x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Japan crisis will redefine the future for nuclear power

The Fukushima disaster is still unfolding, but it now appears the crisis could end up rivalling Chernobyl as a category 7, the highest degree. But even before the scientific facts are known, lessons can already be drawn from the accident in the context of the current political upheaval in the Middle East.

The Fukushima disaster is still unfolding, but it now appears the crisis could end up rivalling Chernobyl as a category 7, the highest degree. But even before the scientific facts are known, lessons can already be drawn from the accident in the context of the current political upheaval in the Middle East.

The end of nuclear power is nowhere in sight; nuclear power is here to stay. There are more than 400 operating reactors in the world, each with a planned operating timespan of at least 40 years. No responsible government will want to squander that investment.

Those who refer to a "pause" do it largely to appease worried citizens. Even countries which claim that they will now prepare their exit from the nuclear era will continue to rely on nuclear reactors for several decades.

Although it provides only slightly more than 15 per cent of all electricity that's generated globally, nuclear power will remain a part of the energy mix for most modern countries. No other source can provide reliable electricity generation for major urban and industrial centres without carbon emissions, particularly in the context of dwindling oil and gas reserves.

That said, nuclear safety standards will never be the same again. The causes of Japan's catastrophe are now beginning to appear: take an old reactor, add a security standard that wasn't adapted to a rare event - not so much the earthquake, but the tsunami that followed - and a lack of suitable controls or oversight of safety inspections, and you have a recipe for disaster. Indeed, one of the major public discoveries of the catastrophe was the dire state of the Japanese nuclear industry, whose safety culture was found wanting to say the least.

From now on, plant operators are going to face much more governmental and public scrutiny than has been the case. Old reactors such as Fukushima will no longer be easily maintained in service. After two major accidents in 25 years, many will demand that the threshold of the maximum acceptable risk in case of flooding, earthquakes or tsunamis be significantly raised.

Third-generation reactors such as Areva's EPR and Toshiba's AP1000 - that are more expensive than others but include higher built-in safety standards - will appear more attractive to potential customers. A premium will be placed on the quality of training of engineers and technicians. And plans for international assistance in case of a serious accident will be revised; the International Atomic Energy Agency will certainly have a role here.

Nuclear power plants can no longer be a matter of "prestige" for operating nations. Among the tens of countries which have announced their interest for nuclear power, Iran has been one of the pioneers. But its public discourse, which has centred on nuclear energy a symbol of prestige and modernity, will now fall on deaf ears. And the fears expressed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in December 2006 of an accident at the Bushehr plant will certainly be voiced again.

Moreover, the Fukushima accident occurred in the midst of the most profound political changes in the Middle East for several decades. Those changes will undoubtedly affect the nuclear energy plans in the region.

For one, new regimes in Egypt and Tunisia may not have the priority of confirming or continuing on with costly programmes, especially given the current economic crisis. Entry into the nuclear club requires significant amounts of capital. Possible increases in price due to even more stringent security and safety standards will make entry costs even higher.

In addition, while applauded by western countries, the Arab revolutions have not reassured nuclear suppliers who worry about the future stability of their customers. As a result, for the foreseeable future, only the most committed, stable and richest countries will be able to join that club.

Nuclear proliferation risks are changing, too. The slowing down of the nuclear renaissance is good news for those who worry about proliferation risks; for instance, from now on, it will be much more difficult to launch a civilian programme as a disguise for a military one. But the proliferation landscape is also changing rapidly due to the political turmoil in the Middle East.

Within the region, Egypt is often rightly mentioned as a possible candidate for walking in Iran's nuclear footsteps. But Egypt's new regime may be less obsessed with Iran's nuclear programme than former president Hosni Mubarak was - or at least less committed to countering Iranian influence in the region.

As a result, the temptation to go for a military nuclear option if the Islamic Republic was to get the bomb may be less pronounced in a new context than it was until last year.

The bad news is that the international community's intervention against the Libyan regime may also strengthen Iran's determination to go for the bomb. Over the years, Col Qaddafi reportedly concluded that the only way to protect yourself against an international military intervention was to have nuclear weapons (although he never succeeded in acquiring one). No doubt that many within Iran's leadership, and maybe elsewhere, are now thinking along the same lines.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al Faisal has given us pause for thought by declaring, during a recent visit to Abu Dhabi, that the GCC could consider creating its own nuclear weapons programme if efforts to derail Iran's fails. The global nuclear landscape is changing fast indeed.

 

Bruno Tertrais is a senior research fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in France