The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan is sending shockwaves through nuclear planning agencies around the world. Policy makers are asking for reviews of safety regulations, publics are expressing concern, and it appears likely that some of the planned construction will be curtailed. The politics of nuclear power is likely to be more contentious even in places where public support has been strong (or irrelevant). As a result, in the coming decade, nuclear power may make less of a contribution to the mitigation of carbon emissions than it otherwise might have, (though even before the current crisis its role in overcoming the climate change challenge was a minor one). Below are thumbnail sketches of how the discussion of nuclear energy is unfolding in key countries where plans for growth are most significant.
Analysis by Yun Zhou, Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow
The Fukushima tragedy really gave the Chinese a serious wake up call on the importance of nuclear safety. Currently, China has 13 reactor units in operation and 28 units under construction. Although the Chinese government quickly claimed China would not change its plan for developing nuclear power projects right after the Fukushima crisis began on 12th March, the latest news shows the Chinese government taking actions to strengthen its nuclear safety at reactors in operation and under construction. On 16 March, China decided to conduct a comprehensive safety inspection for every nuclear facility. In the meantime, China will update current nuclear safety regulations and guidelines based on the lessons learned in Fukushima accidents. Nuclear projects which do not comply with the new safety regulation and requirements will be suspended or terminated. In addition, China will adjust “its medium and long nuclear energy development plan” and stop approving new nuclear power projects before the updated nuclear safety regulation and guideline are released.
While the Chinese government emphasized its resolution to pursue a massive development of nuclear energy, the public is obviously worrying about the radiation from Japan and the nuclear safety culture in China. The general public has huge concerns on potential radiation hazards from Japan and, in some cities people have already started wearing paper face-masks for precautionary purposes. Internet users spent a lot of time blogging and in group forums discussing the Fukushima incident and its consequences. More and more people are just learning of China’s ambitious nuclear energy plan, which they did not pay much attention to before the Fukushima nuclear incident. Public concerns about nuclear safety could lead to questions about whether China can maintain sound nuclear safety culture and practices in light of on China’s poor construction safety record.
Analysis by Simon Saradzhyan, Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and member of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism
Both the Russian public and political leadership have expressed sympathy for the tragedy unfolding in Japan. Russia offered to help Japan in the form of additional supplies of energy. Moscow has also offered to dispatch its nuclear specialists, including those who were involved in tackling the Chernobyl crisis.
As for Russia’s own response to the nuclear accidents in Japan, the Ministry of Emergency Situations has conducted exercises to manage the impact of a nuclear meltdown in Japan on Russia’s Far East while the Russian state nuclear energy corporation “Rosatom” issued a statement to assure residents of the region that their health would not be affected even in the case of reactor meltdowns in neighboring Japan. The Ministry of Defense has also designed plans to evacuate the population from the coastal areas in that region if needed. So far, the level of radiation has gone up only slightly in Russia’s Far East so, although the local population is concerned, they are not panicking. As important, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered safety inspections at Russian nuclear facilities and checks and a review of nuclear industry development plans. But none of the latter have been suspended inside Russia and I don’t expect them to be reversed even if a nuclear meltdown does occur in Japan, primarily because Russia is not a liberal democracy and the reaction of the public does not have such a strong and immediate impact on political decision-making. However, some adjustment in the form of extra safety measures should be expected, especially given the upcoming federal elections (both the December 2011 elections to the federal parliament and the March 2012 presidential poll), which traditionally make the government more sensitive to public sentiments.
As for the Russian nuclear industry’s multi-billion dollar foreign contracts – these may indeed be affected. So far neither Turkey nor Armenia nor other countries, which have clinched deals with Russia to have Rosatom build nuclear power plants, show any inclination to walk away from them. But I do expect some of the nuclear power tenders, where Russia is competing, to be cancelled or put on hold until those in charge of procurement come up with new set of safety requirements for design, production, and maintenance.
Analysis by Sungyeol Choi, Research Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom
South Korea, which is currently operating 21 nuclear power plants and constructing 5 more units, is not very likely to change its whole nuclear power policy in response to the unfolding crisis in Japan. Nuclear power is currently supplying almost 40% of national electricity, and there are no viable short- and mid-term alternatives. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak emphasized Korea’s nuclear safety and emergency planning in response to the Japanese nuclear accident. In a Congressional debate with the Deputy Minister of Education, Science and Technology on 14 March, members underlined that safety features in nuclear power plants must be improved to be sustained even in an extreme earthquake and tsunami. Some congressional members argued that nuclear regulation and safety culture, including a detailed action plan for contingencies beyond a design basis accident, should be thoroughly reviewed and improved.
Nevertheless, nuclear power will face harsh time in South Korea. There is great public concern already appearing in the news at several media outlets. The general public in South Korea is terrified enough by the nuclear accident in neighboring Japan. Some local residents at a potential site for a small modular reactor have begun to oppose the construction of the demonstration plant. Public opinion on nuclear issues could be a key factor in the 2012 South Korean presidential election. South Korea’s nuclear safety concerns also include nuclear programs in the United Arab Emirates where it has agreed to sell nuclear power plants, and in China and North Korea where accidents would directly impact South Korean people. The government may seek to strengthen nuclear safety cooperation with these countries.
