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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Asian Nukes

Air Date: Week of

In Asia, dozens of new nuclear reactors are expected to start construction in the next decade to meet growing demand for electricity. But questions of safety and waste disposal remain, as they do in the US and Europe. Steve Curwood talks with Philip Shenon, who covers the rise of nuclear power for the New York Times.


CURWOOD: There hasn't been an order for a new atomic power plant here in the United States since 1979. But in Asia, dozens of new nuclear reactors are expected to start construction in the next decade, to meet growing demand for electricity there. But the questions of safety and waste disposal that have practically shut down American and European markets to the nuclear power industry remain in Asia, and there is still the concern that nuclear plants can support the development of nuclear weapons. Philip Sheenan has been covering the rise of nuclear power in Asia for the New York Times. I asked him why the Asian market is opening up.

SHEENAN: Well, there are several reasons. This part of the world is home to the fastest-growing economies on Earth, and those economies need energy to continue to grow. In Asia power demand is expected to triple over the next 20 years. At this point, most nations in this region are dependent on imported fuel and the idea of having to import 3 times as much as they do now is not very appealing. Nuclear power offers a domestically-produced form of energy that ends much of their need for foreign fuel, specifically oil. There's also a matter of prestige involved here. There's a perception, rightly or wrongly on the part of many Asian nations, that a developed nation, a modern nation, needs nuclear power. If my neighbor has it, why shouldn't I have it? For some countries, too, there is the more ominous logic that they may some day feel the need to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea, Pakistan, India, have all turned their nuclear energy programs into bomb-making programs.

CURWOOD: Alright let's talk, now, which countries are particular targets for the nuclear manufacturers.

SHEENAN: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, they all have sizable nuclear energy programs at this point. Japan produces something like 30% of its energy from nuclear power. In South Korea the figure is 40%. China is far and away the nation that is most aggressive now in pursuing nuclear energy. It opened its first commercial nuclear complex only last year, and it has plans for 30 more reactors.

CURWOOD: Thirty more reactors?

SHEENAN: Thirty more reactors over the next 30 years. Indonesia is talking about having dozens of nuclear power plants to feed its, you know, very fast-growing economy.

CURWOOD: Now why does a nation such as China, which has huge fossil fuel reserves, push nuclear power?

SHEENAN: For the Chinese it is again this matter of prestige, that nuclear power is seen as a means of nation-building. It's also, for the many -- Chinese scientists argued that it is in many ways a cleaner fuel than the coal that they have available to them now, which obviously is a heavily polluting fuel.

CURWOOD: Who are the major manufacturers of reactors that are involved in the Asian market now?

SHEENAN: Westinghouse, General Electric, there are several French companies, British companies. All are involved in pursuing nuclear projects in Asia. The French have recently opened a large complex in China, just 18 miles from the border with Hong Kong.

CURWOOD: And how much money are we talking about here? What's this market worth?

SHEENAN: Potentially tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars for the nuclear power industry, which really has been shut down in the West in terms of construction. Asia is their savior.

CURWOOD: Let's talk now about safety. There have been some complaints from Asian environmental activists that the West is dumping its old and dangerous technology in the region. Is that the case?

SHEENAN: There is concern that, in some Asian countries and again China in particular, that nuclear power plants are being built with western design, western technology. But they're being put up too quickly and corners are being cut. There's been a great deal of concern about this new French-built plant near Hong Kong. There have been a rash of accidents at that plant that have alarmed a lot of people in Hong Kong, and the Chinese have up to now stonewalled on explaining what's going on.

CURWOOD: What about waste disposal? It's a big problem here in the West. How are these Asian nations going to deal with it?

SHEENAN: I think it's very safe to say that they haven't figured that out yet. It's a huge problem out here. South Korea, notably, has virtually no capacity left to store its spent fuel. Tons of it are building up and the government at this point is running out of places to bury it. Every time a new permanent site for disposal is proposed it produces a massive public uproar in the surrounding community.

CURWOOD: How big a worry is the proliferation of nuclear arms as more and more nations develop this nuclear technology? How many people are saying Hmm, I could do what Pakistan or what China or India has done?

SHEENAN: I think it's a tremendous concern. You know, we have several cases: North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India. All have used their nuclear energy programs to begin the process of making bombs, and without a great deal of international supervision. The number of countries on that list of potential nuclear powers is bound to increase.

CURWOOD: The New York Times's Phil Sheenan speaking to us from Bangkok. Thank you, sir.

SHEENAN: Thank you.



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