Nuclear Power in Developing Countries? Let’s Talk about It

Editor’s note: This opinion piece first appeared on the Global Post website.

With annual negotiations on a global climate change in Doha, Qatar just completed, it is clear that the world is failing to meet the challenge to reduce carbon emissions. As countries squabble about low-carbon investment funds, historical responsibility, and “climate compensation,” one proven low-carbon technology is being left out of the discussion: nuclear power.

Cited by many as a critical component of any meaningful carbon reduction effort, nuclear energy has been relegated in developed countries. Some nations are planning complete nuclear-power phase-outs and others see a reduced role for the technology as safety related costs and the viability of alternatives – principally natural gas – increase.

While the developed world gets cold feet on nuclear power, its prospects in developing countries are different. The challenges of meeting electricity demand, reducing reliance on imported energy, and promoting economic growth while lowering carbon dioxide emissions, leave many emerging nations with no alternative but to consider nuclear energy as a key component of their economic development and energy security strategies. 

The International Energy Agency (IAEA) projections show that these countries will account for 40 percent of total global nuclear power generation by 2035, up from 17 percent in 2010. Of nuclear reactors currently under construction, 69 percent are in China, India and Russia, with China alone accounting for 40 percent of the total. In addition, several developing countries are looking to construct their first nuclear reactors in the next decade or so; the United Arab Emirates has broken ground on the construction of its first units, and Turkey, Jordan and Vietnam are also well along in their plans to build their first civilian nuclear reactor. A handful of others are seriously considering nuclear power, but commitments are pending.

Serious challenges remain in expanding or introducing a nuclear energy infrastructure in developing countries. Major barriers include the high cost of building nuclear power plants, the time required to develop robust legal and regulatory frameworks, the long-term commitment required, establishing a sustainable safety and non-proliferation culture, small grid sizes and lack of interconnections, and lack of human resources capacity.

Our research has highlighted one issue that has received insufficient attention even as it is gradually emerging as critical both in existing nuclear energy states as well as in countries aspiring to introduce their first reactors: the lack of comprehensive, timely and transparent stakeholder engagement is contributing to a growing opposition to nuclear power.

The IAEA emphasizes that stakeholder engagement is of the “utmost importance.” In building popular support it is essential to promote understanding of the advantages of nuclear power, to explain how its risks will be addressed and to legitimize the program in the eyes of the public. The role of stakeholder is also critically related to a country’s ability to attract, motivate, and retain qualified individuals in its nuclear power industry.

In Jordan, skepticism about the rationale for its nuclear power policy is expressed in distrust of official information and rising public protests. Opposition to the nuclear project has spread to the parliament: in May 2012 the Energy and Mineral Resources Committee of the lower house recommended that the government suspend the nuclear power program. As part of an exercise to assess for Jordan lessons from Japan’s Fukushima experience in 2011, a government official acknowledged that “silence and defensive attitude creates doubts…and the more people know, the more they support nuclear energy.”

In Turkey, public protests in the aftermath of Fukushima against that country’s plans to build a nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast prompted a Turkish think tank to state that a more regular and comprehensive communication strategy would be helpful in “defusing the polarization surrounding the transition to nuclear power.”

Other countries are also witnessing more vocal opposition. In China, four retired officials of Wangjiang County petitioned against the government’s planned construction of the Pengze nuclear power plant, citing poor or falsified data used in the plant’s application and approval process. The country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection stated that one of the lessons of Fukushima for China is that Beijing “should further strengthen publicity and information disclosure.” Since Fukushima, protesters have been intensifying their demonstrations against the nuclear power plant at Kundakalum in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Whether due to Fukushima, particular local circumstances, the rise in access to information technology and social media, or generally heightened political and environmental awareness, emerging market countries are witnessing nascent, but increased, opposition to nuclear energy plans.

In our view, lack of stakeholder engagement is a major contributing factor. Governments that may not have a tradition of proactively explaining policy decisions and responding to questions and concerns in a timely and transparent manner are now confronting the reality that engaging in a dialog with all interested parties is essential, especially for an endeavor with such long-term and unique safety, environmental, cost, proliferation and strategic characteristics.

Stakeholders include the news media, NGOs, the general public, opinion leaders, and national and local government officials. Governments in developing countries intending to introduce or expand nuclear energy should engage in serious discussions with all of these interests. If they don’t, the viability, sustainability and safety of their programs will be compromised.