Analysis by Karthika Sasikumar, Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow
India has 20 functioning nuclear plants—of which only two are aging General Electric Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) of the type that are in peril in Japan—supplying around 3 percent of the country’s energy needs. But demands for energy are soaring, along with India’s 8 percent annual GDP growth. Trying to overcome its dependence on oil imports, India turned to nuclear power, announcing that 20 GW of nuclear power generating capability would be added by 2020 and 63 GW by 2032.
The Japanese tragedy has prompted a renewed focus on nuclear safety, which had been somewhat marginalized until now in the rush to secure India’s entry into the commercial nuclear technology market.
Journalists crowded into a press conference in Mumbai on March 14, where the top brass of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) leaders assured them that Indian nuclear plants are safe.1 The Indian Parliament is in session, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who staked his government’s survival on the civil nuclear deal with the United States, was obliged to make a statement. He assured the nation that the safety features of the BWRs had been upgraded after recent safety audits. He promised an “immediate technical review of all safety systems” of Indian power plants, with a particular focus on dealing with earthquakes and tsunamis.2 Singh’s statement indicates that the emerging nuclear market in India will now face a few more hurdles. At Jaitapur in Maharashtra, on the Arabian Sea coast, a proposed 9900 MW plant reported to be the largest in the world received environmental clearances a few months ago.3 The Environment Minister yesterday suggested that these clearances will be reviewed.4
Anti-nuclear activists, whose voices have been enfeebled by the long decades of official secrecy (often justified by the weapons-related aspects of the nuclear power program) and public disinterest, see the Japanese disaster as a chance to make their case. “What has happened in Japan has only increased the determination of people to oppose the Jaitapur project. People across the board will now be asking questions citing the events that happened in Japan and Chernobyl,” said Vivek Monteiro of the Konkan Bachao Samiti, which has been leading the agitation against the Jaitapur plant.5 The opposition is not restricted to NGOs, either. The Communist parties and the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party both criticized the government’s embrace of nuclear power and called for more stringent standards.
In the past, nuclear plans have forged ahead in spite of qualms about safety. There has never been an organized “Green” opposition to nuclear power. India’s eastern coast was hard hit by the 2004 tsunami, but reactors at the Kalpakkam power plant were successfully shut down and restarted operations days later. However, the impact of the graphic images from Fukushima is being felt by the increasingly media-saturated urban elite. There will be concerns about technology and managerial systems that fail in a wealthy, technologically-advanced and orderly society like Japan.
After the radioactive dust settles, India will look to Japan for lessons learned. But the shortfall in energy availability will remain an issue that demands a speedy solution. Responding to the events, former Chairman of the AEC Anil Kakodkar stressed that nuclear and solar energy were India’s best options to overcome power scarcity. A greater investment in research and development in renewable energy sector may be the best outcome from the unfolding tragedy in Japan.
Analysis by Mahsa Rouhi, Nuclear Security Predoctoral Fellow
The explosions in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant caused by earthquake and tsunami have provoked serious concerns about the safety of nuclear facilities in different countries. There have been extended controversies over nuclear safety in Iran. This issue has prompted reactions and responses from Iranian officials, media and general public, though since the issue is so politically sensitive, I think everyone is cautious in raising concerns now. Since Iran is an earthquake-prone country, there is a great deal of sympathy towards the tragic events in Japan as well as a widespread alarm and concern with regard to the safety measures in place at the Bushehr reactor should Iran face an earthquake of high magnitude.
President Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have stated that the Bushehr reactor meets all necessary safety standards, and this has been confirmed by the IAEA on various occasions. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has also given assurances about the safety standards of Bushehr reactor. A technical response to the news from Japan was published on the Fars News Agency website explaining why Bushehr is different from Fukushima. Although Iran is an earthquake prone country, the geological studies of the Bushehr reactor site indicate that an 8.9 magnitude earthquake is unlikely to happen. Although the highest estimate would be in the range of a 4-5 magnitude earthquake, initial safety planning for Bushehr considers the possibility of up to a magnitude 7 earthquake. Moreover, it was the tsunami and not the earthquake that mainly caused the damage to Japan’s nuclear facilities and Iran has no oceanfront and thus is immune to the dangers of a tsunami.
It is notable that the majority of media responses argue that the current debate on the safety issue in Iran is more political than technical. Some websites such as Khabaronline raise public concern over this issue and ask for a more detailed response from officials. The Khabaronline piece also argues that although the situation in Japan shows that the costs of having nuclear energy are higher than expected given such risks, this does not to change the cost-benefit calculations for the development of nuclear energy in Iran in a foreseeable future. Therefore, it seems unlikely at this point that the officials will plan to revise the current plans for the Bushehr nuclear facility in the light of Japan’s experience.