Towards a Green Economy in Asia: The Perils of Nuclear Technology and the Future of Renewable Energy
After two decades of global climate negotiations, beginning with the 1992 Earth Summit and culminating in the fateful Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, the second decade of the 21st century saw a series of major (man-made and natural) disasters reaffirming the urgency to pursue a “green economy” paradigm.
The first seismic event was the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which shook Japan to its core, and laid bare the perils of overreliance on nuclear technology as a source of energy. Since then, the world has come to witness how even the most developed countries could fail at ensuring nuclear safety, industrial transparency, and bureaucratic accountability amid an explosive meltdown. The political fallout of the disaster eventually brought down the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which came to power on the promise of overhauling the country’s creaking state institutions and introducing a new political order.
Meanwhile, the Japanese people have sought to shift the balance of forces between a powerful state bureaucracy that has recklessly downplayed successive reports of impending nuclear disaster, on one hand, and the civil society and reformists that have been pushing for the nuclear phase out of the country’s energy landscape, on the other. Among the most prominent advocates of a new energy (and political) order is the former Fukushima Governor Eisaku Satō, who has for years pushed for greater nuclear transparency and the democratization of the energy industry.
“Right after being elected governor of Fukushima Prefecture in 2006, [a number of things] happened that made me start to question nuclear power…. I drew on the opinions of local representatives and the guidance of Japanese experts to establish an independent research panel to review Fukushima Prefecture's energy policies,” Governor Satō said in an exclusive interview with the Quarterly, narrating the dark underbellies of Japan’s nuclear industry and the multiple efforts to cover-up alarming leaks concerning nuclear safety. “When whistleblowers emerged and disclosed information [to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA)], the government astonishingly passed the contents of these revelations back on to TEPCO and let them handle it.”
In response to the Fukushima disaster, many countries began to revisit their nuclear assumption, with nuclear powers such as Germany taking a complete volt-face by opting for nuclear phase-out and a Renewable Energy-based (RE) economy.
“In Germany, just like other parts of the world, there is this ideology, deep-seated conviction, that nuclear technology is cheap, and a symbol of modern technology. And many major party leaders in Germany have come to believe in this. As long as nuclear technology was portrayed as cheap, clean, and modem, it was difficult to argue for a full phase-out,” Member of European Parliament Jo Leinen explained in an exclusive interview with the Quarterly, explaining the jolting impact of the Fukushima crisis on the German political psyche. “But after the Fukushima incident, the prevailing philosophical outlook experienced a transformation: not only Soviet-Style technology, ala Chernobyl, could apparently fail, but also Japan’s very sophisticated technology -- and by extension those in the Western world. So there was this realization that there was no guarantee of safety with respect to nuclear technology, even the most sophisticated kind, and therefore the argument that it was morally unacceptable to accept such risk for human beings and the environment.”
But the impact of the Fukushima crisis on many Asian countries was quite muted. From Vietnam to Turkey and China, most developing countries have adamantly downplayed Japan’s nuclear disaster by pushing ahead with multi-billion projects, mostly handled by foreign companies, to build nuclear power plants in order to reduce their dependency on hydrocarbon imports and enhance their energy security.
“Even the Fukushima reactor accident had little influence on the continuous growth of powerful pro-nuclear camp. During last five years people in this camp seem to have come to the conclusion that nuclear energy could or should substitute all forms of fossil energies in Korea,” South Korean Academic Lee Pil Ryul argues in the Quarterly, emphasizing the stubbornness of the nuclear lobby to push ahead with its monumental projects across Asia, with Korea now also emerging as a nuclear energy exporting country. “[Based on Korea’s energy plan], in 2030 the number of nuclear reactors will increase from current 23 to more than 33. In 2050 small flexible reactors, hydrogen reactors and fast breed reactors will possibly be developed and employed for operation in Korea.”
Last August, in an eerie echo of Japan’s nuclear conundrum, the New York Times reported a series of “bribery and faked safety tests” concerning critical plant equipments installed in a Korean nuclear power plant in Ulsan. Subsequent investigations revealed the potential installment of faulty equipments in 14 out of 23 nuclear power plants in the country, forcing the government to shut down 3 reactors temporarily with other possibly more in the future. This was by all means a wake-up call for many developing countries pursuing the nuclear option.
