Dark side of growth

Posted on April 24, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

-The Star-

Asia’s rise seems unstoppable, unless Asian countries themselves commit tragic errors triggering disasters.

ALMOST as soon as Japanese authorities felt confident about shutting down crippled nuclear reactors in Fukushima, they found the problem larger than they had anticipated.

Earlier plans saw a shutdown by September or the latest by December this year. Now that schedule is set to be pushed back further even if no new earthquakes, like Thursday’s 6.3 temblor, or tsunamis occur.

Seasonal typhoons are expected in August, which would worsen radioactive contamination in water already pumped into the sea. On the land itself, very highly radioactive water began to be pumped out of the stricken reactors during the week.

Seeking forgiveness: Tepco president Masataka Shimizu (second from left) and company officials kneeling as they bow to residents living in an evacuation centre in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture. — Reuters

In Japan’s worst peacetime disaster, reactors 1, 2 and 3 are flooded with dangerous water while reactor 4 sustained possibly serious damage to hazardous fuel rods.

Over the week, plant operator Tepco sent two robots into the site, which promptly reported back bad news: that radiation levels are far too high even for technicians in hazmat (hazardous materials) suits to enter.

On Thursday, the government declared the vicinity a no-go area for all, in particular the residents. Nobody can say if they can ever return home to live.

The anger of the local community has led to a bitter sense of division in the country. When the Tepco president toured a shelter for 1,600 evacuees, he was rudely told to return to Tokyo and take his nuclear power with him.

Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato told him clearly there would no longer be any nuclear plants in Fukushima. Even repairing the reactors is now out of the question.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Tepco would have to sell off 100 billion yen (RM3.7bil) in property assets to compensate victims. The technical, financial and environmental meltdown has also had political effects.

Naoto Kan, who became Prime Minister only last June as a “Kan-do” leader, now faces 70% of the Japanese public who want him replaced. Reuters reported that he faced several more hours of grilling in parliament last Monday as pressure mounted for him to quit.

The situation in Tokyo has reached a point where Opposition MPs shouted at Kan for his lack of leadership. Since the worst may be yet to come, the end of his political career could be imminent once the present crisis takes a breather.

The government is trying to avoid having to issue new bonds worth some 4 trillion yen (RM146.4bil) for funding. It will know the prospects in about a week, while it considers the possibility of raising taxes.

At the same time, Associated Press reported that many of East Asia’s planned nuclear plants between Taiwan and Indonesia would be built in areas likely to be affected by earthquakes or tsunamis. These sites are within 1,000km of subduction zones with active tectonic plates like the Manila trench, each one a potential Fukushima.

Experts at the Earth Observatory of Singa­pore are frustrated that planners for at least 32 of Asia’s current or planned nuclear plants have not taken geological and other data into proper account. Even countries spared from direct hits by tsunamis may not escape the radiation spillage as a consequence.

Meanwhile, resistance to nuclear power grows throughout Asia and beyond as plans for new plants proceed. India, for example, is building five reactors and may have another 39.

As events like the Fukushima disaster reverberate around the world, the nuclear debate runs through government itself. The Indian press reported that the country’s Environment Minister had written to the Prime Minister questioning the need for the nuclear option.

According to the New York Times last Wednesday, a group of 50 Indian scientists, academics and activists had called for a moratorium on new nuclear projects. Critics of a new nuclear plant in the town of Madban pointed out that the area had been hit by 95 earthquakes in the space of just 20 years (1985-2005).

Although tectonic plate boundaries in the Asia-Pacific largely approximate to the region’s “Ring of Fire” skirting round just outside Malaysia and Borneo, faultlines are a different matter. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) data, geological faultlines reach down the Malaysian peninsula and Borneo as well as neighbouring countries except Brunei.

Nuclear plants everywhere require constant cooling and so are typically sited near water sources like rivers or coasts. Radiation spillage or seepage may then enter the water, which carries it further.

When situated inland with no such natural water source nearby, they need vital supplies of water piped in from elsewhere. But earthquakes also tend to rupture water pipes, with the same effect as tsunamis – massive cuts in regular cooling water, triggering meltdowns.

China is facing the worst problems prospectively because it has the most extensive plans for nuclear plants. It is also actively developing renewable and other energy sources, but its appetite for energy is so voracious that it is also relying on nuclear power.

Other countries with lesser plans are less at risk, while those with no such plans only have to dodge the radioactive air or water from abroad that may come their way. Meanwhile, just as Japan showed the rest of Asia the way to develop and industrialise, it may now be showing the way to avoid nuclear disasters.

Left to itself, Asia’s burgeoning growth seems inevitable and unstoppable. But left to themselves unchecked, risky sources of energy like nuclear plants can sharply halt or reverse Asia’s progress.

East Asia’s economic prospects are good when times are good. But with a serious environmental disaster, the region’s booming markets produce a multiplier effect for decline instead.

Power plants are deemed necessary for economic development, but little thought has so far gone into assessing the issues behind different energy sources. Since the task of doing so is essential, there is never a better time to start than now.

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