World

Spotlight on nuclear safety
bigger than ever

More than 50 world leaders will gather in South Korea over the next few days ahead of Monday's two-day Nuclear Security Summit.

But unlike the circumstances surrounding the inaugural meeting in 2010 - the aim of which was to highlight the seriousness of nuclear terrorism threats and call for a unified effort to reduce them - the Seoul gathering comes at a time when concerns about another form of nuclear threat are the highest they have ever been.

Scenes of a spewing Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant still haunt many, none more so than the 100,000 people who were displaced from their homes as a result of the triple meltdown at the facility. The disaster led to a wake-up call worldwide, with governments calling for a relook into the safety systems at such facilities.

A year on, the effects of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 can still be felt.

In India, mass protests and hunger strikes were staged against proposed plants already under construction. A survey conducted by the Japan Association for Public Opinion Research, released this week, revealed that 80 per cent of Japanese want to phase out the country's reliance on nuclear power, before eventually eliminating it.

Yet in reality, the Fukushima incident is unlikely to be but a speed bump as nations continue chugging down the nuclear power route.

Even in the wake of Fukushima, the number of nuclear reactors is still set to double in the next 30 years or so. According to nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 436 nuclear power reactors in operation worldwide.

And while a few countries like Germany and Switzerland have pledged to go nuclear free, there are at least 40 other nations that will either continue with their nuclear reactor programs or go ahead with plans to build new nuclear facilities.

A recent report by the World Energy Council, whose members include many of the biggest energy companies from around the world, pointed out an interesting statistic.

As at March last year, a total of 547 reactors were being proposed, planned or under construction. As of last month, that number stands at 558. The report went on to add that the safety of nuclear power plants should be a priority for governments.

It was a view shared by Patrick Moore, honorary chairman of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy Canada, who told The Guardian newspaper that the true lesson of Fukushima was not of nuclear risk but of nuclear safety.

Even Japan, which had previously said it would wean itself off nuclear power, has admitted that it is likely that it has to restart some of the more than 50 reactors that have been taken offline since the March 2011 nuclear disaster to cope with the country's power needs.

Speaking to Asean journalists last week, Japan's Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano, the government's chief spokesman during the Fukushima crisis, maintained that he was still of the opinion that nuclear power was a safe form of energy.

But he added: "We will not go back in the foreseeable future (to nuclear energy accounting for one-third of energy supply). It depends on public opinion."

Thus, the key takeaway that must come from next week's Seoul Summit is one of reassurance - even as countries embark on their nuclear plans, steps are taken to ensure the global community that safeguards are in place to render nuclear power as safe as possible.

Last month, the Seoul government invited me to South Korea to study the country's sprawling network of nuclear power facilities.

It is apt that Seoul is hosting the biennial summit this year, given its ambitious bid to become a major player in the export of nuclear reactor technology.

The state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP), which runs 21 reactors in the country's south, was part of a South Korean consortium which sealed a landmark US$20 billion deal in 2009 to build four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. It is now targeting projects in Turkey and Vietnam, among others, and plans to capture 20 per cent of the world market for nuclear reactors by 2030. This was previously dominated by countries like Japan, France and the United States.

Bong Ki Hyung, director-general at KHNP's Kori nuclear power facility in Busan, told The Straits Times that government-initiated safety and security measures were implemented, post-Fukushima, to restore public confidence and ensure safety. A total of 50 short and long-term action plans were carried out. They were based on worst-case scenarios that covered everything from natural disasters, power failure and severe accidents to even possible terrorist threats.

Domestically, KHNP's nuclear power reactors provide 40 per cent of the nation's electricity supply. Plans are in place to raise that to 59 per cent by 2030.

And even as South Korea embarks on its expansion plans overseas, Lee Jong Ho, KHNP's vice-president, maintains it will do so sticking closely to IAEA rules and regulations concerning nuclear facilities and the disposing of nuclear waste.

Such plans can potentially affect Singapore, which has talked about tapping nuclear power. Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have also expressed interest in using nuclear energy.

And even though the Republic may not have any plans to build a nuclear plant for now, there are benefits to understanding the implications of having such facilities in the region.

Singapore's hosting of the first Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Seminar on Nuclear Safety in June will go some way to ensuring that enough attention is devoted to a subject Singaporeans may not yet fully understand.

Proponents of nuclear power speak about how it is a relatively clean form of energy; opponents point to how it produces high levels of enriched nuclear material that can be used in nuclear weapons.

With renewable energy yet to provide base-load levels of power, the world cannot ignore the fact that nuclear power will be something we will have to live with for some time yet.

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