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Thursday, June 21, 2007

GLOBAL WARMING CURE OR PROLIFERATION THREAT?

Nuclear industry gears up for global push


Staff writer

KYOTO — Japan's nuclear power industry is pushing to get atomic energy on next year's agenda when this nation hosts the Group of Eight summit meetings, saying it is time world leaders recognize the power source as a practical way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, those opposed to nuclear power argue that more than 2,000 new atomic plants would have to be built worldwide to replace current fossil fuel plants, resulting in uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear materials and no significant cut in greenhouse gases.

At the conclusion of this year's G8 summit in Germany, world leaders agreed to combat climate change through investment in cost-efficient renewable energy technologies. In particular, they promised to promote international use of clean technologies, biofuel and biomass. Noticeably missing from the final statement was clear-cut support for nuclear power.

"Hopefully, as Japan hosts the G8 summit next year, the role of nuclear power as a stable, cost-efficient energy source that can help reduce greenhouse gases will be discussed," said Yumi Akimoto, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, following a meeting between French and Japanese nuclear power officials in Kyoto in early June.

Of the G8 countries, Russia, France, Japan and the United States are the most vocal proponents of new investment in nuclear plants in both the developed and developing world as a key solution to dealing with global warming. Despite a domestic nuclear industry that has been plagued by accidents and scandals, Japan's atomic ambitions are now international.

At present, Japan has bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with Australia, Canada, China, France, Britain, the U.S. and the European Atomic Energy Community, or Euratom.

Negotiations are under way with Russia on an agreement that would reportedly allow Russia to re-enrich spent uranium fuel from British plants and send it to Japan, while last August, Tokyo signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan to help develop that country's substantial uranium reserves.

And those are just the formal agreements. As Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, noted last month at a news conference with foreign journalists, Japan is also promoting nuclear power in East and Southeast Asia.

"Japan attaches great significance to regional nuclear cooperation in Asia through the Forum of Nuclear Cooperation in Asia. Our midterm strategy is to assist developing countries in creating a domestic framework to introduce nuclear power, and to provide that country with any expert assistance it requests," Kondo said.

The forum was conceived by Japan's nuclear power industry and is run by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Member countries include Australia, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Ministerial-level representatives in charge of nuclear power meet regularly to discuss technical, health, safety and public opinion issues related to introducing and operating nuclear plants for peaceful uses.

While proponents speak of a worldwide "nuclear renaissance" and have persuaded more countries to begin to turn back to nuclear power or look at it for the first time to meet energy needs and combat global warming, there remain fundamental roadblocks to actually building hundreds of new reactors worldwide.

At the top of the list are proliferation concerns and waste disposal. Japanese nuclear industry executives insist that utilizing the most advanced disposal technologies will make getting rid of the waste safe and efficient and all but impossible for potential terrorists to get their hands on nuclear materials.

But many on both sides fear that building new power plants, particularly in countries with little transparency, will increase the dangers of proliferation to an unacceptable risk.

In an open letter to noted author James Lovelock in April, 14 Japanese-based environmental and human rights groups warned that a worldwide nuclear power renaissance would put the world in great danger.

"If nuclear power was to replace all fossil fuel plants and all the current nuclear power plants which will be decommissioned, about 2,230 new nuclear reactors would have to be built (worldwide,) even if future electricity demand is assumed to be flat. The expansion of nuclear energy is one of the biggest threats to global security," the letter said.

"What will happen if lots of countries introduce technology and equipment for nuclear power, train nuclear scientists and engineers and obtain large quantities of nuclear material? It is impossible to deny that nations and subnational groups with the necessary specialist knowledge and skills and access to such equipment and material could make a nuclear weapon," the letter warned.

Philip White, a spokesman for the Tokyo-based Citizens Nuclear Information Center, said that with the G8 nations divided over nuclear power, next year's summit in Hokkaido is unlikely to see the kind of clear commitment the Japanese industry is hoping for.

Antinuclear activists, including White and Aileen Mioko Smith of Kyoto-based Green Action, argue nuclear power is a red herring that is distracting both politicians and the public from aggressively pursuing other ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

"Nuclear power is as terrible for global warming as coal. That's because the vast investments necessary to fund new nuclear power plants will grab funds away from much better ways of reducing carbon dioxide gases," Smith said.



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