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Sun 20 Mar 2011 01:23 PM

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Japan crisis throws new light on nuclear plans

Here's a word for Indonesia as it mulls a nuclear future: Don’t!

Japan crisis throws new light on nuclear plans

Yes, that’s easy for me to say. The fourth most-populous nation is a shoo-in to join Brazil, