Cooperation and good governance key for ensuring safe nuclear power generation and regional stability
PHOTOS BY REUTERS
Experts predict the Indo-Pacific region will drive future nuclear energy development, with China, Japan, India and South Korea propelling much of the growth. The region operates more than a quarter of the world’s 449 nuclear power reactors, and more than half of the world’s new nuclear capacity is being built there, the Nuclear Energy Institute reports.
More than 40 plants are already under construction, and another 90 are in the planning stages in the region, according to the latest tally by the World Nuclear Association (WNA). In addition, more than 20 other Indo-Pacific nations, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, are planning or considering building nuclear power plants in the coming decades.
“The prospects for nuclear power in the Asia-Pacific region are not only promising … it is relevant and will continue to remain so in the coming years,” said Maria Zeneida Collinson of the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Department, who facilitated the September 2016 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation conference in Manila, according to The Japan Times newspaper. “This Asia-Pacific region has one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world. It follows that the demand for affordable and sustainable energy sources is expected to rise,” she said in a summary statement.
Nuclear power has the potential to cut pollution levels, reduce dependence on oil and fossil fuels and help slow unwanted changes to the climate. “Nuclear energy could contribute to sustainable development by meeting rising energy demands and, at the same time, mitigating climate change,” Collinson explained.
China, for example, relies on fossil fuels — mainly coal — to produce more than 70 percent of its electricity. To help meet its growing demand for energy, China plans to more than double its nuclear capacity to 58 gigawatts by 2021, WNA reported. One gigawatt is enough to power about 725,000 homes in a developed country. China, which operates 36 nuclear power plants and has 24 under construction and more planned, also intends to export its nuclear technology, according to WNA.
Meanwhile, India in May 2017 approved plans to build 10 more nuclear reactors that will increase the nation’s capacity by an additional 7.8 gigawatts and propel its industry forward, Reuters reported. Its current 22 nuclear plants produce about 6.8 gigawatts, and six plants that will supply 6.7 gigawatts by 2021 were already under construction. The 10 additional reactors would employ India’s pressurized heavy water reactor design and create more than 33,400 jobs, according to a government statement. “It will be a major step toward strengthening India’s credentials as a major nuclear manufacturing powerhouse,” the statement said.
The outlook for nuclear power remains positive in the region despite the nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima and ongoing proliferation concerns. South Korea, which operates 25 reactors, obtains about 30 percent of its electricity needs from nuclear power, and Japan gets about 22 percent from the operation of 43 reactors, and those numbers are forecast to increase, according to WNA. South Korea’s government, however, halted construction in June 2017 on two partially completed nuclear reactors to address public concerns over atomic safety, Reuters reported. In recent years, about 10 new plants on average have become operational annually worldwide.
Although the risk of another nuclear accident cannot be reduced to zero, nations must factor relative risks in their assessments, Dr. Bill Wieninger, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), explained at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Operational and Science and Technology Conference in Honolulu in March 2017. “For all the horrors of a major accident, the simple truth is that mortality risks from nuclear power are dwarfed by those posed by fossil fuels, whether one considers particulate pollution, carbon emissions, supply stability, extraction pollution or transportation accidents.”
As the use of nuclear energy grows in the region, however, so does the risk of destruction and proliferation because of the sheer numbers, experts say. As it is, the risk is ever-present because nearly every country worldwide has access to the small quantity of uranium needed to produce a few weapons, according to the WNA March 2017 online report “Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation.”
In addition to the growing number of nuclear energy facilities in the Indo-Pacific, most countries — including Bangladesh, Indonesia, North Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam — already have research reactors, according to the WNA.
So far, international safeguards have worked to prevent nuclear proliferation globally. “To date, civil nuclear power has not been the cause of or route to nuclear power in any country that has nuclear weapons, and no uranium traded for electricity production has been diverted for military use,” the March 2017 WNA report said.
Given the predicted future rapid rate of growth, increased cooperation and good governance practices are needed to ensure that nuclear energy generation is safely implemented and expanded in the region, experts say.
More and better regional and international cooperation can help mitigate the risk of nuclear accidents and of proliferation and enhance overall security by reducing resource competition.
Historically, past accidents have led to the production of better tools for cooperation. After the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, the nuclear power industry created the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, a nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta, to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability in the operation of commercial nuclear power plants. The industry founded the organization in response to the findings of the Kemeny Commission, which investigated the accident. The institute has worked with industry internationally to establish performance objectives, criteria and guidelines for the nuclear power industry to conduct regular detailed evaluations of nuclear power plants and to help improve performance, according to its website.
“There was robust cooperation among various stakeholders in safe reactor design, construction and operation even prior to the incident at Fukushima, as demonstrated by the continuing cooperation between Westinghouse, Southern Power and China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation on the construction and the eventual operation of AP1000 reactors in the U.S. and China,” APCSS’ Wieninger explained.
After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, a 15-meter tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors. All three largely melted in the first three days, causing a nuclear accident on March 11, 2011, as WNA reported. The disaster provided many lessons learned and generated new means for regional and international cooperation. For example, the IAEA director general and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, among others, issued recommendations on how to improve reactor safety.
