EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Controlled Nuclear Growth Imperative - Tokuhiro

Asia’s incumbent nuclear industries are going to expand.

Nuclear Forum Asia’s Simon Hyett speaks one-on-one with nuclear engineering Professor Akira Tokuhiro, discussing trends in nuclear and what the resumption of Japan’s nuclear generation means for the industry

Professor Akira Tokuhiro is a rare academic. He is one of the few Japanese nuclear experts who is working outside of Japan. This provides him with a unique perspective, rare experience as a nuclear engineer and a highly independent philosophy regarding the Japanese, Asian and global nuclear power industries. A nuclear and mechanical engineering professional with 25 years of next generation nuclear reactor R&D experience, Tokuhiro offers an opinion that is best well heeded. Describing a professional interest in post-Fukushima nuclear energy generation in Japan and Asia, Tokuhiro was at first disappointed at Japan’s relatively uninformed official reaction to the Fukushima disaster, saying to the Huffington Post in July 2011, only four months after the meltdown, "There is a cultural element in this. The Japanese do not want to be embarrassed" and "... Only small people pay taxes mentality,” when asked about TEPCO’s leadership accountability.

Much has changed in the last five years however, and much has been learnt. Tokuhiro is now a firm supporter of getting the show back on the road. Asia is ready he argues, Japan has a mature nuclear market with necessarily changing practices but something to offer as well; ASEAN newcomers are ready to join Japan and Korea. Clearly China and India are well-positioned for controlled industry growth. Emphasising the word “controlled”, Tokuhiro argues that irrespective of sophistication, Asia’s incumbent nuclear industries are going to expand, “Whether ready or not, Asia, especially China, is moving ahead aggressively to deploy additional nuclear-based electricity generation capability.” Japan on the other hand has difficult challenges and few options. The energy thirsty Japanese, and for that matter, the Chinese, are in need of alternative methods of power generation in order to offset carbon emission obligations and goals. This is really forcing Japan’s hand in particular, to slowly and cautiously resume the operation of idle reactors (only four units to date have restarted). Before “3.11”, some 50 units were operating. He also interestingly highlights discreet but important geopolitical implications that underpin the necessity of Japan’s place in the nuclear world. “The resumption of Japan’s nuclear energy option is predominantly a boost for Japan itself. However, a stronger Japan broadly restores the balance of power – the socio-economic [balance] across Asia Pacific. The current situation, as reflected by geopolitical fluctuations and instability is subtle but present.”

Politics and power generation can no longer be separated and nuclear power is fast becoming a matter of nationhood and sovereign right, an attitude fuelled perhaps by Iran’s narrative in the last decade that the nation has a right to generate nuclear power to meet the power needs of a rapidly industrialising nation with an ever-demanding, growing middle class. “Commercial nuclear power technology is increasingly a matter of national interest,” says Tokuhiro. Globally the industry is extremely competitive, leading to the result that even though emerging nuclear nations, such as those in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, et cetera, enjoy a great deal of technological options, these newcomers also absorb political pressure from power incumbent neighbours and large vendors. Therefore Japan’s re-emergence, given its history, experience and nuclear culture, will prove a counter-balance. Furthermore, and as a consequence, emerging nuclear nations must not rush their market entries and must develop an solid culture that emphasises the lessons learnt from Fukushima: emergency preparedness, continuous assessment of safety culture, and effective crisis and risk communication and management. This will take some time and to avoid disasters that sets neighbours against each other, it should be allowed to take time, suggests Tokuhiro.

Asian geopolitics aside, the nuclear industry is truly global and an incident at one plant - one corner of the world - can impact all other plants (and regulators) across the other side of the world. China is one nation that is poised for a growth spurt. “It’s relatively certain that China will place more units online as soon as possible.” Within a relatively short period of time, Tokuhiro “expects one of the emerging Southeast Asian countries to make an announcement regarding some commitment to establish a commercial plant,” but he warns that, “This will be largely influenced by the economic and political outlook in Southeast Asia and US-China tensions in the Pacific.”

Southeast Asia (and more broadly East Asia) currently consumes energy like no other region at any time in history. Irrespective of regional sensitivities and geo-political agendas, the east Asian region and particularly the emerging nuclear nations have plans to move ahead with their nuclear programmes. The demands of economic growth and their increasingly politically literate middle classes leave governments with few alternatives, and of course with ever-present climate change concerns and challenges. The responsibility of these nations, but also established nuclear nations and experienced vendors is to ensure that the newcomer journey is taken on a safely paved road, wisely guided and controlled. Independence of the regulatory body, perhaps initial direct involvement of the IAEA and WANO (INPO), may be key. That is, “best practices” of established nations should be transferred to newer nations. According to Tokuhiro, Japan’s re-emergence should add to steering the right course for newcomers. Of course Japan’s nuclear culture itself is undergoing change after Fukushima and analysts hope that positive corrections in the political and nuclear safety culture will become the “new practice”. It of course remains to be seen. Although the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is just a few years away, the completion of the clean-up at Fukushima Daiichi is some 40 to 50 years into the future. Just as importantly however, is that the right long-term safety culture is inculcated so that entrant nations desperate for power do not embark on a road toward the next Fukushima-style catastrophe. Tokuhiro sees the positives, but adds that we must cautiously combine “human and machines to produce (positive) outcomes” (his motto) to help nuclear prove itself as the safe, clean power source for the future.