Nuclear Power Is Worth the Risk

But there's much more we can do to reduce the odds of a catastrophe.

Until March 11, with the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident approaching -- and memories of that disaster receding -- safety concerns no longer appeared to be the killer argument against nuclear power they once were. Instead, another fear, of climate change, looked like it might be driving a "nuclear renaissance" as states sought carbon-free energy sources. But the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station will return safety to the forefront of the nuclear power debate. Even the most ardent industry advocates now recognize that the unfolding crisis inside two reactors there -- shown on live television and beamed around the world -- has left the future of their industry in doubt.

Nevertheless, the case for nuclear power remains strong. All forms of energy generation carry risks. Fossil fuels, which (for the time being at least) are nuclear energy's principal rival, carry the risk of catastrophic climate change. And as we're seeing in Japan, we haven't eliminated all the dangers associated with nuclear power, even though accidents are few and far between.

Good public policy involves balancing these risks. Persuading the public to accept the risks of nuclear energy will, however, not be easy. To do so, the nuclear industry will have to resist a strong temptation to argue that the accident in Japan was simply an extraordinarily improbable confluence of events and that everything is just fine. Instead, it must recognize and correct the deficiencies of its current approach to safety.

When it comes to safety, the nuclear industry emphasizes the concept of "defense in depth." Reactors are designed with layers of redundant safety systems. There's the main cooling system, a backup to it, a backup to the backup, a backup to the backup to the backup, and so on. A major accident can only occur if all these systems fail simultaneously. By adding extra layers of redundancy, the probability of such a catastrophic failure can -- in theory at least -- be made too small to worry about.

Defense in depth is a good idea. But it suffers from one fundamental flaw: the possibility that a disaster might knock out all of the backup systems. A reactor can have as many layers of defense as you like, but if they can all be disabled by a single event, then redundancy adds much less to safety than might first meet the eye.

This kind of failure occurred at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11. As soon as the earthquake struck, the reactors scrammed: The control rods, used to modulate the speed of the nuclear reaction, were inserted into the reactor cores, shutting off the nuclear reactions. So far so good. Nevertheless, the cores were still hot and needed to be cooled. This in turn required electricity in order to power the pumps, which bring in water to cool the fuel.

Unfortunately, one of the external power lines that was designed to provide electricity in just such a contingency was itself disrupted by the earthquake. This shouldn't have mattered because there was a backup. But, according to a news release issued by the power-plant operator, the malfunction in one external supply somehow caused off-site power to be lost entirely.

Once again, this shouldn't have been too much of an issue. There was a backup to the backup in the form of on-site diesel generators. And, sure enough, they kicked in. Fifty-five minutes later, however, they were swamped by the tsunami that followed the earthquake. From that moment on, plant operators were in a desperate struggle to prevent core melting.

Japanese regulators are certainly aware of the danger of earthquakes; they take safety extremely seriously. Like other buildings in Japan, nuclear reactors must be able to withstand earthquakes. The problem, as we now know, is that there is a significant chance of them falling victim to events more extreme than those they were designed to withstand.

This problem was highlighted by the earthquake centered near the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in 2007. The earth movements generated by that quake were larger than the plant's design limit. Fortunately, there was not a major accident; the safety systems worked as designed in spite of the quake's physical impact. Before the plant could reopen, however, new safety features had to be added to ensure that it was capable of withstanding bigger earthquakes.

Of course, the issues raised by the 2007 and 2011 earthquakes are relevant to the whole world -- not just Japan. What is needed now is a sober and careful assessment of what engineers call the "design basis" for all nuclear power plants worldwide -- those already in operation, those under construction, and those being planned. Specifically, we need to determine whether they are truly capable of withstanding the whole range of natural and man-made disasters that might befall them, from floods to earthquakes to terrorism.

Even after the ongoing disaster in Japan, the nuclear industry is unlikely to welcome such an exercise. It is almost certain to argue that a whole-scale reassessment is unnecessary because existing standards are adequate. But after two earthquakes in less than four years shook Japanese reactors beyond their design limits, this argument is simply not credible. It is also self-defeating.

For nuclear energy to expand, the public must trust the nuclear industry. It must trust reactor operators to run their reactors safely. It must trust regulators to ensure there is adequate oversight. And, most importantly perhaps, it must trust reactor designers to create new reactors that do not share the vulnerabilities of older ones.

This last point is crucial. New reactors, with enhanced safety features, would almost certainly not have befallen the same fate as those at Fukushima Daiichi, which is four decades old. Convincing the public of this argument will be extremely hard now, however.

After Chernobyl, the nuclear industry argued that -- as far as safety was concerned -- Soviet RBMK-type reactors, like the one involved in the 1986 accident, had about as much in common with modern Western reactors as an inflatable dinghy does with an ocean liner. And they were right. But their argument made very little impact because the nuclear industry had lost the public's trust.

It is vital the nuclear industry does not make the same mistake now. It must not try to sweep safety issues under the carpet by telling people that everything is OK and that they should not worry. This strategy simply won't work. What might work is to acknowledge the problem and work to fix it.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Let Us In

Why Barack Obama must support Brazil's drive for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

When U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Brazil later this month, Brazilians will expect him to make a statement supporting our country's inclusion in a reformed U.N. Security Council, as he did regarding India's inclusion in November. It would be a disappointment if Obama does not endorse our drive for a permanent seat on the world's premier international security body -- not just because Brazil deserves a seat but because the council's very legitimacy depends on the inclusion of emerging powers.