A leading example of strengthening cooperation between nations occurred in March 2016 when China and the U.S. opened a joint nuclear safety center in Beijing to offer training on the safe handling of nuclear materials and the prevention of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities, provide a forum for bilateral and regional best practice exchanges, and serve as a venue for demonstrating advanced technologies related to nuclear security. Strong leadership can help ensure that improved safety practices and technologies are implemented.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation and the China Atomic Energy Authority have worked together on more than 50 training and technical exchanges on nuclear security best practices that culminated in the creation of the Beijing center of excellence.
Fukushima also contributed to the growing realization of the interdependence of nations when it comes to resource management and many other security issues. “No one country can just start creating nuclear power because, especially after the accidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, [they showed] that the whole world is connected,” IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov said during the 2016 Manila conference, according to The Japan Times.
Good governance will also be key for reducing the dangers of nuclear facility incidents, waste disposal and the potential spread of nuclear weapons and radiological dispersal devices as the number of nuclear power plants in operation increases in the region.
“Government policy will need to play a key role in all things nuclear, particularly in the establishment of a strong and effective regulatory framework that reduces the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear facility incidents and waste management,” Wieninger said.
Prior to the Fukushima accident, seismologist Professor Ishibashi Katsuhiko questioned the independence of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission after a senior Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official appeared to rule out a new review of the commission’s seismic design standards. After the disaster, Japan revised its atomic regulations in response to an official inquiry into the disaster documented collusion between regulators and industry.
In 2016, the IAEA said that Japan’s regulatory body for nuclear and radiation safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, has “demonstrated independence and transparency” since it was set up in 2012. The authority also “needs to further strengthen its technical competence in light of upcoming restarts of Japanese nuclear facilities,” the IAEA said. “Good, strong, noncorrupt regulatory processes must be in place,” Wieninger said.
Policies that promote improving information exchanges between experts will also enhance regional cooperation. For example, a society could be created in the Indo-Pacific that is modeled on the European Nuclear Society, which includes members from more than 27 nations and many corporations, Wieninger said.
Policies that promote development of better technologies will also enhance safety of nuclear power production and management of undesirable waste byproducts by increasing efficiency of processing nuclear fuel. Nuclear reactors have been designed that do not produce weapons-grade plutonium and thereby minimize the risk such materials could be secretly used for illicit weapons production.
Additionally, nations continue to pursue the development of other alternative sources of energy that will reduce dependence on burning hydrocarbons for fuel. Nuclear energy has increasingly become part of integrated and comprehensive energy grid plans that include wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and tidal power generation. Better technology by itself however, is not enough. “In a long-term perspective, nuclear power industry will be more definitely recognized as an essential base load energy source that operates continuously to meet the minimum power demand year round. Therefore, we have to make more efforts not only to develop new technologies to enhance safety and economic efficiency but also to gain public acceptance,” Jumpei Matsumoto, senior manager, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Inc., said at the March 2017 Nuclear Power Asia conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Many of the remaining hurdles to wider use of nuclear power are political, not technical. Government leaders and policymakers need to educate populations on the relative risk of various sources of energy, experts say.
Many challenges remain before nuclear power can be widely adopted in the Indo-Pacific. Those challenges include cooperation among governments, educational institutions and business sectors; human resource development; and proper selection of proven reactors, Kumiaki Moriya, corporate chief engineer, Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, explained at the 2017 Nuclear Power Asia conference.
Japan has worked to meet such challenges by organizing events such as sending professors and experts from Japan to other countries for lectures, seminars and trainings, inviting students to learn about technologies at educational institutions in Japan, and using lessons learned from the construction and operation of advanced boiling water reactors, Moriya said.
As a result, Japan has greatly improved its nuclear know-how and shared its lessons with other countries. The latest generation of reactors that are being installed worldwide employ passive cooling technologies that will cool reactors even in the event of a power failure like the one that occurred in Fukushima.
An increasing number of countries with developing economies in the region are considering turning to nuclear power in the 2025 to 2030 time frame. Bangladesh has signed a contract with Russia to build a plant to be operational there by 2022. Vietnam also signed a contract to start building two plants, construction of which has been delayed. Many other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also seriously considering developing nuclear power. Thailand and Indonesia have well-developed plans to do so, and discussions are also underway in Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, WNA reported.
“ASEAN countries face risks similar to [those of] many other countries considering embarking on a nuclear power program. However, given the location of the region, post-Fukushima, the public perception of risk has undoubtedly risen,” Anthony Wetherall, a senior research fellow at National University of Singapore, told the Nuclear Power Asia forum in March 2017.
“There is a need to strengthen the regional nuclear governance, in particular, as concerns, greater cooperation/consultation among ASEAN states such as on nuclear safety (e.g., siting of NPPs near borders) and security (e.g., at ports, borders) matters, facilitating increased public and stakeholder participation, dialogue and engagement such as about how risk will be managed as one way to help alleviate fears about new build.”
Emerging nuclear energy countries and expanding ones can reduce the risk of future accidents by heeding the lessons learned in previous accidents and from experiences of companies and governments that have operated and overseen nuclear plants for decades. Enhanced regional and international cooperation, coupled with the implementation of good governance practices, will help ensure the growth of nuclear power in the Indo-Pacific brings opportunity for prosperity and better security and not peril to the region.