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Editorial: Look again at nuclear safety

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-10

The troublesome question of safety at nuclear plants has once again been highlighted because of an accident in Japan last Monday. Although there was no radiation leak, four workers were burned fatally and seven others injured when steam leaked from a broken pipe at the Mihama plant operated by Kansai Electric Power Company, some 320 kilometres from Tokyo. Japan had enjoyed a decent safety record until now, but there's concern that aging pipes at half of the country's 14 nuclear-power plants - whose 52 nuclear reactors generate a third of the country's high energy needs - may need replacement. Anti-nuclear activists are calling for the closing of all these plants. Several towns around Japan have voted overwhelmingly in recent referendums against building new nuclear facilities, slowing down the government's plans to build 11 more nuclear reactors in this decade. Japan is the world's third biggest nuclear power producer after the United States and France - and a model for many developing countries whose economies must grow rapidly in order to accommodate expanding populations. Notwithstanding occasional episodes such as accidents at Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, it's the situation in the Third World that's most worrying.

Some developing countries - including China, India, North Korea, South Korea and Pakistan - already have dozens of nuclear-power plants. The technology at these plants isn't very different from those in the industrialised nations: either high-steam or low-steam pressure and a moderator such as heavy water or graphite surround the fuel core, slowing the movement of neutrons. The process leads to the generation of power. Heavy water is generally considered more reliable in handling the heat that builds up during power generation. Since virtually all nuclear technology is imported from Western countries, which have tough safety standards, it's not so much the kind of technology as it is political considerations that determine developing countries' decisions to acquire nuclear capability. It stretches credulity to believe that North Korea's limited domestic energy needs truly require nuclear reactors; its real aim is to develop nuclear weapons. While it can be argued that in order to provide adequate power for job-generating industrialization, India needs nuclear plants for its 1.1 billion people, does Pakistan - with barely 130 million people - really need nuclear capability for anything other than to match India's nuclear weaponry?

While the West worries about nuclear proliferation in developing countries like India and Pakistan, a critical problem that it increasingly shares with the Third World is that of nuclear waste - what to do with the spent fuel rods that are lodged at the core of a nuclear reactor. No one has figured out a long-term solution for nuclear waste, which can generate deadly radiation for as long as a thousand years. Similarly, no one has figured out how to safely decommission a nuclear plant once its power-generating capacity has been exhausted. In the short term, the solution in countries like the US and Japan has been to bury nuclear waste in pits heavily lined with lead or graphite, which prevent radiation leaks. There have also been proposals to dispatch waste into outer space. But there's another problem associated with waste disposal - and that concerns the potential for theft of spent fuel rods by terrorists. While nuclear waste cannot be used to make missiles, it can be effectively employed to build "dirty bombs" that release radioactivity in urban areas, resulting in the death of millions of people. "Asia shares this problem of long-term waste disposal with the West," says Prof Nitin Desai of the London School of Economics and a former Under Secretary General of the United Nations. "What if radioactive waste material falls in the wrong hands?"

That is why developing nations need to step up their vigilance concerning nuclear waste. They have shown that their competencies and management concerning nuclear technology are comparable with the West. But what's needed is reliable and independent verification by international and local authorities of how they deal with nuclear waste. It's not enough to bury the waste. There are lots of "wrong hands" eager to acquire that material - and even to sell it - from the Third World, jeopardizing our collective security.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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