N-option needs careful thought

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Bangkok Post 25 July 2007


The earthquake that struck central Japan on Monday, July 16, may have also struck a blow to plans to ramp up construction of nuclear power plants worldwide. At the very least, it should have driven home the message that any plant to be constructed near a fault line must be built to withstand the strongest tremors.

After the 6.8 quake on July 16, there were initial reports that only a transformer had been damaged at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture, with no release of radioactive materials to the environment. But as time went on, the reports grew more serious. It is now known that almost 400 gallons of highly toxic waste spilled into the Japanese Sea, a major fishing area, and that a ''small amount'' of Cobalt 60 and other cancer-causing radioactive contaminants escaped into the air.

It has since been disclosed that this plant and others nearby built by the same company were constructed to withstand only a 6.5 earthquake, which is a bit perplexing, given Japan's history of violent earthquakes. At this time it appears that the release of the radioactive materials, while alarming, does not pose a threat to humans.

It must be pointed out that several other nuclear reactors in the area suffered no damage, and also that on the whole the nuclear power industry, which includes around 440 generators worldwide, has proven remarkably accident-free, notwithstanding Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and a not-so-small list of lesser incidents.

However, the potential scale of the damage from an accident of Chernobyl proportions or greater makes it imperative that safety requirements err on the side of caution, particularly in earthquake-prone areas. The whole of Japan, of course, is such an area. There are 55 reactors in Japan, and almost all of them are on or near major fault lines. Some, but obviously not all, are built to withstand an 8.5 earthquake, which is considered the maximum magnitude which might be encountered. There are, of course, rare earthquakes on record which have been more powerful.

In the US, there are nuclear power plants in California located on or near known faults, and also in the mid-West region. It has been pointed out that the proposed repository for nuclear waste material at Yucca Mountain in Nevada lies on a fault line. The nuclear reactor being constructed near the Iranian city of Bushehr is near an active fault.

Probably no one knows for sure how many existing nuclear plants are on or nearby known fault lines. What's more, new fault lines are being discovered all the time. In fact, an analysis of the seismic data from the July 16 quake shows that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, previously thought to be near a fault, is apparently directly on top of an extension of the fault.

Because of widespread public fears for the safety of nuclear power, it was not long ago an industry that seemed to have little future almost anywhere outside of Japan and France. Under the rationale that nuclear reactors don't produce greenhouse gases, a number of countries, including the US, China, Russia and England, are now planning to embark on an unprecedented and tremendously expensive building spree to make nuclear plants account for a large percentage of their energy production.

Thailand's Energy Planning and Policy Office also has plans to build a nuclear reactor in the coming years.

Nuclear power does have some significant advantages: it is a virtually inexhaustible power source, it emits no carbon dioxide and, for countries like Japan without hydrocarbon reserves, it offers an alternative to importing fuels at ever-increasing prices. But in deciding on what energy policy course to take, we should not forget the risk of accidents due to natural forces, which, besides earthquakes, includes an increased risk of catastrophic flooding in some areas due to climate change. And this must be considered alongside other risks such as terrorism, equipment malfunction and human error, and the seemingly insurmountable problem of safely storing large amounts of radioactive waste materials that will be highly dangerous for several hundred thousand years.