Nuclear views

Nuclear views

9 June, 2012
Civic Exchange forum
Increasing nuclear literacy in Hong Kong

With the aim of increasing public knowledge about nuclear energy and to stimulate relevant questions and discussion in light of the events at Fukushima, Civic Exchange recently organized a forum on nuclear energy and brought in nuclear experts from around the world to provide a picture of both the technical and political issues surrounding nuclear power. Many people do not know that Hong Kong has 23% of its fuel mix coming from nuclear power, generated by the two reactors at Daya Bay in Guangdong Province. Given that there are plans to increase nuclear power to 50% of the fuel mix in Hong Kong by 2020, and China to significantly expand nuclear generation for the next decade, especially in Guangdong, this discussion about nuclear energy comes timely.
The forum started with opening remarks from Christine Loh, CEO of Civic Exchange, who explained that the mission of the event is to stimulate discussion and learning about nuclear power issues, noting that a recent survey done in Hong Kong by Civic Exchange found that very few people know the percentage of fuel mix coming from nuclear energy.
The first session opened with Mr Michael Friedlander, a former nuclear plant operator, who provided an excellent lesson about the basics of nuclear power for those who had less understanding of the issue, noting that nuclear energy terminology is often described as “alphabet soup”. He shared that, different from the pioneering technology of Chernobyl, pressurized and boiling water reactors - such as the one at Fukushima - are built nowadays. Friedlander went on to explain the causes and consequences of the infamous incidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and more recently, Fukushima. Interestingly, the first two incidents were caused by human error. While nuclear power is economically viable and releases no greenhouse gases, Friedlander notes the importance of having trustworthy people and institutions that are able to build and manage nuclear power plants who people can trust to provide power but also that emergency situations can be handled and communicated honestly to the public.
The second session focused on the communication of incidents and risks. Mr Malcolm Grimston, Associate Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Development Programme, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, focused his discussion on communication around nuclear power. He noted the need for the institutions that operate and manage nuclear plants to guide actions in real time, especially in the unfortunate event of a major nuclear accident. Grimston also pointed out that the International Nuclear Event Scale is unclear in differentiating between the different event scales of a nuclear accident, especially in the context of Fukushima where it was difficult to see the difference between a Level Five versus a Level Seven. Professor CF Lee, Vice Chairman of the Daya Bay Nuclear Safety Consultative Committee, shared about the organizational structure of the people responsible for nuclear power emergency response in Hong Kong and China while Mr David Wong, Contingency Plan Director, Security Bureau, HKSAR Government, went into further detail about emergency response plans for Hong Kong. He also pointed out that Hong Kong is currently reviewing the Daya Bay Contingency Plan to improve on transparency and to take into account the safety checks after the Fukushima incident, and added that the government welcomes comments on the plan.
The final session included nuclear experts from France, a country with over 75% of its energy derived from nuclear power, who provided insights of operating nuclear power plants there. Dr Didier Kechemair, independent consultant on energy and innovation and former Executive Deputy-Director of the French Commission for Nuclear Energy and Alternative Energies (CEA) provided an overview of the state of nuclear power in France and partnerships on nuclear power between China and France. He reinforced the importance of communication and emergency preparedness for governments and nuclear power operators. Mr Bertrand Barre, Scientific Advisor to the Chairperson of the AREVA Group and Professor Emeritus at Institut National des Sciences et Techniques Nucléaires (INSTN), France explained the human dimension of nuclear power in terms of the training of nuclear power operators. Though incidents may not happen in the lifetime of a nuclear power operator, operators need to have continuous training that includes simulations since the most severe incidents can happen. While nuclear power can be economical and benign to the environment, provided that accidents don’t happen and nuclear waste is properly taken care of, as noted by the panelists, mitigation and prevention are vital in the building, operation and management of nuclear power plants so that people can actually sleep well at night. Controversy continues between nuclear supporters and opponents about whether to continue to use and build nuclear power plants. Some countries such as Germany have decided to ban nuclear power and to switch to other renewable sources of energy, while others like France continue to depend on nuclear power as a clean and reliable source of energy. As shown by Fukushima, nuclear power operation and emergency management are far from perfect, and there is an important lesson for operators, regulators and the public alike as it is not only the country where the nuclear power plant is located that is affected, but the entire world.

By: Karry Lai


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