Looking to the Future of Nuclear Power

Japan will rebuild from the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, but its recovery will have to involve probing questions about nuclear power and a rethinking of the nuclear future from the twin perspectives of safety and nonproliferation.

Japan will rebuild from the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, but its recovery will have to involve probing questions about nuclear power and a rethinking of the nuclear future from the twin perspectives of safety and nonproliferation.

I was attending a symposium about Japan’s future around the year 2030 when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the conference room. The devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami and the following nuclear disaster will definitely change the future of Japan—but we are not yet sure how. As of today, we have yet to gauge the full extent of the destruction, both human and physical. Worse, we still do not know when we will be able to stop the Fukushima nuclear debacle.

In earthquake-prone Japan, buildings are built well to withstand temblors, and most of the buildings withstood the shaking. It was the succeeding tsunami that caused such enormous human loss. Warnings about the oncoming tsunami went off immediately after the earthquake and advised people to get to higher ground, but the waves—reaching as high as 14 meters in some places—were something beyond imagination.

The Nuclear Situation

Nuclear power stations were built to withstand earthquakes as well. None of them broke due to the shaking, and automatic shutdown systems worked as designed. But something that was not anticipated was the failure of the power line supplying operating electricity to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. As designed, backup diesel generators kicked in to continue running the reactor cooling systems, but they stopped soon afterward as the backup systems were flooded by tsunami. Then came the hydrogen explosions, the releases of radioactive fumes, and the pouring of seawater into the facility to cool the reactors and fuel storage pools.

There is a remarkable spirit of cooperation and self-sacrifice as TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, struggles along with the whole government to restore the cooling systems and contain radioactive contamination. The relative calm and stoicism with which the Japanese people are accepting this unprecedented disaster has attracted foreign attention. It is wonderful that this Japanese spirit is working in the disaster areas stricken by the quake and tsunami. I have been also greatly heartened by the outpouring of expressions of sympathy and support coming from all around the world.

I am confident that the Japanese people will work hard to rebuild from the disaster and bring the economy back to normalcy. In the process, though, we have to give deep thought to the following basket of questions, particularly concerning the nuclear power station debacle.

What Went Wrong, and What Can Be Done?

The first questions must address why such a calamitous disaster took place at the Fukushima Daiichi (no. 1) Nuclear Power Station, while the Fukushima Daini (no. 2) Nuclear Power Station that was just 10 kilometers to the south and the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station, which was even closer to the quake’s epicenter, survived. Was it a design fault? Was TEPCO unprepared? Did emergency agencies fail to respond properly? Or was Nature’s power simply overwhelming?

Murphy’s Law says, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” If it is only human to err, what can we do to avoid the recurrence of such disaster? There are many technological fixes already being suggested. Build higher dikes. Move backup generators uphill, away from the seashore. Waterproof the wirings. Move spent fuel storage pools away from reactor housings. Reinforce disaster preparedness by readying large mobile power generators, water tankers, ladders, pumps, and hoses. In the longer run, expedite the research and development of radiation- and heat-resistant robots that can perform all needed tasks without risking the lives of engineers and other workers. And organize better domestic and international emergency response forces.

More drastically, some people suggest moving to safer reactor designs, such as high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. Will that really be safer?

What about the area of societal measures? Japan has nuclear safety and regulatory agencies like the Nuclear Safety Commission and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Did they foresee the risk? Were they strong enough to enforce their recommendations on an industrial giant like TEPCO? How can we revamp these agencies, and how can we make power companies work harder for nuclear safety? Should we increase financial penalties? Should we amend the Japanese counterpart of the US Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act? Or, if commercial entities are not fit to operate nuclear power stations, how about nationalizing them all?

An Eye on Future Threats

Last of all, terrorists may have been watching the current disaster with keen interest. Nuclear power stations have long been considered potential targets for terrorist attack. Some, however, have argued that reactors are constructed so robustly, made of alloy metals and surrounded by concrete, that destroying them would be no easy task. Now, however, events have shown that destroying a reactor itself is no requirement to cause havoc. Just destroy the power supply or cooling system, and watch the reactor heat up and melt down.

The potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons is yet another area of concern, and some scientists have been advancing the idea of proliferation-resistant reactor designs. To what extent can they really prevent fissile material from entering the weapons market, though? Just as importantly, can they be made safer than the existing light-water reactors at the same time? Any new reactor design must fulfill the twin objectives of safety and nonproliferation.

I do not have answers to all these questions. But I believe the residents and local governments hosting nuclear power stations are bound to ask them, too. Unless they get satisfactory answers, it will become very difficult to keep the existing nuclear power stations running, not to mention building new ones.

I am sure Japan will rise again from rubble and ash, just as it did six decades ago. In doing so, the nation must emerge with more stringent nuclear safety standards and safer nuclear power stations. (Written on March 31, 2011.)

Abe Nobuyasu

Abe Nobuyasu

Studied at the University of Tokyo and subsequently graduated from Amherst College, where he majored in political science. Joined Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1967 and served in various posts, including director-general for arms control and science affairs and ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Also served as under-secretary general for disarmament affairs at the United Nations. Is now director of the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Nonproliferation, Japan Institute of International Affairs.