Nuclear skeptics, advocates debate safety issues

AP News
Posted: Jun 07, 2011 3:35 PM
Nuclear skeptics, advocates debate safety issues

Energy officials at talks on preventing nuclear disasters were divided Tuesday over how much atomic plants should be open to neighborly scrutiny, and if the world should shun or embrace nuclear power.

Countries abandoning nuclear energy, such as Germany, defended their choice in front of host country France _ a strong nuclear power proponent, while India _ eager to build new nuclear reactors to keep up with growing energy demand _ argued that "there is no alternative."

Explosions, fires and meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant following a tsunami in March have caused several countries to rethink their reliance on atomic energy to power homes and businesses.

Officials from 33 countries suggested creating cross-border nuclear accident response teams to better handle Fukushima-like troubles, as well as reconsidering the scale used to measure nuclear accidents.

Switzerland's Energy Minister Doris Leuthard, whose government has called for the decommissioning of Swiss nuclear reactors, said countries should be required to submit their nuclear safety for other countries' review and make the results public.

"Why don't we accept that peer reviews should be mandatory?" she asked, noting that nuclear fallout can easily cross borders.

Not everyone agrees on how far to go in letting one country inspect its neighbor's nuclear regulations, said Milan Hovorka of the Czech Industry Ministry.

"Some people think it's too early to make decisions based on what happened at Fukushima," he told The Associated Press. "There were diverging opinions on to what extent ... such peer review should be binding or not."

Ursula Heinen-Esser of Germany's Environment Ministry said mandatory peer reviews "would be perfect" but at this point that is only a "goal for the future."

The head of the Nuclear Energy Agency, Luis Echavarri, said existing international nuclear safety rules are "very timid" and should be strengthened.

In a report being submitted to the U.N. nuclear agency, Japan acknowledged it was unprepared for a severe nuclear accident like the Fukushima disaster and the damage was greater than previously thought.

In the wake of the accident, Germany announced recently it will shut down its nuclear plants by 2022. It's "very important to shut down nuclear power plants and make a fast start with renewable energy," Heinen-Esser said.

The head of India's Atomic Energy Commission disagreed.

Energy demand is so huge in India "there is no alternative" to building new nuclear plants, Srikumar Banerjee said. "The only alternative is burning more coal. We are talking about sustaining a population of 1.2 billion. That's one-fifth of humanity."

"Let us accept the fact that solar energy cannot ... sustain a metropolis," he said.