Fukushima puts East Asia nuclear policies on notice

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The Fukushima No. 1 power plant crisis has turned the nation’s long-term energy policy on its head and probably signals the start of a drastic reduction in the use of atomic power.

The impact of the crisis has spread to other countries. Both Germany and Belgium declared plans to shed their nuclear power plants.

Antinuclear experts and activists in South Korea, China and Taiwan who attended the Global Conference for Nuclear Power-Free World in Yokohama in mid-January meanwhile raised concerns about the atomic power policies of their own governments.

South Korea and China are still aiming to increase the use of nuclear power, while Taiwan will go ahead with the planned construction of new reactors and use its existing units for at least 40 years since their start of operations.

The experts and activists stressed that nuclear plants carry unacceptable risks, pointing to the Fukushima triple-meltdown crisis, and said such complexes could also be targeted by terrorists and at any rate produce high-level radioactive waste for which safe, permanent disposal remains an open question.

To promote a nuclear power-free policy, it is important to create a cross-border network to raise the voice of opponents to atomic energy, they said.

“The March 11 disaster has proven that nuclear power plants are not safe,” Choi Yul, South Korean activist and president of Korea Green Foundation, said Jan. 12 in an interview with The Japan Times.

South Korea currently has 21 operating reactors, which generate about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

President Lee Myung Bak’s government reportedly plans to increase the number of reactors to 34 by 2024 to boost the nuclear share to 48.5 percent.

As for earthquake risk, South Korea doesn’t experience nearly as many temblors as Japan and thus presumably faces a lesser tsunami threat.

But Choi, a longtime antinuclear advocate who has been researching environmental issues, warns that South Korea faces other risks.

“It is true that the risk of earthquakes and tsunami is smaller than Japan, but . . . if (North Korea) targeted nuclear power plants and attacked them, reactors would be like atomic bombs,” said Choi.

Lee is meanwhile pushing strongly for use of nuclear power and Choi said that to persuade the government otherwise appears quite difficult.

However, Choi said, antinuclear sentiment is growing in South Korea amid the Fukushima crisis, and there is a chance to reverse the country’s nuclear policy this year because South Korea is facing a presidential and general election.

He added that the movement needs to spread internationally because “South Korea is trying to push nuclear power plant exports. I’ve started to think that it’s not really effective to raise the voice just within my country.”

Also, if a serious atomic accident occurs, the radioactive fallout would not be contained within national borders.

This is why Choi and other experts plan to create the Network for Nuclear Free East Asia. The group is scheduled to officially debut on March 11 with 311 members, from Japan, South Korea, China and other economies.

A statement released by the group says Japan, South Korea and China are without borders when it comes to environmental contamination.

For instance, the nuclear plant in Shimane Prefecture is closer to South Korea than Tokyo, and South Korea faces reactors located on the east coast of China.

People in East Asia thus need to cooperate to promote energy policies other than nuclear and push for renewable energy from natural resources, the statement says.

As for China, Beijing appears to want to increase both renewable energy and nuclear power, according to Fu Tao, an editor of China Development Brief, a Beijing-based nonprofit publication that reports China’s social development.

During a symposium at the antinuclear conference, Fu said China currently has 13 operating reactors and 28 under construction, with plans to increase the number to more than 100.

But due to the Fukushima accident, the government has been reviewing reactor safety standards and also aims to speed up the use of renewable energy.

It is promising that China, which has the world’s highest wind power installation capacity, is also the leading solar panel manufacturer, Fu said.

But other pressing environmental problems have made the antinuclear movement in China a lower priority among experts and activists.

The public meanwhile is not well enough informed about nuclear power and its risks to make the issue a topic of widespread debate, Fu added.

While China and South Korea look to increase the use of nuclear power, Taiwan plans to reduce its atomic dependence due to the Fukushima crisis.

President Ma Ying-jeou, who was re-elected last month, had been planning to extend the life of the island’s reactors before Fukushima, but he then capped it at 40 years, according to Aiya Hsu, coordinator of Green Citizens’ Action Alliance, a Taipei-based environmental organization.

Taiwan has six operating reactors at three locations and is constructing two new units at a new plant. Nuclear power generates about 17 percent of Taiwan’s power supply, said Hsu.

The existing nuclear plants started commercial operations between the late 1970s and mid-1980s.

The Fukushima crisis may have prompted the Ma administration to limit reactor use to 40 years. But Hsu argues that the policy is not bold enough and wants the government to drop plans to build the two new reactors.

Taiwan is prone to earthquakes, so the island’s nuclear plants, which are all coastal like Japan’s, face the risk of tsunami. Taiwan should close its nuclear plants as soon as possible, Hsu said.

She also said some of the reactors are about 40 km from Taipei, so if they spew radioactive fallout about 6 million people would have to evacuate.

“I don’t think any government in the world is capable of evacuating that many people in a short time,” said Hsu, who also noted Taipei still faces the unresolved problem of dealing with atomic waste.

In Taiwan, the antinuclear movement was losing momentum — until Fukushima, Hsu said.

“We feel sad. It has cost too much to make people understand” the risk of nuclear power plants, she said.