What we learnt from Fukushima

A Japanese nuclear engineering on a speaking tour of several Asian capitals to clear the cloud of controversy over the Fukushima accident was thrown this double-sided question: What is the cost to Japan of using nuclear energy and of not using it?
It is a question that could apply equally to many other countries contemplating the nuclear choice.

Historically, Japan had paid a heavy price for underestimating the destructive power of the atomic bomb that was detonated over Hiroshima on Aug. 5 1945 by America in the end-game of Second World War. An unyielding Japan had to suffer a second atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki before it surrendered.

At Fukushima on Mar. 11, 2011, the potential of an earthquake higher than 7 point on the Richter scale and tsunami of more than 5 to 7m  overwhelming the nuclear plants was discounted by the power plant operators. 

As it turned out the 9-magnitude Tohoku temblor  knocked out the plants’ external power supply and triggered a 15.7m giant wave that breached the dikes and seized up the  generators and cooling pumps. Fire-fighting by employees failed to cool the reactors with sea-water and meltdown in three reactors caused hydrogen explosions.

The radioactive contamination of the atmosphere led to evacuation of 100,000 residents within 20km of the plant.

The nuclear fallout conjured up visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and shook domestic and international public confidence in the nuclear technology. 

It behove the Japanese, once the nuclear disaster was brought under control in December, to ensure that the rest of the world did not get the wrong message about Fukushima: That nuclear power is  too risky a venture and Japan had fumbled it.

Thus, Shojiro Matsuura, chairman of the Council of Nuclear Safety Research Council, staked his authority and experience to pronounce nuclear power relatively safe.

His contention is that Fukushima was not a failure of technology but a victim of an unprecedented onslaught of the forces of Nature. What was remarkable was no one died from direct exposure to the radioactive fall-out from the reactors.

“Fukushima’s impact on Japanese people is low compared with fatalities from accidents in coal mine and gas explosions, said Matsuura. “People should consider this reality in using nuclear energy.”

Lending credence to this view, Dr. Peimani Hooman, head of Energy Security Division at the Energy Studies Institute in Singapore said: “Nuclear energy… if used properly is quite safe. It’s like slicing bread…you may cut your fingers. You just need to take precautions and ensure you don’t injure yourself.”

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was set off by a internal cause, a power surge.
“This has to do with capability of reactor components and can be managed with experience,” said  Matsuura. In the case of Fukushima, it was external factors for which the Japanese have not enough practice and exercise.

The reassuring message, however, runs counter to the prevailing sentiments in Japan where a public survey found 60 percent against and 30 percent in favour of nuclear power.

The Japanese media was split into pro, con and neutral camps on the issue while the business community backs the use nuclear energy  — on development grounds. 

Notwithstanding the agonizing and debate between policy-makers, business and public, Japan as an economic power-house can ill-afford to forgo nuclear energy.
As Matsuura pointed out the problem is that Japan has scant energy resources of its own, discounting geo-thermal gas, to drive its industrialisation and keep up the people’s urban life-style.

The cost of not tapping nuclear energy, making up 30 percent of Japan’s total electricity supply, would mean a stepping down on expansion of economy and population, he added.

And the same logic applies to other Asian countries heavily dependent on oil imports for their economic development.  “Ten per cent of those living in Asia don’t have access to electricity,” said Matsuura, citing a UN report that links growth to energy.
Ironically, 60 years on, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have bounced back as well-populated urban centres thanks no less to nuclear energy. 

It says much about the resilience of the Japanese people.
The expert offers this insight: “It has to do with whether you are ruled by your head (science & technology) effective or ruled by heart (culture). 

 “Japanese people who embrace Shintoism basically like cleanness and purity in things. As individuals, Japanese’s reaction to Fukushima is to clean up environment.
As a people, however, they accept the need for nuclear energy to keep the economy humming and their urban life-style going.

Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, which are looking into the benefits of using nuclear energy are drawing some pointers from the Japanese nuclear experience.

One, the importance of preparing the public for the nuclear option, especially for unseen emergencies.
“Japanese government has spent a lot of money on science and technology to enhance nuclear knowledge and expertise. But it has not done enough on transcience, that is on people’s minds and media reaction to the Fukushima nuclear accident,” said Matsuura.

If Japan has not succeeded in managing Fukushima nuclear fall-out, other countries would face serious problems. “Newcomers to nuclear energy would do well to be familiar with the built-in safety features and better protection systems,” said Matsuura.

Should Singapore, given its dense population in a small island-state, go down the nuclear route?

Is there a better option? Will the costs of solar and wind energy go down and be a more viable and safer source of energy for sustainable development? It is indeed a tough choice. One cannot be certain whether the Fukushima nuclear disaster has made it easier or more difficulty for the pro-nuclear decision-makers.

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