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Providing lessons on nuclear policy

by Florian Coulmas

FALLOUT FROM FUKUSHIMA, by Richard Broinowski. Scribe Publications, 2012, 273 pp., A$27.95 (paperback)

Most books about the nuclear reactor accident of Fukushima No. 1 are very opinionated. Given the many repercussions of the disaster, it is not surprising that people find it difficult to discuss in a disinterested way, sine ira et studio.

The book under review here is no exception. Its author is a retired Australian diplomat who some time ago decided to devote himself to awakening the world to the dangers of nuclear power and to observing Australia’s nuclear ambitions.

“Fallout from Fukushima” is Richard Broinowski’s take on Fukushima No. 1 and the March 11, 2011, catastrophe. Those who have made up their mind that nuclear power is the devil’s work will read it with pleasure, while those who think that nuclear power is good are unlikely to read it at all. But what about those who are in doubt; those who confess that they lack qualified knowledge to make a decision with far-reaching consequences; those who don’t know how the imperatives of employment, electricity supply and curbing climate change can be reconciled? What can they learn from this book?

The lessons it holds are various. We learn that France has 59 nuclear reactors supplying 78.8 percent of the electricity produced there; that South Korea, already crammed on its small territory with 21 reactors, is planning to add another 11; that tiny Taiwan with six reactors is a notable nuclear player in Northeast Asia.

We also learn about the nuclear aspirations of developing countries and about the role of the World Nuclear Association, a nongovernment nuclear lobby group. The nuclear policies of India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Canada and several other countries are reviewed.

Further, Broinowski does not sidestep the murky territory of the interface of civil and military aspects of nuclear programs, noting, for instance, that the U.S. used 320 tons of radiotoxic depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that U.S. President Barack Obama is a great advocate of nuclear power and committed himself to a policy of nuclear revival with billions of dollars in loan guarantees for new reactors.

He also points out that Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers, including India, Pakistan, Israel, China and Russia, as well as the U.S. Fifth Fleet. He remarks, in this connection, that the United States and Israel (with Britain and France in tow) “recklessly asserted that if Iran got the bomb it would immediately attack Israel with it.”

Broinowski is well-informed about the complexities of nuclear policies worldwide. His argument that nuclear-power production has many international dimensions and should be discussed in a global context is convincing. However, for the most part his narrative is only indirectly related to the Fukushima accident. His knowledge about Japan is shallow, resting on the foreign-language press.

Consequently there isn’t much in this book about Fukushima No. 1 or the aftermath of 3/11 in Tohoku at large that hasn’t been said before. Moreover, some of the things he tells his readers are no longer relevant (“Prime Minister Noda is expected to go to Washington to try to improve things.”) Of course, he cannot be blamed for the short half-life of Japanese governments, but as an author he must be aware of the risks of dealing with current events.

He does ask the right questions, for example: “Have the events at Fukushima [No. 1 nuclear power plant] changed things? Has the accident increased the risks associated with nuclear power? Can Japan do without nuclear power in the near future? Will the Japanese nuclear bureaucracy dig in its heels, wait out the crisis, and persist with its programs? Or will there be a radical change in Japan’s energy-generating program?” However, not surprisingly, he doesn’t answer these questions. When his book was published, in September last year, the direction of Japan’s future energy policy was even less clear than it is today, as we are told that the government will come up with a “best mix” policy in three years, or 10 years, or so. Accordingly, other than “informed speculations,” “predictions” and “my guess is,” the author doesn’t have much to say about the future of nuclear energy in Japan, even though an entire chapter is devoted to the subject.

Where Broinowski stands on firmer ground is about his own country. Having the largest uranium deposits in the world, Australia derives hefty profits from exporting it to energy-hungry countries. Yet Australia has no nuclear reactors that generate electricity of its own, and the public doesn’t want any. Broinowski detects a measure of contradiction and hypocrisy here, a point well taken.

His discussion of the political and ethical problems associated with uranium export highlights an aspect of the nuclear power complex not often addressed in other countries and thus adds to the usefulness of this book.

Florian Coulmas is director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo (DIJ) and wrote, with Judith Stalpers, the 2011 book “Fukushima: From Earthquake to Nuclear Disaster” in German.