Asia's nuclear power dilemma

Fueled by booming population and few resources, Asia buildsmore nuclear

For farmers in Tokaimura - site of Japan's worst nuclear accident - this year's harvest is producing a bitter yield. Rice stalks stand undisturbed in their paddies. Sweet potatoes - grilled for a traditional snack - sit on grocery shelves until they are discarded.

Unease about the Sept. 30 leak at the nuclear fuel facility extends beyond Japan. The world awaits an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on the incident, curious to know how such a basic mistake could have happened: other major industrial nations haven't seen this kind of mishap since the 1960s.

Nowhere is interest more intense than in Asia, where - although Tokaimura has galvanized China, South Korea, and Japan to re-examine their safety policies - nuclear power has lost none of its allure. For these countries, scarce resources, economics, and the energy needs of a burgeoning middle class - with all its new refrigerators - make nuclear power the only answer to a burning question: How to fuel the future? While many Western countries have soured on atomic energy since the 1985 Chernobyl disaster, Asia is building plants and planning hundreds more.

But with Tokaimura and a recent Korean mishap, Asia is facing problems that sidelined nuclear energy in the West. In public demonstrations and quiet chats, people here are asking whether they should take their governments' assurances about nuclear power at face value. They know their region is vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, and even man-made threats. Nuclear facilities are tempting military targets, a factor that must weigh into Japanese and South Korean considerations about North Korea.

Even so, Asia is unlikely to slow its nuclear juggernaut: Its love affair with atomic energy is driven by a sense that there are no other viable choices.

"You are looking at very large population increases for this part of the world, which has in many places, few natural resources," says Alan Waltar, head of the nuclear engineering department at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. "They know there's a correlation between electrical capacity and quality of life. They recognize they'll need huge amounts of energy and want to look into the future and know it will be there. It's no mystery why nuclear power has such appeal."

Safety records

Yet there are hiccups. Just four days after the alarms sounded in Tokaimura, 12 gallons of radioactive water leaked at South Korea's Wolsung nuclear power plant. Though South Korea has had no major accidents since it began using nuclear power in 1978, the Oct. 4 mishap was the worst of seven spills at Wolsung since its 1984 start-up.

Beijing says it hasn't had a serious nuclear incident, but this month China's state-controlled press revealed for the first time that a plant in Qinshan closed for more than a year after a reactor malfunction in July 1998.

Japan has the dubious distinction of outdoing its neighbors when it comes to accidents. Tokaimura marked the sixth mishap in two years, and the mistakes made there were "stunning," says Dr. Waltar. Twelve days after the incident, in which inexperienced workers ignored their instruction manual and started a self-sustaining nuclear reaction, a ventilator at the site still spewed radioactive particles into the air.

Despite these stumbles, Northeast Asia is intent on becoming a nuclear-powered hub.

South Korea's 16 reactors provided more than 41 percent of its energy in 1998, the IAEA says. Four more reactors are under construction and by 2015, Korea wants 30.

Japan met almost 36 percent of its 1998 energy needs with 53 plants. Under a 1994 policy, it aims to increase nuclear capacity to just over 40 percent by 2010.

But China, with three reactors, aims to surpass them both. It is building four reactors, with plans for eight more approved and a long-term blueprint for another 100, the IAEA says.

"China is now or will soon be the fastest growing nuclear power market in the world," says Wu Yong, an executive with Westinghouse Electric China.

The boom is driven by economic need. China's electricity generation has jumped an average 10 percent a year in the past decade - and still isn't enough to keep up with demand.

Beijing could fuel economic growth with its vast coal deposits, which now provide some 70 percent of its electricity. But that would require a huge investment in rail transport and would not ease pollution. Korea is researching alternative energy sources such as solar and gas. But "compared to coal and gas, nuclear power is cheaper," says an official at Korea's energy ministry.

In Japan, which lacks natural resources, gaining energy self-reliance has been a goal since the "oil shocks" of the 1970s.

"They have a security problem when it comes to energy," says Andrew Hess, a professor of diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "If there's trouble in Qatar, the lights go out in Tokyo."

Public awareness

Polls show most Japanese oppose expanding nuclear power, yet there is widespread awareness of the country's limited energy options. That might explain why few people protested Tokaimura, which exposed at least 69 people to dangerous levels of radiation.

Korea is a different story. Immediately after the Wolsung spill, which was considered minor, protesters agitated for government inquiries. Polls show 62.4 percent of Koreans oppose further nuclear construction, and 14 percent want all operating power plants phased out. The government has tried easing concerns with ads touting nuclear power.

Japan has used the same tactic, with one memorable campaign featuring "Pluto," a cartoon character who told children plutonium was safe enough to drink.

China opts for silence to counter bad news. State media gave no explanation for the 15-month delay in reporting the Qinshan plant shutdown, just saying that the facility now operates at full capacity.

Japanese officials have used the same tack, not immediately informing the public. And in communities with nuclear facilities, they've tried to allay worries with a liberal outlay of cash in the form of public projects.

Korean and Japanese watchdog groups say these tactics weaken a public trust already undermined by questionable oversight of the nuclear industry.

In Korea, the Ministry of Science & Technology has the conflicting roles of promoting and regulating nuclear power, something akin to America's Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees safety and promotes airline travel. Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission works out of the Science and Technology Agency (STA), the ministry that regulates the industry.

But these countries are learning from their mistakes - or at least China and Korea are learning from Japan.

After Tokaimura and the Wolsung spill, Korea organized safety investigations while China announced inspections and declared its nuclear program safe.

Chinese nuclear disaster teams have rushed to an atomic power plant several times in the past two years to contain a dangerous reactor accident and protect local residents from contamination.

Lessons learned

These mock accidents, which involve the army, police and health officials, are part of nuclear safety preparations formed after Japan's last serious nuclear accident - also at Tokaimura - in 1997. "China constantly monitors other nations' nuclear power plants, and adjusts its policies and practices in reaction to incidents worldwide," says Wang Jun, chief of the nuclear power division of the China Nuclear Safety Administration.

Chinese and Korean officials say they doubt their countries could have an accident like Tokaimura - which is exactly what Japanese nuclear administrators initially said about Tokaimura: that such an accident was "impossible."

Those officials still pledge their faith in atomic power, but changes are afoot. Japan has recently announced a nuclear safety overhaul, including new maintenance and monitoring technology and laws meant to create a more efficient emergency response.

Its neighbors are watching.

* Reported by staff writers Nicole Gaouette in Tokyo, Kevin Platt in Beijing, and contributer Michael Baker in Seoul, South Korea.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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