Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Nuclear power plants backed at world talks

Adelaide Advertiser
24 Sep 2011, Page: 77

JAPAN'S Fukushima accident six months ago provoked major worries worldwide about nuclear power, but now the dust has settled it is clear atomic energy still has a rosy future. This at least was the main message of this year's 55th annual gathering of the 151-nation International Atomic Energy Agency at the UN body's headquarters in Vienna, which was due to wrap up last night. With just a few exceptions, most notably Germany, governments have moved to reassure themselves that their nuclear power is safe and that its two main advantages remain: it is not fossil fuel based, and it is cheap.

For India's nuclear chief the "role of nuclear power as a safe, clean and viable source to meet energy needs, as well as to adequately address the concerns of,.. climate change, cannot be undermined". The fast-growing, energy-hungry Asian giant is still planning a "major expansion" in nuclear power, Srikumar Banerjee said, having satisfied itself with a series of safety reviews that an Indian Fukushima was highly unlikely. Fellow emerging giant China, too, ordered safety inspections and stopped green-lighting new plants in Fukushima's immediate aftermath, but state media reported this week that approvals would resume in 2012.

Fellow BRICS (Brazil Russia India China) member Brazil is also sticking with reactor-building plans, as is South Africa, having decided to conduct "safety assessments" in light of Japan's experiences, the country's IAEA envoy Xolisa Mfundiso Mabhongo said. "Informed by the Fukushima accident, South Africa undertook various activities because we were convinced, like others, that we could no longer take a business-as-usual approach to nuclear safety", Mr Mabhongo said in Vienna.

The IAEA this week also endorsed an "action plan" encouraging the around 150 member states to conduct fresh safety assessments and invite foreign experts to conduct "peer reviews" of reactors. South Korea, which currently produces almost 40% of its electricity with 21 nuclear reactors, plans to build more, the country's envoy to the IAEA, Cho Hyun, said. After Fukushima, Seoul "immediately took measures to enhance nuclear safety standards", he said. "People know that we have to keep it. Korea is an industrialised country in need of cheap and reliable power".

A substantial increase in the amount of electricity generated with renewable sources like solar or wind power "requires huge investment" and is not possible "overnight", the ambassador said, l'he US, which generates a fifth of its electricity from nuclear plants, ordered a review after Fukushima but atomic energy is still a key element in President Barack Obama's plans to wean the country off fossil fuels.

In Europe, Germany decided to switch off all reactors by 2022 after Fukushima. Italian voters voted "no" to atomic energy in a referendum while Switzerland aims to phase out nuclear power by 2034. But these are exceptions. For the most part, European governments saw nothing in what happened at Fukushima, where engineers are still working to plug radiation leaks, to change their nuclear plans. France, the world's leading producer with about 75% of its power from nuclear, and Britain, where it accounts for 15%, have made no fundamental changes to their energy policies.

After Fukushima, the IAEA trimmed its forecasts for nuclear power usage in the coming decades, but its minimum projection is still for 90 new reactors to spring up worldwide by 2030. There may even be 350 more, it thinks. "Other countries are not in the affluent situation of Germany" to be able to turn its back on nuclear power, said agency head of projections Hans-Holger Rogner.