Protesters around the world have been seen over the past month holding up signs saying, ‘No More Fukushimas.’ Indeed, it’s an appropriate sentiment for the moment, since the world can ill-afford another Fukushima type of accident.
But the answer to preventing another such accident lies in upping safety standards at all levels of nuclear reactors worldwide—from site selection, design, construction, operation to emergency preparedness—rather than simply ruling out nuclear energy as a source of electricity. And that’s the challenge now, really—to maintain a balanced approach towards nuclear energy rather than opting for the 'easy' option of abandoning nuclear power. This can be accomplished through a calculated analysis of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy and by distilling and assimilating the right lessons from Fukushima.
Already, country responses have illustrated that every nation will arrive at its own trade-off equation on nuclear power based on domestic energy scenarios, electricity availability and political affinities. So while Germany—which has a stable population, a mature electricity market and a politically active Green Party—can afford to consider phasing out of its nuclear reactors, India and China—with their high population and economic growth, low per capita energy availability and projected increase in electricity demand as high as 56 percent in the coming 2 decades—simply can’t afford to follow Germany’s example.
However, even in places like China and India, it’s going to be extremely important for nuclear companies to win public confidence in the safety of their reactors for nuclear power to retain its position in the energy mix. While the plants that have been operational in both countries for many years now and are as safe today as they've been in the past, the public is simply far more scared now.
Hence, this calls for a more proactive approach from the nuclear industry and the government to reassure them. Until now, these entities have worked in a closed manner in decision-making and operations. But in the changed environment after Fukushima, the only way to win back public support for nuclear energy will have to include far greater interaction with the people to explain to them the reasons for selection of a particular site, the basics of the reactor technology, the redundancies built into operations etc. In fact, it would also be a good idea to invite the public—school and college students, organized groups of women’s associations, the corporate sector, etc.—to visit plants and to see and feel the operations for themselves. The more approachable the nuclear plants seem, the greater will be the public confidence in them over time.
Therefore, even as the nuclear industry draws technical and operational lessons from Fukushima to review and enhance nuclear safety, the most immediate requirement is reaching out to the public to restore their confidence in nuclear power as a safe and secure source of electricity production.