Report on Lowy Institute Post Fukushima panel March 2013

Lowy Institute’s  Nuclear Revivalist Meeting

 New York held a March panel symposium on the effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident  Anything that USA can do, Australia can do better!  Or perhaps worse.

The Lowy Institute ‘s March panel discussion topic was Asia’s nuclear future after Fukushima. The role of nuclear industry. The panel was composed of leaders of Australia’s nuclear industry – Michael AngwinChief Executive Officer, Australian Uranium Association, John Borshoff ,CEO of Paladin Energy and  Dr Selena NgRegional Director South East Asia and Oceanea,AREVA . The chairman was John Carlson, former Director General, Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office

I like enthusiasm and optimism.  However, this panel went beyond enthusiasm. I tell you – it was like a religious revival meeting.  And I think that’s just what it was.  Just like a pastor exhorting a tiny remnant congregation, –  there seemed to be a more than  a hint of underlying desperation, combined with that touching faith in the Second Coming.

There was unanimous agreement on the inevitable booming future of nuclear power, especially in South East Asia.  Yet, between the lines, we heard from  Michael Angwin that  “ public perceptions of nuclear industry are now  less confident than before in the short term, but my expectation is that will return to confidence in the long term ”  

“We know that people take a negative view of nuclear industry – see it as remote from them, and as the creature of big government and big industry”John Borshoff  admitted that Fukushima a set-back in public opinion. But it does not in any way undermine the case for nuclear power.”

However, faith in the nuclear industry’s future being a given, all speakers moved on to three secondary themes, which were: 

    • the problem of the media 
  • the need for public education
  • the safety of the nuclear industry

All speakers, even the more restrained Dr Selena Ng emphasised that the big problem for the nuclear industry’s future is the media.

 In his short  opening address, John Carlson stated  “We have seen considerable unevenness in media reporting on  Fukushima.  On most subjects, journalists are very careful about the credentials of the people that they interview On nuclear issues, anyone with an opinion can pass for an expert”

Michael Angwin discussed    “the way media has reported Fukushima. They have focussed on the sensational and the immediate. The media has not informed public as well as it might have.”

Borshoff bemoaned the “media frenzy –   hyperbole and imagination with very little leadership and a cool head particularly on  a global scale”.

So, all speakers, again even  Dr Ng, stressed the need for public education to set people straight about nuclear issues.  Optimism returned to the discussion, because as Borshoff said ” Media interest in Fukushima is waning. The media jackals have moved on…. Science has held true.”

Curiously, however, Angwin  spoke reassuringly about  the social media.  Twittersphere and Blogosphere are making people become better informed about nuclear power, (presumably he meant that the social media looks kindly on nuclear power. Angwin hasn’t been reading the same tweets and blogs that I have!)

It’s nice to see a panel in pretty much complete agreement on the facts of the future for nuclear power, especially for Asia, and for Australia’s uranium industry. All seemed to concur with Borshoff’s dogmatic predictions – “China, India , Middle East Korea and Russia will build 250 reactors by 2030.”  

“Uranium supply is in fundamental shortage. Uranium prices will go up”.

All agreed that what is needed is public education, and for governments to, as Angwin said  “demonstrate the economic and political reasons why they support nuclear power”. He praised Obama for re-endorsing America’s commitment to nuclear power “The continuation of nuclear power in USA will be much easier than in those countries where governments  have become coy about nuclear power”.  But   Inevitably those countries will return to the nuclear industry”.

All said worthy things about the need for safety measures in nuclear reactors. But not a word about the cost issues involved. At the New York symposium, David Lochbaumestimated these as likely to be simply unaffordable.   John Borshoff turned Fukusima into a positive, really  “The Fukushima emergency demonstrates the resilience of nuclear technology…. Japan will learn from this, improve the  industry and move on”. 

But wait, –  in their expressions of concern about nuclear safety – Dr Selina Ng stepped out of line – saying that Fukushima was “a huge wakeup call for her generation”. Ng’s emphasis on the need for vigilance about safety sounded as though it might have come from the heart, and not just from AREVA’s script. And she quickly pulled herself into line at question time, again reiterating the safety of the nuclear industry.

So – these were the agreed themes of all speakers post Fukushima– South East Asia’s need for nuclear energy, the poor coverage by media , the continued safety of the nuclear industry, and the need for public education.

 And who’s going to do that public education?   Well –  the industry.

So in Australia we have these expert speakers that I have just heard.

They really would have to do better than this kind of religious revivalism.

This panel completely ignored  the absolute crisis in USA, UK. and Japan over nuclear waste disposal – which has paralysed the nuclear industry there.

They demonstrated their lack of interest in, and probably complete ignorance of radiation issues.  Radiation was mentioned just once, by John Borshoff –  speaking ofFukushima –   “No deaths have occurred . There were some releases of radioactivity. It is  doubtful if this will be cause harm in the medium or long term”

Angwin stressed that  “what we know from studies done at Chernobyl  – the  major risk of  psychological health risk, caused by fear of radiation.”

The cause of the Fukushima meltdowns was ascribed to the tsunami – yet latest evidence indicates  that in fact the earthquake was the initial cause, not the tsunami. But anyway, nobody seemed particularly interested in Fukushima any more, as long as the media continues to put it on the back burner,that seems to be all that matters.

It seemed to me that all speakers stuck to those agreed themes, with an extraordinary lack of evidence, of references, of examples, or evidence for the bald statements made. Dr Ng was the only speaker who did go into some detail on the safety measures needed,  She also spoke about Fujushima nuclear plant not being stabilised, and admitted to the dilemmas still faced with the radioactive water accumulating there.

What struck me most of all was that the other speakers showed no interest whatever in examining the after effects of Fukushima and questions about its future.  I found their statements on this both puzzling and worrying.:

 Angwin “In our industry we try to keep in the moment – to tell people what is happening right now.  We’ve tried to avoid forecasting, predicting or estimating  what might happen as a result of Fukushima… At this stage, without a clear idea, it’s too hard to predict what the consequences of Fukushima might be”

Borshoff: “I am not an expert on nuclear technology.  So my comments are at a high level”

What high level?. I honestly do not know what he is talking about.  Borshoff gave an extraordinary comparison of nuclear safety with airline safety.  As one questioner pointed out – the consequences of  a nuclear accident are more far reaching.. Also, when we travel by air, it is an individual choice. to take the risk of an accident.  In a nuclear accident, there is no individual choice, just a public disaster imposed on people.

Dr Ng spoke of the nuclear industry’s previous attitude of complacency – now shaken up by Fukushima. towards moe vigilance about safety.

Listening to Australia’s nuclear “expert panel” I feel that this complacency still reigns.  And wow!, what a contrast to the professionally organised, meticulously referenced symposium in New York.

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