Let's take first the simple reality of global power today, which is no longer reflected in the membership of the current council. It's vitally important that developing economies be part of this global body, and it is only natural that Brazil, which is now among the eight largest economies in the world, should be included. If the Brazilian economy is already as big as that of Britain or France -- and ours has room to grow while these others do not -- why should they be there and not us? Or India, which has more than 1 billion people? And why not a single African country? Reform is not a question of ambition of this or that country, but rather a question of the Security Council needing to be representative of the world community.

This is not only a question of making our global institutions as democratic and representative as possible. It's not about a feel-good quest for diverse representation. Reforming the Security Council is vital if the body's decisions are to be taken seriously worldwide. If the council is seen as the coterie of only a few great powers, its decisions are not likely to be respected or received with enthusiasm -- to the detriment of all. Of course, one limiting factor is that the present permanent five, veto-wielding powers on the council are very jealous of their privileges; they don't want to share them.

Yet we emerging powers have much to offer. First, we will bring new perspectives. Take, for example, the Middle East. We will not come with magic solutions -- nobody has magic solutions -- but we will have fresh ideas, and Brazil is an interlocutor that is able to talk to everyone. In the same month in 2009, for example, we received the president of Israel, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and the president of Iran. How many other countries are able to receive visits from these three presidents in just a matter of weeks? It was a demonstration of how well-positioned Brazil is to hold dialogue with countries with different perspectives.

Why can Brazil open doors when today's Security Council cannot? Part of it has to do with our country's pluralistic background -- the cultural and racial mixture of our society. But it's also simply because we are a developing country. A perfect example came last year when Iran rejected a Western proposal under which the country's uranium would be shipped abroad for enrichment up to energy-grade (not weapons-grade) levels. Coming from the West, the agreement met hard resistance from Tehran on everything from its timing to the quantity of uranium required. But when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and I brought Tehran the same basic agreement, we both spoke from the perspective of fellow developing countries that can understand the problems of other developing countries; everyone is on the same level.

At the same time, Brazil plain and simply has influence. In November, when we decided to recognize a Palestinian state, immediately another eight or 10 Latin American countries did the same. Even some European countries are moving toward having a new kind of relationship with Palestine. To ignore the fact that Brazil has clout in the world would be foolish.

Take Brazil's relationship with Africa. We are one of the few non-African countries that can carry an influence in political discussions on that continent. Five years ago in Guinea-Bissau, when that country faced a huge political crisis, we spoke to Senegal and other countries in the region. They told us that Brazil was welcome to join the mediation, while other countries were not. During my term as foreign minister, I even mentioned this fact to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that our unique relationship with African countries creates areas for cooperation with the United States -- at a time when other countries, namely China, are very much present in Africa.

Many corners of the global system already reflect the new geopolitical reality. Brazil is at the center of international trade negotiations. In financial matters, we are a leader in the G-20. We were instrumental in reforming the International Monetary Fund's quota system, together with the other BRIC countries. At the end of the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, it was Obama, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the leaders of China, India, and South Africa who came to a final accord. In all these areas, it's already accepted that Brazil is a leader. It is only in the area of peace and security that we are not.

During my eight years as foreign minister, I worked tirelessly to change that. Our strategy was twofold: to try to work within the United Nations, but at the same time to push for reform from the outside. We drew lessons from another big example of recent change to the multilateral system: IMF reform. There would never have been change in the quota system if pressure had come only from within the IMF; it was really the G-20's pushing that provoked the change. Likewise with the United Nations, we can begin some kinds of reforms from the outside, for example by also holding G-20 meetings for foreign rather than just finance ministers. (Now that I am no longer foreign minister, I can say this because I am not pleading on own behalf!) Building these informal groups will help push along change to formal institutions within the United Nations.

Obama's support of India's candidacy for a permanent Security Council seat was a good step. We in Brazil agree with Obama; we have a very close relationship with India. With India, the United States is motivated by its rivalry with China, its interests in Asia, Afghanistan, and so on. But how could you have India and not Brazil? How could you have one more Asian country -- because Japan would probably also have to join if India did -- and not one each from Latin America and Africa? How can you give a prize to a country that decided to go nuclear and deny the same to a country that did not? Brazil could have developed atomic weapons -- we have the capacity to process uranium -- but we chose to write in our Constitution that nuclear energy should be used only for peaceful purposes. We should not be penalized for that.

I know reform will be very difficult. But I also know that it is an absolute must, and it's a must because otherwise the Security Council will grow progressively less relevant. Of course, reform will take time, though maybe not as long as we think. If you had asked me before the financial crisis of 2008 how long it would take for the G-7 to become the G-20, I would have said maybe 10 years. But it took less than one. I hope we don't need to have a similar crisis, this time in the area of security, to provoke the Security Council to act. What's happening today in the Arab world should be a wake-up call: No single country in the world is capable of dealing with this situation; they are not capable of even analyzing it. The more the world listens to others who have good relationships in the region, the more choices and options we will have.

Having lived all these years and seeing so many things change, I do think it's possible. Reforming the global security system is the question of world governance in the coming years. Brazil, for one, is up to the challenge.