Global Politics

Global nuclear safety up for scrutiny

By Clark Boyd

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Switzerland's government has decided to suspend the process of building new nuclear plants. A British member of parliament says nuclear power "fails every test." India's Prime Minister has ordered an immediate review of the ability of the country's nuclear reactors to withstand natural disasters.

They're among the many political voices across the globe responding to the Fukushima crisis in much the same way.

Before Fukushima, nuclear power was experiencing something of a comeback around the world. But in many countries these last two weeks, those nuclear ambitions have turned to concerns.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was the latest to chime in on Friday, when ye called for a reassessment of international nuclear safety rules.

Others aren't waiting for such a review to apply the brakes on nuclear power. In Europe, no country reversed course faster than Germany.
No more business as usual

Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would extend the life of some of the country's aging nuclear plants. But after Fukushima, Merkel reversed course and ordered a review of all nuclear facilities and a temporarily closure all German plants built before 1980. At a meeting of European leaders yesterday, Merkel said that nations using nuclear energy can't continue with business as usual.

For some, this was welcome news. Ingrid Nestle, of the German Green Party, said events in Japan are a turning point in the history of nuclear power.

Until now, Nestle said, the story was always that an accident like Fukushima couldn't happen in highly industrialized countries like Japan, Germany, the UK and France.

"We now see that this story is not true," Nestle said.

The European Commission wants to know if is true, and has decided that all nuclear plants in the EU should undergo a "stress test."

But the Brussels-based nuclear industry trade group FORATOM is worried that Europe's reaction to Fukushima is being driven by fear and politics rather than facts.

Spokesman Christian Taillebois said FORATOM has no problem with upgrading safety requirements if it's really necessary. But he said, "if it's just a political signal to be given to the public on this, then I think we have to be cautious."

The threat from earthquakes and tsunamis is remote in Europe. But it's much more immediate elsewhere. In Chile, the scenes from Japan have brought back nightmares from last year's earthquake, and brought concerns among some Chileans.

A week ago, Chile's government Chile inked an agreement with the US on nuclear cooperation and training. Chile doesn't actually have any nuclear plants yet, and the agreement didn't mention the building of any. Some hope it stays that way.

Samuel Leiva, of Greenpeace in Chile, points out that the country has a major earthquake every 25 years. "So we don't really want to deal with this."
The nuclear debate in Asia

Energy hungry China has made big plans to expand nuclear power. But after Fukushima, China not only halted those plans but actually made that decision public, and published the location of its existing and planned nuclear plants.

India has also put its big nuclear ambitions on hold pending a review.

Elsewhere in Asia, though, interest in nuclear power seems unaffected. Richard Tanter, a senior research Associate with The Nautilus Institute for Sustainability and Security in Melbourne, Australia, said that Vietnam and Malaysia are actively looking at nuclear, as is seismically-active Indonesia.

Indonesian nuclear authorities insist that if they build their four planned reactors to higher standards, they'll avoid problems like those at Fukushima, Tanter said.

But he points out that no matter how much safer new reactors might be, all of these countries still face one major challenge: nuclear waste.

"There's still this problem of what do we do with the spent fuel," Tanter said. "We don't have a permanent repository anywhere on earth."

But Tanter added there's one more important factor in the debate. Nuclear power companies still have a huge economic incentive to sell their technology to countries around the world.

Tanter said you can expect French, South Korean and Japanese nuclear companies to continue to try to influence their neighbors when it comes to making choices about nuclear power.