Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nuclear energy today- Safe or susceptible?

In the wake of the recent natural (and man-made?) disasters in Japan, it is interesting to compare nuclear emergencies now and 25 years ago, with Japan and Chernobyl. During the recent Bluestocking discussion group meeting, our discussions on this topic appeared to focus-in on three main points: the roles of communication, contractors and Climate Change.

During the Cold War, when the Chernobyl nuclear melt down occurred, communication between the government and its people, between countries, and in particular, across the iron curtain, was extremely poor. One of the consequences of this was the initial secrecy surrounding the meltdown which resulted in delayed emergency responses and ultimately, greater loss of life and environmental damage. In comparison, information concerning the Japanese nuclear crises appeared to be plentiful and timely. National and international pressure, and condemnation of initial slow communication, saw the Japanese government step-up their press releases and public announcements. With globalisation and international media, details of the emergency were broadcast not only to Japan’s residents, but also to news channels around the world.

Interestingly, some of the initial communication confusion in Japan appeared to come from the private contractors who built and ran the systems. This raises potentially serious questions about privatisation of nuclear reactors. Does a company have the same incentives or perceived responsibility to report problems as a government? Is the private industry under more pressure to turn-a-profit and under less scrutiny concerning safety measures? Such questions and concerns further increase the need for greater transparency in business operations, especially in such a sensitive environment as ‘nuclear’. As we saw in the Chernobyl case, though, this need for transparency is just as true for governments. Transparency and communication appear to be key concerns during national emergencies.

Since Chernobyl, international pro-nuclear actors have argued that nuclear power plants have radically transformed and improved, so that such a meltdown could not occur again. However, whilst the technology has progressed, a new threat to the safety of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste storage is rising; that is, Climate Change. In layman’s terms: As the glaciers and icesheets melt (eg in Greenland), this causes an extraordinary amount of weight to lift off the landmass beneath it, causing structural change in the alignment of the continental plates. This can lead to changing patterns of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity. Whilst this is not necessarily the case for the Japanese crises, it does raise concerning questions about the future. Where is it “safe” to build a nuclear reactor, and can we continue to safely contain the hazardous material?

Whilst some have criticised the overwhelming press coverage on the nuclear crises (in comparison to the death toll caused by the tsunami), this does give us occasion to reflect on the pros and cons of nuclear. Communication, contractors and Climate Change are just a snap shot of some of the issues that need continual scrutiny in this arena. For more information on this topic, have a look at the links in the blog below. Feel free to post up your comments concerning nuclear and Japan. What is your view: Is nuclear safe or susceptible?

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