Recent scandals regarding Tokyo Electric Power Co. safety inspection procedures have added a new sense of urgency to a long-standing question: “Are nuclear power reactors throughout East Asia being operated safely?”

Equally important, especially in light of increased concerns about nuclear terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and continuing rumors of terrorist desires to acquire “dirty bombs,” is the question of whether spent fuel rods and other forms of highly radioactive waste from East Asia’s myriad of nuclear reactors are being stored in a safe and secure manner.

Today, China, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan also rely on nuclear power to partially satisfy their energy needs, although none is as reliant on this form of energy or have as many reactors (more than 50) as Japan. Others in the region, including Mongolia and Vietnam, are seriously contemplating building nuclear power stations, while others either have or are planning to build nuclear research reactors.

As one concerned Asian resident recently told me, if you can have this type of trouble in a seemingly over-regulated society such as Japan’s, what must the situation be like in China and the Russian Far East, or in some of the Third World states experimenting with nuclear research?

While others are raising serious questions, one organization is working to discover and broadcast answers. To provide a “one-stop shopping” location for information on East Asia nuclear energy-related activities, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, or CSCAP, in cooperation with the Sandia National Laboratory’s Cooperative Monitoring Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been developing an Asia-Pacific Nuclear Energy Transparency Web site containing facts and figures, and, in some cases, actual radiation-monitoring data relating to regional nuclear energy production: www.cscap.nuctrans.org

CSCAP is a multilateral, nongovernmental, track-two organization aimed at prompting greater trust and understanding on security-related issues in the Asia-Pacific region. For several years now, a CSCAP Nuclear Energy Experts Group has been meeting regularly to discuss ways of promoting greater transparency and public understanding of nuclear energy. This effort is aimed at ensuring that those in the region who have chosen the nuclear energy option do so in a safe, secure and open manner.

The latest Experts Group meeting was held in Vladivostok in September. Previous meetings have been held at nuclear power plants in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States, as well as at the Japanese reprocessing facility under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori, Taiwan’s Radiation Monitoring Center, the Canadian Underground Research Laboratory outside Winnipeg, and the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Information on all these facilities can be found on the CSCAP Nuclear Transparency Web site, which provides basic data on the nuclear energy production programs of all the region’s nuclear energy producers. But it also does much more. The Web site provides details on individual local environmental monitoring practices while identifying available technologies that can further enhance monitoring capabilities to provide even greater transparency.

TEPCO has rightfully come under fire for its falsification of nuclear reactor inspection and repair records, but this does not mean that local residents or the broader international community are being exposed to radiation hazards. In fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary, thanks to an unheralded transparency program that TEPCO and several other Japanese nuclear energy producers have initiated. Radiation monitoring devices are situated around all TEPCO power plants and the data collected at these sites has been shared on a near real-time basis with local communities.

For that matter, it is important to note that the inspection-falsification problem began in 1993, well before the current era of greater transparency by the Japanese power companies. Following accidents at the Monju fast-breeder demonstrator reactor (1995) and at the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation bituminization plant (1997), and the criticality event at the uranium processing plant at Tokai (1999), the power companies seriously embraced transparency as they observed the public outrage against coverups and secrecy. It is sadly ironic, therefore, that coverups starting almost a decade ago are coming back to haunt nuclear operators that have become leaders in nuclear transparency.

As part of its domestic transparency effort, TEPCO was the first power company to publish its near real-time airborne radiation readings on a Web site; TEPCO subsequently invited CSCAP to link to its data pages to make this information immediately available to a broader international audience. It was also the first power company to offer annual radiation reports to the CSCAP Transparency Web site.

Building on these precedents, the CSCAP Web site now enjoys cooperation from Kansai Electric, Japan Atomic and Shikoku Electric, as well as Fukui, Shimane and Miyagi prefectures. In addition, the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute, Fukui Prefecture and Taiwan’s Radiation Monitoring Center send their near-real time radiation data directly to the CSCAP Web site.

The Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety and the U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory also allow links to their Web sites for similar data. Most recently and with assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy, Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy has begun transmitting near real-time data from the Bilibino Power Plant in Siberia to the CSCAP Web site also.

The Experts Group is now examining problems associated with the storage and management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, including the prospects of developing regional storage facilities or at least regional approaches to handling a common safety and security problem. This is aimed at reinforcing, not duplicating, the excellent safeguards provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose findings are not available to the general public.

Despite these efforts, concerns will remain about the safety and security of nuclear energy in the Asia-Pacific region. Much more work needs to be done, especially to ensure that appropriate safeguards are being followed to ensure that nuclear materials do not fall into the hands of terrorists and that both energy production and nuclear research reactors through East Asia are operated in a safe and secure manner.

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