Nuclear power`s safety comes under attack again

Douglas J.Smith,

Managing Editor

A leak of sodium coolant at one of Japan`s newest nuclear reactors, the Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor, has caused an uproar from the country`s citizens and could threaten Japan`s plutonium program. After the accident, some government officials and local residents called for the shutting down of the Monju fast-breeder reactor. The state-owned Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (PNC) took more than one hour before alerting the central government. When PNC announced the leak, environmental lobby groups claim that PNC initially tried to downplay the leak by saying it was only a small leak, when it was actually quite large.

Because Japan has no natural energy resources and in light of the oil crisis of the 1970s, Japan made the decision to become self-sufficient in energy. As a consequence, it gave priority to developing a nuclear power industry. After the US and France, Japan is the world`s third-largest producer of nuclear energy. To avoid a shortage of uranium, Japan also started a fast-breeder reactor program to produce plutonium. Monjo is the latest fast-breeder reactor in this program. In spite of the outcry, Japan says it will continue its plutonium program. Nonetheless, Japan will take into consideration the concerns of the local residents before restarting the Monjo fast-breeder reactor.

The Monjo plant began generating electricity in August 1995; full operation could take longer than expected. Unfortunately, in light of the problems at Monjo, the Japanese government may be forced to review its plutonium policy. Nuclear power has its critics; and no matter how safe the industry, some critics will always be opposed to its use. Because of this, the nuclear industry must find a way of convincing the public at large that nuclear power is safe. Unless the nuclear industry is able to do this, it will continue to receive bad publicity.

What the nuclear industry must do is to enlighten the public about the difference between non-nuclear and nuclear accidents. Whenever there is a problem at a nuclear power plant, however minor and irrespective of whether or not it involves the nuclear side of the plant, it invariably makes headline news. Some years ago, a coal-fired power plant in the US had a very bad accident when a reheat line exploded and killed a number of people. Although the accident was very serious, it did not get reported in the national press or on TV. However, a similar accident at a nuclear plant, which did not kill anyone and was not nuclear related, received international coverage.

Unless we can prevent this type of publicity, the nuclear industry will continue to be considered unsafe. Overcoming this will be difficult. However, as a start, the nuclear industry must be honest and up-front whenever there is a problem. In the case of Monju, PNC should have reported the leak immediately and not downplayed the issue. It is impossible to replace all of the nuclear power generated with renewable sources of energy, and we should not try. Nuclear energy, together with renewables and all other sources of energy, should be options. No one energy source can, or should, supply all of the world`s energy needs.