|Nuclear power generation requires tough regulatory over-sight with checks and balances [Reuters]
As Japan struggles to confront a nuclear disaster that could be the worst in history, it seems clear that any discussion about the safety of nuclear energy should address the independence of regulatory agencies.
On Apr. 26, 1986 a series of explosions and fires at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine released radioactive fallout that spread over eastern and western Europe, particularly affecting Ukraine itself, Byelorussia (now Belarus) and Russia, all Soviet republics at the time.
Twenty-five years later, Chernobyl's reactor number 4 continues to emit high levels of radioactivity even though it is buried under a thick but decaying layer of concrete.
Europe and the United States are trying to raise more than $2bn to build a permanent sarcophagus to contain the radiation.
The Chernobyl disaster is usually attributed to obsolete technology and the secrecy characteristic of the Soviet regime.
The accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was triggered by the damage resulting from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11.
But "TEPCO doesn't have the best record for safety or disclosure of information," said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based energy and nuclear policy analyst who also works in Japan.
In 2002 TEPCO was caught falsifying safety records and was forced to shut down all 17 of its reactors, including those at the stricken Fukushima I facility, located some 240km north of Tokyo in eastern Japan, on the Pacific coast.
TEPCO executives admitted to over 200 submissions of false technical data in the previous two decades. The only reason TEPCO was caught was because a US nuclear engineer working at TEPCO came forward with the information, Schneider said.
A smaller 6.6 earthquake in 2007 forced TEPCO to shut down all seven reactors at the world's largest nuclear power station on the west coast of the country. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility was closed for 21 months for repairs and additional earthquake-proofing. Only four of seven reactors have been restarted.
"There is no location in Japan that isn't prone to earthquakes," said Schneider.
Japan obtains one third of its electricity from 55 nuclear reactors, behind France with 59 and the United States with over 100. Japan has no oil, natural gas or coal deposits and is a major energy user. The country has plans to build 15 more nuclear reactors.
There have been a number of accidents at other Japanese nuclear facilities.
These include a 2004 incident that killed five workers and another in 1996 where radioactive fallout drifted over the northeastern suburbs of Tokyo. The latter went largely unreported due to a government ban on press coverage of the incident, alleged journalist Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, in a report published by The 4th Media.
Japan's environmental activists have long complained about the inadequacy in government regulation and a culture within the industry's management of covering up mistakes.
The problem is that nuclear power companies like TEPCO and the government regulators are "essentially one and the same," says Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, a civil society organisation.
This is the situation not only in Japan but in Canada, the United States and other countries, Edwards said.
"There are few independent nuclear experts in the world. Everyone either works in the industry or used to and are now regulators," he said.
Canada has a large government-owned nuclear industry with 17 reactors providing 15 per cent of the country's electricity. The Canadian government has sold its CANDU nuclear reactors to several countries, including Argentina and, most recently, China.
Canada's nuclear plants have been plagued with costly repairs and shutdowns, mainly due to leaking pipes. There have not been any fatalities, but repair costs have been in the billions of dollars.
The industry and regulators are not interested in educating the public or policymakers, Edwards says. "They never explain that radioactivity can never be turned off. They don't explain that even when a reactor is shut down it still generates an enormous amount of heat that has to be removed to prevent a meltdown," he stressed.
A clear example is TEPCO's Fukushima I reactor number 4, which had been shut down since December, but its used or spent fuel in storage pools threatened to go critical because the cooling system failed after the earthquake.
The reactor buildings at Fukushima held up well, but there clearly was a problem with the back-up power for the cooling systems, says John Luxat, professor and Industrial Research Chair in Nuclear Safety Analysis at McMaster University, near Toronto.
Canada has a robust public safety regulator in the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Luxat said in an interview.
The government appoints experts from the industry and other sectors to run the Commission and enforce safety standards. Any additional safety standards add considerably to the cost, acknowledged Luxat, who used to work in the Canadian nuclear industry.
"In 2008, when the president of the CNSC (Linda Keen) tried to bring Canadian nuclear safety regulations in line with international standards, the government fired her," said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear analyst at Greenpeace Canada.
One of the changes proposed by Keen was to mandate back-up diesel generators to provide electricity in the event of power failure following an earthquake, Stensil said.
"The independence of the Commission has been compromised with the appointment of a pro-nuclear industry president," he said.
The CNSC and the nuclear industry refuse to release their safety studies for independent peer review, claiming it is too risky to make them public, says Stensil.
"The industry is always overstating the safety and benefits and understating the costs and risks," said Mark Mattson of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a local environmental NGO.
"It's impossible to get them to provide evidence to support their claims," he said.
Most of Canada's nuclear reactors are in the Greater Toronto region, where nearly six million people live.
Public hearings are being held next week for the construction of two more reactors. However, the decision to build has already been made at the political level, said Mattson.
"We don't actually need the additional energy. The only reason this is going forward is to support the industry," he said.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.