In the Philippines, where Southeast Asia’s first nuclear power plant was built but never operated, the current government continues to waver on its earlier commitments to close the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) for once and for all.
In the 1970s, the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos felt that establishing a nuclear power plant, despite all its financial, technical, regulatory, and safety requirements, would be a rational step towards achieving much-needed energy self-sufficiency. This was in line with the administration’s grand plans of making the country a major industrial power in the region. The period witnessed the construction of government-sponsored large-scale production plants in crucial economic sectors such as steel. After all, the Marcos administration increasingly sought to play a ‘developmental’ role in turning the country’s economic fortunes around.1
The BNPP was to be built on the Bataan Peninsula, around 100 km west of the capital, with proper construction beginning in 1976. Interestingly, if the oil crisis prompted the construction of the plant, another crisis, namely the ‘three mile island’ accident in the U.S., placed a temporary break on its completion. Subsequently, a safety inquiry was launched, and the eventual assessment made a set of chilling revelations: around 4,000 technical defects, and stern warnings with regards to the geological vulnerability of the plant.2
The end of the Marcos regime saw the demise of its nuclear brainchild, namely the BNPP. The emergence of a more democratic government underscored greater sensitivity to the public pulse. The horrors of the 1986 Chernobyl incident engendered a deep sense of anxiety among Filipino citizens, especially residents of Bataan, who would bear the brunt of a potential nuclear disaster. As a result, the newly-installed government of President Corazon Aquino decided to suspend the operation of the practically complete BNPP. The state woke up to a financial and technical nightmare, when it evaluated the overall costs associated with the plant. The BNPP became the country’s biggest single debt obligation, with payment arrangements assuming an increasingly complex and dubious character. As a result, the Philippine state filed a legal complaint against the American company Westinghouse for overpricing, bribery, and associated fraudulent activities. It took roughly took 3 decades (1976-2007) for the country to complete its payment obligations.3
The BNPP is not only proximate to the dormant Mount Pinutobo, but it is also superimposed on a major earthquake fault line – putting the safety and wisdom of the whole project in jeopardy. The plant’s proximity to populated areas, and the potential for a large-scale nuclear contagion, also bedeviled the viability of the entire project. Moreover, waste-disposal is also another issue. Up to this date, nuclear waste-management represents a huge political and technical conundrum. This issue is even more dire in the case of a relatively poor and less technically-savvy country like the Philippines, which has been fraught with regulatory lapses and techno-industrial deficiencies. Nonetheless, the construction was pushed forward well into the twilight years of the Marcos era. Equipped with a Westinghouse light water reactor, designed to produce around 621 MW of electricity was installed, the total cost reached as high as $2.3 billion.4
“But there are hidden, more pernicious costs that must also be unearthed and made transparent. These include [among other things] the damage to the economy wrought by the power crisis that followed in the 1990s when the government did not plan for new generating capacity to replace the mothballed BNPP,” Filipina Economist and energy expert Maitet Diokno writes in the Quarterly, fleshing out the long-term damage of the BNPP project on the Philippine economy. “Rather than closing the door firmly on nuclear power, the government of Benigno S. Aquino III appears to be leaving it slightly ajar.”
In India, another Asian democracy where the government has sought to expand its nuclear capacity to meet the demands of its booming economy, there are growing frictions between the state and the civil society.
“The opposition to government over the safety of nuclear plants in India was exacerbated by the Fukushima-Daiichi accident; It may be noted that public fear is not limited to installation of nuclear plants…people are also concerned about India’s nuclear mines,” Indian researchers and energy experts Dr. D.K.Giri and Dr. Nivedita Giri write in the Quarterly, explaining the contentious nature of India’s nuclear push. “The nuclear sector is exclusively controlled by the central government in India, and the government is bent on pursuing the nuclear route to energy sufficiency despite heavy public protests.”
Why Go Renewables
Amid an ongoing debate over nuclear phase out in Europe and Japan, the imperative for establishing a “green economy” took another critical turn when developing countries such as the Philippines faced the onslaught of natural calamities and extreme weather events -- believed to be largely caused by climate change.
