Editorial: Crisis unlikely to halt rise of atomic energy

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From its very start, the nuclear energy industry has, understandably enough, been handicapped by images of the aftermath of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fears about anything nuclear, even when adopted for peaceful purposes, were heightened by the accidents at the Three Mile Island power station in 1979 and, more seriously, Chernobyl seven years later. Trepidation about an even more catastrophic release of radiation took a generation to fade.

But over the past three or four years there has been a nuclear renaissance. As many as 65 new reactors are being built. Once again, however, the very existence of the industry is being questioned, following the massive earthquake in Japan.

Global attention has focused on the Fukushima Daiichi complex, where concern has escalated since the earthquake and ensuing tsunami knocked out power, crippling the cooling systems needed to keep nuclear fuel from going into full meltdown. People were evacuated from the surrounding area, and panic swept Tokyo after a slight rise in radiation levels.

The alarm did not stop there. Around the world, political leaders have rushed to announce a reassessment of nuclear energy programmes. Claiming much of the attention has been the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who spoke of "a turning point for the world" and suspended for three months a decision to extend the life of Germany's nuclear power stations.

The latter makes sense in terms of allowing time to analyse what has happened at Fukushima. But talk of a turning point, except in short-term public sentiment, is debatable. The reasons for the nuclear renaissance need to be understood, as does the scenario that would unfold if this type of power were abandoned.

Most fundamentally, the world must decide whether to hold to the belief that the dangers posed by climate change should take precedence over the risks of using nuclear technology.

It was fears aroused by global warming that triggered the escalation in the building of nuclear power stations. For many nations, these were seen as the key to reducing dependence on coal-fired power stations. In 2007, President George W. Bush put it succinctly when he said, "If you truly care about greenhouse gases then you'll support nuclear power."

The obverse of this policy would, at least in the short term, surely see a return to fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - by the many nations that do not have the energy options, especially of a green tinge, that New Zealand enjoys. Already, however, many of these, including Japan, probably depend too heavily on nuclear power for there to be a road back.

Clearly, there are lessons from Fukushima. One is that nuclear reactors will always entail a risk. It is little use for nuclear proponents to say what happened in Japan was beyond imagining. That seems to be heard too often to be a reassurance. Obviously, more attention needs to be paid to the siting and safety of stations. Countries such as Chile and Indonesia, which have histories of major earthquakes, must ask whether they can produce nuclear power safely.

Chile's President, Sebastian Pinera, was disingenuous in promising "technologies that are absolutely earthquake-proof in terms of security". But he was only being realistic when he added that Chile could not afford to categorically reject any alternative form of energy.

Volatile oil prices are providing yet another reason for many countries with fast-growing energy needs to look towards nuclear power. The likes of Russia, China and the United States say they still see it as the way forward. They have their reasons, but the reawakening of public fears means they must now address significant issues of safety and security.

- NZ Herald

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