Nuclear experts call for heightened safety measures and increased nuclear literacy at a CityU symposium

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Experts from Japan, mainland China, Taiwan, France and US gathered at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) today (10 March) to share their insights on the Fukushima nuclear accident at a symposium jointly organised by CityU’s Department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering and the newly formed Hong Kong Nuclear Society.

General Observation

Local and overseas experts agreed that the Fukushima accident has sparked off a global debate on how the world can meet growing energy demand and the role of nuclear energy. While many lessons have been learnt after the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the Fukushima accident has heightened risks assessment, safety and nuclear governance concerns. The symposium conclusion is that while the governments and regulators of nuclear nations are responding to public concerns about safety, how they will act and what measures they will take will determine if the concerns can be adequately addressed.

Japan after Fukushima

Professor Akira Yamaguchi (Japan) noted that prior to Fukushima, Japan had 54 functional nuclear reactors and was the world’s third largest producer of nuclear electricity, accounting for 30% of the country’s total electricity. There were plans to increase nuclear electricity to 53% by 2030. Although the Fukushima nuclear reactors shut down as designed, the subsequent power outage caused by the tsunami resulted in a failure of the cooling systems, eventually leading to a major release of radioactive materials. Today, only 2 reactors are operating. The rest were shut down for inspection and undergoing stress tests. The damaged Fukushima reactors will be decommissioned. While tests have been completed at various nuclear power plants, they are still waiting for the regulator’s permission to restart. This means Japan lost nearly 30% of its electricity over the past year. To make up for this loss, Japan is importing much more fossil fuels, especially LNG, which is leading to higher electricity charges. Japan is working on a new energy strategy that aims to achieve 4 objectives: promote energy conservation and efficiency; use fossil fuels efficiently; accelerate use of renewables; and reduce dependence on nuclear power. There is also the question of how Japan will meet its carbon target and energy supply in a consistent manner.

China’s nuclear plans

Dr Ren Junsheng (China) emphasised nuclear power remains important to China’s energy development strategy because of its quest for clean energy and climate change mitigation. After the Fukushima accident, China conducted safety inspections of its nuclear plants, the scope of which included appropriateness of site selection, ability to withstand earthquakes and floods, robustness of measures to address various extreme natural events, and effectiveness of monitoring and emergency preparedness etc. A key lesson for China is to minimise risks, starting from site selection to safety design, managing events, and dealing with human and organisational factors. The Chinese nuclear industry still feels confident to meet the install capacity targets of 40 million and 70 million kilowatts by year 2015 and 2020 respectively. Details will be released after the formal release of the national plan on nuclear power safety and development later this year. China is also actively developing a new generation of nuclear energy technologies, including passive safety system and new nuclear power generation technology such as high temperature gas reactor and fast neutron reactor, to further enhance nuclear safety standard and performance.

Taiwan’s preparedness

Dr Kao Tsu-mu (Taiwan) sees Taiwan as part of the global nuclear community. He considers Taiwan’s major nuclear concerns to be earthquakes, tsunami, emergency preparedness and public acceptance. Extensive risks assessments have been carried out since Fukushima, including re-examining emergency preparedness and back-up systems to deal with beyond design failures and multiple failures. The way ahead is to identify and eliminate risks rather than assume extremely unlikely events won’t happen.

Dr Bruce Hallbert (USA) discussed post-accident management and long-term recovery challenges, and Dr Jean-Christophe Gariel (France) discussed France’s assessment of Fukushima, including radiation released into the air and water, and Fukushima’s impact on the French nuclear industry.

For general inquiry about the symposium, CityU and HKNS, please contact Dr Luk Bing-lam at 3442 8673.

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