Across the countries of Asia, the leaders of their nuclear industries have moved with the remote authority and mystique of brahmin or Shinto priests, intoning ancient and arcane scriptures, conducting rites and interpreting the heavens.
The blessings they offer are attractive to dictatorships and democracies alike: a source of non-polluting electricity at a stable cost, development of advanced engineering industries, and stepping stones for a quick advance into a nuclear weapons capability if a strategic need for it suddenly emerges.
This week the nuclear priesthood is facing a crisis of faith, as engineers in Asia’s most advanced nuclear industry struggle to contain the overheated reactor cores at Japan’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant, run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company.
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The reaction of the nuclear establishments in the two emerging Asian super-economies has been one of assurance. Nuclear chiefs in both China and India have declared they have better safety systems than the Japanese generator.
India has two boiling water reactors of the same type as those at the Fukushima plant, also built by America’s General Electric in the 1960s and also located on a coastline. This week Srikumar Banerjee, the head of India’s Department of Atomic Energy, was called in by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and reassured him and the public they have been fitted with extra safety features to deal with overheating, including a ”thermo-siphon” that would passively circulate heat out of the reactor for several hours if power was cut, as in Japan.
The country’s 18 other reactors are of a local pressurised heavy water design developed from technology supplied by Canada, also in the 1960s before India’s 1974 nuclear test explosion earned it isolation from the rest of the world’s nuclear industry under the 1969 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
With these, the safety position was ”even more comfortable”, Banerjee told the Indian Express, before adding somewhat less reassuringly: “There is no human activity in which we can say that we are totally free from any possibility of an accident.”
The Indian official claimed that in the 60-year history of nuclear power generation, only 55 people had died in incidents involving radiation or nuclear accidents – only one in India, a scavenger in a Delhi suburb who picked up a cobalt-60 rod sold as scrap by mistake. This would seem to ignore the many more who died from raised cancer rates at Britain’s Sellafield or Chernobyl in Ukraine.
In Beijing a senior official was also sanguine. Zhang Lijun, the vice-minister (department chief) of environmental protection, declared that China was using more advanced ”architecture” in its nuclear plants than in the elderly Japanese one. Cooling water in China’s plants flows by gravity and doesn’t need the kind of pumps that stopped working at Fukushima after last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. ”It’s just like the flush toilet; no power is needed,” Zhang said.
The words haven’t quite convinced the political leaderships. In China the government announced on Wednesday a suspension of approvals for all new nuclear power plants across the country, pending development of a new safety plan. In India, Singh has also ordered a safety review, though without suspending projects.
But unlike Germany, where the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has ordered a shutdown of seven nuclear plants of the Fukushima vintage – about one third of Germany’s nuclear capacity – the Asian countries are unlikely to power down anything that is still working, let alone divert from massive planned investment in nuclear energy.
Asia has 112 nuclear reactors, with 37 more under construction, a further 84 planned and 80 under consideration.
China has 20 more nuclear power reactors under construction and eight more approved for completion by 2020 to meet rising demand for clean energy. Each of these one-gigawatt reactors will cost about 14 billion yuan ($2.1 billion)
India plans to build another 25 to 30 reactors by 2032, after the agreement signed with George Bush in 2008, in effect, ended its nuclear pariah status and opened a scramble for a potential $150 billion in orders by American, European and Asian firms. Last year it signed a $9.3 billion contract for two huge reactors with France’s Areva group, to be located at Jaitapur in Maharashtra state.
As well as South Korea and Taiwan, already heavily invested in nuclear power, many other smaller countries are also going nuclear. Thailand’s military government in 2007 approved the building of two double-reactor plants at a cost of about $8 billion, with a further four envisaged.
Vietnam has two plants under construction, and Indonesia is weighing up two nuclear plants. Benigno Aquino’s government in the Philippines is under pressure from chronic power shortages to re-open a large nuclear power plant shut down for safety reasons under his mother’s presidency 25 years ago.
Several of these countries sit on active geological fault lines, and their coastlines, where nuclear plants tend to be located, are vulnerable to tsunamis. Local populations are not nearly as happy as distant leaderships about nuclear power.
In India, memories of the deadly leak of gas at the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in 1984 added to a huge backlash last year against legislation that tried to limit the liability of nuclear equipment suppliers and operators for accidental injury and damage. The bill was passed in greatly curtailed form.
After the mismanagement of last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi last year, Indians worry how far the ”jugaad” (last-minute fix) approach might extend. People in Hong Kong recall the scandal over ”tofu” (bean-curd) concrete work in the Daya Bay nuclear power plant just across the border in China.
In both these countries, close supervision from top-level officials and scientists seems to have avoided major safety lapses. But a fear is that as private-sector enterprises increase their role in nuclear power, resources will not be put into safety supervision and profit incentives encourage cutting of corners.
Unfortunately, Japan may have led the way in this adverse trend. The weakness of the Fukushima No.1 plant’s seawater cooling systems to tsunami damage had been pointed out by opposition members of the Diet since 2006, but Tokyo Electric stonewalled. Its newer Fukushima No. 2 plant nearby and the Onagawa nuclear plant, closest to the epicentre of the earthquake and tsunami, both shut down safely. This suggests it is not so much the technology, but cosiness and collusion between operators and regulators that is the immediate risk.