In early-November, the category 5 -- highest level -- super typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda to Filipinos, hit coastal communities in central Philippine islands of Visayas, completely inundating local government units (LGU) in places such as Tacloban City. Haiyan -- one of history’s strongest recorded typhoons -- affected up to 11 million people, claiming the lives of more than 5,000 individuals and leaving 2.5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian relief, with $14 billion in total economic damages.
Despite the inherent vagaries of climate science, which deals with complex and often unpredictable variables, leading scientists, and IPCC contributors, such as Professor James Hansen of Columbia University and Professor Piers Forster of Leeds University have drawn a convincing connection between climate change and extreme weather events such as Haiyan.
So far, the world's leading polluters have avoided mandatory measures to mitigate the impact of climate change, and it is far from clear whether there will be any concrete climate deal before 2020. Moreover, the proposed $100 billion climate fund, which is supposed to help poorer countries to adapt to climate change, is heavily underfunded. The latest climate negotiations in Warsaw marked a partial victory for developing countries such as the Philippines by (a) pushing for mandatory emission cuts by both industrialized countries as well as major emerging economies that constitute the world’s top-emitters and (b) and securing financial commitments for compensating developing countries affected by climate change beyond previous climate fund pledges by the developed world.
Given the perils of nuclear technology and the climate-disruptive nature of fossil fuels, the supply of which has become increasingly precarious due to ongoing geopolitical shocks in the Middle East and booming global demand in coming decades, the development of an RE-based economy is the optimal way ahead, with countries such as Germany, Denmark, and China among the leading producers of green technology. But the rest of Asia is yet to catch up, with industrial powerhouses such as Japan and South Korea -- thanks to their heavy reliance on nuclear technology -- still failing to translate their technological expertise into a “creative destruction” of RE innovations. Asia has no shortage of potentials in this regard.
“Six countries in Asia and the Pacific have over 100 MW of grid-connected photovoltaic solar systems…China is also the world's leading manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells with a 30% global market share,” economist and energy expert John West writes in the Quarterly, explaining the feasibility and urgency of developing Asia’s RE potentials. “Pushing up renewable usage accelerates the learning process, increases scale and starts to bring down costs. Greater R&D efforts will spur more innovation.”
The Philippines, which enjoys among the world’s most diversified energy mixes, is going through a difficult period of RE struggle, with the current government instead opting for expansion of coal-fired power plants to meet growing demand at home and achieve over-capacity by the 2015-2016 period.
“RE advocates called this move a reckless action that will need serious review especially with the movement that major coal country players are veering away from coal because of economic and sustainability reasons,” Greenpeace officer and activist Francis Joseph Dela Cruz writes in the Quarterly, explaining the negative political and ecological ramifications of the anti-RE policy shift under the current administration. “A country such as the Philippines cannot afford a business as usual stance in the negotiations -- Philippines current miniscule emission numbers allows the climate delegation to leverage and negotiate.”
Overall, the Quarterly (3rd issue) brings together insights from leading energy experts and activists across Asia, examining the precarious nature of the status quo, the need for a green economy revolution in Asia, and the challenges of making a transition to a more sustainable mode of economic development based on RE.
The essays seek to explore how the strength and resilience of the nuclear lobby, rather than the rationality of the nuclear technology per se, explains the regrettable underinvestment in the RE sector. And why we need to overcome the nuclear lobby -- prospering in the bureaucratic shadows, and constituting large multinational and state-owned companies -- by explaining the rational superiority of alternative energy resources. Democratic accountability and transparency in energy governance will be a crucial step forward.
*Richard Javad Heydarian is lecturer in political science and development at Ateneo De Manila University, and a consultant at Philippine House of Representatives and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES)-Manila. He has written for or interviewed by The Huffington Post, Aljazeera, The New York Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Voice of America, NPR, Asia Times, among other leading publications and news outlets.
2 Valdez-Fabros, Corazon 1998. ‘The continuing struggle for a nuclear-free Philippines’. WISE News Communique. Retrieved January 5, 2011, http://www10.antenna.nl/wise/index.html?http://www10.antenna.nl/wise/499-500/4935.html
4 Business World (February 2, 2010) ‘Cost of Bataan Nuke Plant Rehab Set At $1’ ABS-CBN News. B.’ Retrieved January 5, 2011. http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/business/02/01/10/cost-bataan-nuke-plant-rehab-set-1-b