Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.09.09

Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Power and Radiation Accidents

Recently, I attended two international conferences that addressed the peaceful uses of nuclear power and radiation accidents. Although the main purpose of both conferences was to discuss nuclear disarmament, as a result of the radiation accidents arising from the Great East Japan earthquake, the two conferences held special sessions on that subject.

Related to the question of whether to halt or retain nuclear power plants are important issues of how best to secure a stable supply of energy, the dangers of radiation, and the cost of nuclear energy, each of these having their pros and cons. What struck me the most was the question of whether the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is a problem for Japan or for the international community.

In general, Japanese tend to think of the Fukushima incident as a problem that is Japanese as to which the international community is paying attention. During the course of discussions with conference participants from overseas, my thinking on that subject has changed somewhat. Not only are other countries interested in the incident but they also think that it is their problem. The accident happened to take place in Japan but they do not regard it as being confined to Japan - it really is a global problem.

I was not the only one who thought like this. When I voiced my view at one of the conferences, a panelist agreed, and most of the other attendants felt the same way. This is especially the case with Europeans, who still remember the horror of Chernobyl on the continent, but it was not limited to them, as the afore-mentioned panelist was American.

It is, however, the Japanese government that actually must cope with the accident. The reason that foreign governments are paying close attention to how Japan deals with the accident is not only because it is an international problem, but also because it is related to their own national security and military issues.

European countries pay close attention to the nuclear accident but not everyone in Europe thinks that it is their own problem; European media coverage differs from that in Japan. Thus, in reality, the accident in Fukushima may be regarded as somewhere between a Japanese problem and an international one.

How about when a nuclear accident happens outside of Japan? Over the next few decades China will be building many nuclear plants, eventually reaching a total of three digits. That will be several times as many as the number of nuclear plants in Japan. Japan will have to pay close attention to the safety of these Chinese plants. If an accident were to happen to one of them, radioactive matter with yellow sand could be carried to Japan. Even if Japan were not to be so directly affected, nuclear fall-out over Southeast Asia could contaminate goods that are exported to Japan. These potential consequences are not merely academic exercises but are something for which Japan ought to be prepared, as something that could occur in reality.

It may be rude for a country where an accident has taken place to say certain things to others that have not experienced accidents, but, as nuclear disasters are problems that are international in scope, countries such as China and India should be prepared for their dangers.

Some 35 years ago, a strong earthquake in Tangshan, which is not far from Beijing, caused a major disaster. Until then, it had been said that there are no earthquakes in China, especially in North China. One can never underestimate nature.

There is also a question of man-made disasters. Japan has experienced such disasters but when one looks at a recent high speed train accident in China, one can see that they are a serious problem.

At a conference, I commented that "the crucial point is whether one can act on the premise that accidents will happen." I meant to convey the fact that one should have preparatory measures in place on the premise that accidents will happen eventually, rather than merely expect that an accident may happen. A French panelist agreed with me by commenting that "it is important to make sure that an accident does not lead to a major disaster." This was a very level-headed comment.

Next year, an international conference on nuclear safety takes place in South Korea. This is the second such conference, and follows the first one in the United States which focused on counter-terrorism measures. The South Korean government has stated its intention to have the conference focus not only on security but also on safety. This is a timely proposal. In order to ensure safety, we need to disclose and share information, but, from a security perspective, we tend to want to prevent information from being disclosed. Balancing safety and security considerations is complicated, but if the international community is to ensure safety, we must strengthen such information-sharing measures.