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Critical Environmental Questions: Nuclear Energy and Human Security in Asia

April 2010
Some now talk of a nuclear renaissance. There are already more than 430 nuclear power reactors operating worldwide and the number of new plants planned or under construction continues to grow. The IAEA’s updated projections show a significant increase in the use of nuclear energy by 2030, with nuclear power capacity possibly doubling. Some of these new plants are in Europe and, possibly, in the USA but much of the current expansion, as well as near term and long term growth prospects, is centred in Asia. This is commensurate with the region’s growing energy demands and current dependence on oil and other energy resources imported from other regions. In its expansion, the nuclear energy industry may expand not only in numbers but into developing countries in Asia that have no record in nuclear energy production. Currently, the nuclear energy option is being considered (at different stages of feasibility, legal and other processes) in the following Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. 
 
 
Nuclear power has come into consideration among Southeast Asia governments as a means to solve looming electricity shortages. Thailand is planning to install their first capacity by 2020; Vietnam is aiming for their first nuclear plant by 2015; Malaysia has plans for their first nuclear power plant by 2020; Indonesia’s Mt. Muria plant will start construction in 2011 and is scheduled to become operational by 2018. The plans and possibilities in Southeast Asia have raised safety and environmental concern among observers in the region.
 
 
There are different dimensions of concern with a nuclear energy renaissance, especially in developing Asia. These include the economic viability, given the huge upfront cost of these plants; their impact on governance, given the closed and secretive culture of the industry and the frequent incidence of corruption surrounding nuclear plants specifically and large projects generally; nuclear security, given the dangers of proliferation and “dirty bombs” whether by state actors or terrorist groups; safety in terms of their design, construction and operation; and their environmental impact, given concerns for the life and health of human beings, natural resources and nature.
 
This paper will focus on the environmental concerns, while also touching on associated safety concerns. From the environmental perspective, it will also draw principles and processes that have implications for questions of governance and decision-making on the viability of nuclear energy plants. Environmental concerns are often subsidiary or even an afterthought when thinking about the question of nuclear energy. This paper argues that environmental concerns must be fully integrated into the decision making process. 
 
 
Looking at environmental issues, there is something of a dichotomy. On one side, there are many proponents of nuclear energy who now cast nuclear energy as a “green” and alternative source of energy. They argue that nuclear energy can meet energy needs without emitting climate change gases, and is therefore “green”. However, this paper surveys other studies to show that there are carbon emissions when viewed in the perspective of the full life cycle of a nuclear plant. While these may be lower than coal, oil or gas energy production, there are also other concerns such as waste and safety of transport that must be factored in.  
 
 
The other side of the argument argues that, there are long established concerns about the adverse environmental, and health effects from nuclear energy operation. Some of this focuses on particular and notable accidents, especially the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl reactor accidents, as well as accidents at fuel cycle facilities in the United States, Russia, and Japan. Another longstanding environmental problem related to nuclear energy is the long-term management of radioactive waste. Nothing will affect the public acceptability of nuclear power as much as a serious nuclear accident.
 
 
Less visible, but also important are concerns about everyday operations of a nuclear energy plant. The potential impact on the public from high amounts of radioactive release and on the environment from safety and waste management failures are unique to nuclear energy.  No country has yet successfully implemented a system for disposing of spent fuel or high level radioactive waste streams created at various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle.  Regular leaks of radioactive materials, even if of low level, can alter the overall safety for the environment, and may (unlike the spectacular plant accident) be more widespread, and hard to detect. The public’s views on the effects on environment, safety and waste are critical to their judgments about the future deployment of this technology. 
 
 
This paper will discuss the environmental perspectives on nuclear energy with specific reference to its adoption by countries in Asia with no past record in this industry. In so doing, it will begin by making explicit the perspective of environmental protection and sustainable development. Secondly, it will briefly outline the potential risks in the life cycle of nuclear energy production. Thirdly, it will consider the particular environmental risks in the context of Asia and countries that are new to the industry. Fourth, it will evaluate the claims that nuclear energy is “green”. Fifth, the paper will consider environmentally friendly alternatives to provide for energy supply and security. 









 

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