Nuclear Reality Check

International reflection on nuclear energy needs to occur

Japan’s nuclear disaster has sobered the world. What’s more is that in the age of globalization, Japan’s tragedy has morphed into a global crisis—international markets have tanked and some of Japan’s radiation has spilled into California and China.

According to the International Energy Agency, over 31 countries currently operate a total of 440 nuclear power plants. The number is likely to exceed 800 by 2025. Therefore, in the aftermath of the Fukushima plant’s very pubic display of the dangers of nuclear power, all countries must reflect on their ambitions for nuclear power.

As seen from the Japanese example, a future nuclear disaster in one country can have an adverse effect on all countries. Facing similar challenges regarding nuclear energy, the international community must work together to establish tighter nuclear protocols and standards. Internationally, the Fukushima plant disaster has provoked sharp criticism of nuclear power as a viable energy source. But regardless of criticisms, the reality is that nuclear power is here to stay.

Many developing countries have no choice but to continue with their nuclear plans. China and India alone have plans to build over 200 plants over the next 20 years. There simply isn’t enough fossil fuel-based energy or cheap renewable alternatives to fuel their energy-hungry economies. In an effort to uplift hundreds of millions of their citizens from poverty, their choice to pursue abundant nuclear power, despite its risks, may be well justified. At least in the medium term, developed countries like the U.S.—with a 20 percent dependency on nuclear power—can’t simply shut off existing plants or completely rule out the establishment of future plants.

Given the inevitable growth of nuclear power and the fact that the futures of all open economies are intertwined, it makes sense for countries to work together to establish tighter nuclear standards. The U.S. should seize this moment to lead a necessary global effort to ensure the safety of our own existing plants and the safety and sustainability of new plants in emerging economies.


To begin this effort, a team of independent, international scientists must first review existing reactor designs. Concerns about fundamental design flaws of the General Electric reactor in the Fukushima plant have been in existence for several years. There are 90 such reactors in plants around the globe—an unbiased review of GE and other vendors’ designs is clearly mandated.

Furthermore, new guidelines for suitability of nuclear sites must be drawn out to minimize the vulnerability of plants to potential catastrophic natural disasters.  Currently there are substantial plans for new nuclear power plants in natural disaster prone countries like Indonesia, which lie on the Ring of Fire. In light of the Japanese tragedy, such plans must be critically reviewed.

Nuclear emergency plans must also be established for all countries. Japan has the world’s third-largest economy and has highly sophisticated technology. Yet its impromptu efforts to deal with this crisis appear to be desperate. It’s scary to think about the level of potential inadequacy with which developing countries like India or Indonesia, that lack the necessary sophistication, experience, and infrastructure, would deal with a similar nuclear crisis. Even in the U.S., a Hurricane Katrina-type response to a nuclear accident could be equally disastrous. Disaster readiness everywhere must subsequently be improved.

Since the Chernobyl disaster fell from the headlines over two decades ago the world has dangerously assumed that we have a mastery of nuclear power. The Japan crisis clearly shows that we do not.

Given the inevitability of many more nuclear plants to come, the U.S. must lead an international effort to substantially increase the safety of nuclear power plants. If the world seriously collaborates on such an effort, Japan’s nuclear crisis will at least have served the purpose of avoiding future tragedies.

Hemi H. Gandhi ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is an engineering concentrator in Leverett House.


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