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Why Japan still needs nuclear power

Publication Date : 05-07-2012

 

No one can accuse Japanese Premier Yoshihiko Noda of being gutless. On Sunday, he pushed through the controversial restarting of the Oi nuclear reactor in western Japan - more than a year after a tsunami damaged reactors at Fukushima.

Following the Fukushima disaster, all the country's nuclear reactors had been shut down amid popular opposition to nuclear po-wer.

On the surface, the prognosis for nuclear power is not good.

Soon after the Fukushima disaster, Germany said it would shut down half of its nuclear plants and abandon the use of nuclear power by 2022. Likewise, Switzerland said no new plants would be built, and that five existing plants would be mothballed by 2034.

In a recent special report titled "The Dream That Failed", The Economist magazine underscored the growing coolness towards nuclear power.

Does this mean the death of nuclear power?

Not quite.

It is worth noting that before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power had enjoyed 25 years of safety after the 1986 crisis at Chernobyl.

Widespread concerns about energy security and climate change had also led to an alliance between environmentalists and advocates of nuclear power. The strongest argument then - and now too - is that nuclear power generates virtually no greenhouse gases. And compared to other non-carbon sources of power, nuclear power is still the only viable large-scale alternative to fossil fuels.

Future plans for the use of nuclear power validate this. In a recent report, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) forecast that Japan would still have 44.7 gigawatts (gw) of nuclear capacity in 2020 - marginally lower than the 46.8gw in 2010.

In a December report, the European Commission said that nuclear energy remained an important option for decarbonising energy supplies.

Around the world, 60 new reactors are being constructed in 14 countries, many located in Asia. China, for instance, is aiming to increase the number of its reactors from 14 to 80 by 2030.

Jitsuro Terashima, an official at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry who is reviewing Japan's energy policies in the wake of the Fukushima accident, said that nuclear energy should not be discarded altogether, but used in tandem with renewable sources.

The "best mix", he told the EIU, should be 20 per cent of energy from nuclear sources, 30 per cent from renewable sources and 40 per cent from fossil fuels by 2030. This is different from Tokyo's earlier plan to stick to a ratio of 50 per cent, 20 per cent and 30 per cent respectively.

"I am not 'pro-nuclear' (to the exclusion of other energy sources). I was proposing renewable energy as early as the 1970s, and I intend to help turn the wheel as much as possible towards renewable energy at this crossroads for Japan's energy strategy," he said.

Japan's realistic approach after Fukushima is laudable. Even Germany's attempt at eradicating nuclear power in the long term has run into problems. Recently, it was reported that it had to import energy due to supply shortfalls.

This is not to say nuclear power is problem-free. The disposal of nuclear waste is problematic, while the construction of reactors can suffer from cost over-runs.

And arguably, the word 'nuclear' has put a historical burden on Japan. In 1945, it was the first country to be attacked by nuclear weapons. The Fukushima disaster also meant that Japan became the first Asian country to suffer from radiation fallout following a nuclear accident.

In psychological terms, the Japanese are suffering from the availability heuristic - that is, the nuclear crisis of last year has captured so much attention that the risks of another nuclear accident have been exaggerated.

Indeed, experts say that the impact on public health resulting from accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are not as bad as originally envisaged.

Professor Gerry Thomas, the chair in molecular pathology at Imperial College in London, said that the only public health effect caused by the Chernobyl accident has been a large increase in thyroid cancer cases among those who were children at the time of the accident. Of the 6,000 thyroid cancer cases, only 15 had proved fatal by 2005. The predicted death rate going forward is about 1 per cent, she said in an e-mail.

Over at Fukushima, the number of cancer-related deaths will probably not increase, The Japan Times reported.

Said Thomas: "Personally, I do think that nuclear energy is a safe option, providing we learn the lessons of past accidents and are ready to put into place mitigating procedures as they did in Japan."

Indeed, if Japan takes a realistic approach to nuclear power, it could provide a model for other countries contemplating nuclear power.

"I believe Japan must remain the symbol and exemplar of countries that resist the temptation of nuclear militarisation and focus instead on its peaceful use. Japan can help other countries that have the same aim," said Terashima.

Therein lie two paths mapped out by Germany and Japan: The former has opted for a little or no nuclear future, while the latter is moving along a road with some nuclear power involved.

For countries like Singapore, which have indicated an interest in nuclear power, the two futures constitute much food for thought.

 

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