If a techincally-advanced country like Japan with a reputation for exactitude can suffer from one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, should we be a litttle more worried about places where security and infrastructure are poor to non-existent and corruption is rampant?
That’s the theme of a special report compiled for Reuters, based on diplomatic cables assembled from the Wikileaks treasure trove. And it’s kinda scary.
- TEPCO, which runs the Fukushima plants, is a top-tier company in Japan
- Despite that, they failed to plan for a disaster that would involve a power failure!
- Their response to the disaster was slow and muddled
- Because of that, three out of four Fukushima reactors melted down, and probably at least one went beyond meltdown and breached containment
- Three months into the disaster we still don’t know how bad it is, and they’re no nearer getting things under control
Now shift that to a third-world country… and imagine just how many things can go wrong.
And despite recent back-downs from technically advanced countries like Japan, Switzerland and Germany, we’re still looking at a new reactor boom. From 1996 to 2008 there were only 438 reactors online globally, but as of the beginning of this year:
- 62 new reactors were under construction
- 158 more were on order or planned
- 324 were proposed.
The speed with which the operator of the Japanese nuclear plant lost control, and the subsequent meltdowns of three reactors, ensuing explosions and overheating of fuel rod storage pools, were a wake-up call for nuclear regulators.
If in a modern, stable democracy, there could be apparently lax regulatory oversight, failure of infrastructure, and a slow response to a crisis from authorities, then it begs the question of how others would handle a similar situation.
The article points to several danger areas:
- Industry regulators need to be indepdendent – needless to say, this isn’t just a problem with authoritarian regimes. Lack of independence has been noted as a problem with Japan’s nuclear regulation – and America’s, as well.
- Corruption can lead to corners being cut in construction and maintenance – again, not just a problem in third world countries.
- Infrastructure – “Poor roads would be a problem if a nuclear plant was crippled and urgently needed emergency support.”
- Fuel storage – “Where are they going to store the used fuel … More advanced countries can’t even get that right, so how’s Vietnam going to?”
- Technical competence – the report quotes Pham Duy Hien, one of Vietnam’s leading nuclear scientists and a former director of the Dalat Nuclear Institute. “The safety of a nuclear power plant does not depend on the equipment, the technical aspects or the design, but mostly on the people who are running the plant.”
So…. where could things go wrong?
In a cable from the U.S. embassy in Hanoi in February 2007, concerns are raised about storing radioactive waste in Vietnam, which has very ambitious plans to build nuclear power plants. Le Dinh Tien, the vice minister of science and technology, is quoted as saying the country’s track record of handling such waste was “not so good” and its inventory of radioactive materials “not adequate.”
…When asked about Vietnam’s plans for eight reactors in a decade, Hien said: “This is mad.”
“We don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have the experience,” he said.
Vietnam, which has one small research reactor in operation currently but plans to bring eight nuclear power plants online between 2020 and 2030, has one main north-south highway and a decent network of provincial roads.
But the scene on the roads consists of a mixed procession of trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, water buffalo, stray dogs, ducks, children going to and from school and the occasional horse-drawn cart – and that’s on a normal day. In an emergency it could, of course, be more chaotic. There is a north-south train, but it’s slow, old and narrow gauge.
…a cable written in November 2008 describes the man who would have the responsibility for regulation of a proposed nuclear program, Kamaladdin Heydarov, as “ubiquitous, with his hands in everything from construction to customs.”
“He is rumored to have made his fortune while heading up the State Customs Service, and is now heavily invested in Baku’s rampant construction boom,” says the cable.
Even in India, which already has a well developed nuclear industry and plans to build 58 more reactors, eyebrows can be raised. The security at one nuclear facility visited by a U.S. delegation in November 2008 is described in one cable as only “moderate” with security officers performing bag and vehicle checks that weren’t thorough, a lack of cameras in key areas, and some parts having very little security at all.
…A senior official at India’s atomic energy department, A.P. Joshi, said it hadn’t previously heard of the security doubts and therefore couldn’t comment on them.
“In countries where you have an authoritarian, personalized power system in place, the very idea of a completely independent oversight body is anathema.”
Turmoil of the kind sweeping north Africa and the Middle East could affect the security of power plants and nuclear fuel – which some fear could be turned into weapons in case of a coup or if they fell into the hands of terrorists.
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- TED Talk: Pro vs Con on Nuclear Energy
(Springfield nuclear reactor image © FOX Television)