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New energy behind nuclear power

With many nations planning more plants as a way around coal, the learning curve spurs safety worries.

January 21, 2008|George Jahn | The Associated Press

VIENNA — Global warming and rocketing oil prices are making nuclear power fashionable, drawing a once-demonized industry out of the shadows of the Chernobyl disaster as a potential model of clean energy.

Britain is the latest nation to announce support for the construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants produces about 20% of Britain's electricity, but all but one are expected to close by 2023.

However, some countries hopping on the nuclear bandwagon have abysmal industrial safety records and are seen as burdened by corruption.

China has 11 nuclear plants and plans to bring at least 30 more online by 2020. And a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report projects that it may need to add as many as 200 reactors by 2050.

Of the more than 100 nuclear reactors being built, planned or on order, about half are in China, India and other developing nations. Argentina, Brazil and South Africa plan to expand existing programs; and Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt and Turkey are among the countries that are considering building their first reactors.

The concerns are hardly limited to developing countries. Japan's nuclear power industry has yet to recover from revelations five years ago of dozens of cases of false reporting on inspections for cracks in reactors.

The Swedish operators of a German reactor came under fire last summer for delays in informing the public about a fire at the plant. And a potentially disastrous partial breakdown of a Bulgarian nuclear plant's emergency shutdown mechanism in 2006 went unreported for two months until whistle-blowers made it public.

Nuclear transparency will be an even greater problem for countries such as China that tightly control information. Those who mistrust the current nuclear revival are still haunted by the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor and the Soviet Union's attempts to hide the full extent of the catastrophe.

The revival, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates, means nearly a doubling of nuclear energy within two decades to 691 gigawatts, or 13.3% of electricity generated.

"We are facing a nuclear renaissance," said Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of the French nuclear energy firm Areva. "Nuclear's not the devil anymore. The devil is coal."

Philippe Jamet, the IAEA's director of nuclear installation safety, described the industry's record as "second to none." Still, he said, countries new to or still learning about nuclear power "have to move down the learning curve, and they will learn from [their] mistakes."

Vienna-based IAEA, a United Nations body, was set up in 1957 in large part to limit such trial and error, providing quality controls and expertise to countries with nuclear programs and overseeing pacts binding them to high safety standards.

But the agency is already stretched with monitoring Iran and North Korea over their suspected nuclear arms programs, and IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said his organization could not be the main guarantor of safety. The primary responsibility, he said, rests with the operators of nuclear facilities and their governments.

Developing nations insist that they are ready for the challenge. But worries persist that bad habits of the past could reflect on operational safety.

In China, for instance, hundreds die annually in the world's most dangerous coal mines and thousands more in fires, explosions and other accidents often blamed on insufficient safety equipment and workers ignoring safety rules.

A Finnish study published in 2005 said India's annual industrial fatality rate was 11.4 people per 100,000 workers and the accident rate 8,700 per 100,000.

Overall, Asian nations excluding China and India have an average industrial accident fatality rate of 21.5 per 100,000 and an accident rate of more than 16,000 per 100,000 workers, according to the report by the Tampere University of Technology in Finland. The study lists a fatality rate of 5.2 people per 100,000 for the U.S. and 3 per 100,000 for France.

Nuclear nations are obligated to report all incidents to the IAEA. But the study said most Asian governments vastly underreport industrial accidents to the U.N.'s International Labor Organization -- fewer than 1% in China's case.

Separately, China and India shared 70th place in the 2006 Corruption Perceptions index, published by the Transparency International think tank. It ranked 163 nations, with the least corrupt first. Vietnam occupied the 111th spot, and Indonesia -- which, like Vietnam, wants to build a nuclear reactor -- came in 130th.

"Are there special concerns about the developing world? The answer is definitely yes," said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert in Australia.

Corrupt officials in licensing and supervisory agencies in the region could undermine the best of IAEA guidelines and oversight, Thayer said.

"There could be a dropping of standards, and that affects all aspects of the nuclear industry, from buying the material to processing applications to building and running the plant."

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