replace fossil fuels amid concerns about global warming and tougher environmental regulations. At the time, I wrote a book titled “Nuclear Dilemma.” Japan’s flip-flop underscores how difficult nuclear power policy can be.
South Korea faces a similar dilemma. It is not easy to further pursue expansion of nuclear reactors, although the country cannot yet meet power consumption demand with existing grids. It also must urgently address the flood of spent nuclear fuel, but can’t make up its mind whether it should be recycled or discarded.
Prospects for the industry are mixed. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 31 countries are operating 436 nuclear reactors, with an additional 71 under construction, 172 under review and 309 proposed. So far, the industry is still on an upswing. The United States is running 100 nuclear plants and constructing five more. France is operating 58 and building one. Japan is constructing two to add to its existing 48. Russia has 33 and is building 10. Korea has 23 plants with five under construction, ranking fourth in the world in generation capacity.
China is quickly catching up. Its active reactors have surged to 21 with 29 under construction, 57 planned and 118 under review. With 40 percent of all under-construction reactors in the world, China likely will soon rank in the top tier in power generation. Sooner or later, a nuclear cluster along the coastlines of Northeast Asia will be unavoidable. The number of countries with nuclear power technology soon will total 48, 35 of them with weapon-making ability.
Germany, Switzerland and Belgium are going in the opposite direction. They declared phase-out policies in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and acted on them following the Japanese catastrophe in 2011. They are rich countries in terms of per capita income. Both Switzerland and Belgium rely heavily on imports and nuclear power for energy resources. Still, they can afford to invest in other renewable energies and are highly advanced in the technologies. They are on a path to meet the European Union target of having renewables account for 20 percent of energy consumption. Their societies also highly value public safety and the environment.
Two new research studies stand out since the Fukushima accident - a study on seismic activity and on population density in regions near nuclear complexes around the world. Japan is in the danger zone of the first study and South Korea of the latter. With memories of major nuclear accidents still fresh, more safety actions must be taken to ease anxieties in residential areas close to nuclear generators.
Odds of a nuclear accident are often compared to the risk of an airplane crash. There is a big difference. We see plane accidents as probable and take them in stride, but dread to imagine a nuclear accident. We cannot do without planes to travel long distance; electricity can be secured from other sources. We are partly in control and responsible for car accidents. Civilians don’t have such control or say in nuclear power. Residents often find themselves living in the vicinity of nuclear reactors regardless of their will.
Nuclear power is atypical danger-prone technology that accompanies a conflict of developmental and environmental interests. There is no simple answer because it must incorporate sociocultural, economic, political, historical, diplomatic, geopolitical and geographical factors. Public confidence in the government and public policy is, therefore, crucial.
To build trust, one must be consistent, predictable, accurate, honest and transparent in communication.
At the same time, the leadership must invite the public to work toward a common goal and shared cause by allowing society a greater role. There may be a way out of our nuclear dilemma if we have such leadership.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 9, Page 27
* The author is former environment minister.
BY Kim Myung-ja