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Home > Media Reiews > News Review Last Updated: 14:52 03/09/2007
News Review #47: July 10, 2002

Japanese Shipment of Nuclear Fuel Raises Security Fears

Reviewed By Hitoshi URABE

"Japanese Shipment of Nuclear Fuel Raises Security Fears"
By Howard W. French, The New York Times


Arguably electricity is deemed to be the cleanest and safest form of energy which is also probably the most easy to handle. Technically speaking, however, it has to be produced by transforming some other form of energy. Initially it was heat from burning coal, a packed form of energy abundant and relatively easy to haul. Then came crude oil, which is easy to collect as it spurts out by itself and significantly easier to transport once appropriate facilities are established.

The problem with this type of chemically stored energy was that they emitted various types of poisonous compounds when burned, i.e. oxidized. People have since then learned ways to rid of evident pollutants from the discharges, but there is no way to avoid emission of CO2, because the chemical bonding reaction of carbon and oxygen is what generates heat. This is where nuclear power has the advantage, as it emits no CO2. In fact, nuclear power plant emits nothing in the air or water if built and maintained properly.

The fundamental architecture of nuclear electric power generation is not much different from those using coal or petroleum. The difference is whether the energy in the form of heat is produced by burning the fuel or is released naturally in the form of radiation, then the rest of the process is essentially the same.

As uranium, the fuel of nuclear power generator, remits its energy, a portion of it is transformed into plutonium. Plutonium is also radioactive, so in theory, it could be utilized as a source of power, too. But taming it is significantly difficult compared to uranium, and the use of it is practically limited to fabricating bombs.

Electricity from atomic energy is thus fundamentally friendly to environment but it has long been subjected to intense controversy. Apparently, however, the reasons behind the opposition are diverse.

Being the only people to have experienced nuclear bomb attacks to their cities, many Japanese oppose to almost everything with a modifier that involves atom or nucleus. It is not easy to cope with this argument, as it is more emotional than practical or theoretical. Ignorance has been reported as a reason for many people to object, too, which tend to cause sheer fear of radiation.

One conceivably viable argument against nuclear power is the risk involved. Nuclear reactions must be designed to contain radiation securely. In addition, the operation of the plant must be conducted in a failsafe manner, both in terms of hardware and software, as mistakes and failures could lead to fatal meltdown if not explosion. There have been accidents, some serious and a number of minor ones. What made things worse were not the incidents themselves, however. Too often, people involved and responsible have tried to hide the small incidents, effectively losing whatever confidence people had in nuclear power.

In 1980, Sweden decided to abolish all nuclear generators by 2010. It is still uncertain as to whether they can really achieve that goal. They are reportedly planning to burn their abundant supply of wood to generate electricity. It would certainly reduce some risks compared to nuclear power, but would be supplying plenty of CO2 in the atmosphere, and stratosphere.

Presently Belgium is seeking to pass a bill to limit the term of existing nuclear power plant to operate to maximum of 40 years while banning new facilities to be built, which in effect would stop all nuclear electric power generation by 2025. For a country with its 60% of electricity generated at nuclear plants, this is a very venturous attempt to say the least. Besides, the neighboring France presently has 70% of its electricity from nuclear facilities across the country, which would effectively void much of the argument of risk in Belgium, which is right next door.

A third of total electric power in Japan is generated by nuclear plants. The share is expected to rise further although new plans are facing fierce opposition especially from the localities where the plants are suggested to be constructed. Nuclear power is suited for Japan, at least in theory and in very general terms, because of Japan's scarce natural energy resources including coal, oil, and uranium. Among them uranium is the most efficient form of packed energy, and imports it from the countries who has the resources. Then, in accordance with relative contracts and agreements, Japan is obliged to return the residue of used fuel, a substance that contains plutonium, to designated countries.

Wind and solar powers are of course clean and safe, a lot more so than nuclear power. But experts agree that there are not enough of this sort of energy to be captured and utilized to satisfy the demand for electricity globally.

Nuclear power is an inherently risky means of producing electricity, and may not be necessarily inexpensive considering all the safety measures it requires. Perhaps we could all sleep better if it were replaced with some other method. However, it seems we must live with it until such other method is realized, unless we are willing to give up much of the amenity electricity has delivered to our everyday lives. Until then, shipments of fresh and used fuel, in and out of Japan, must continue.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications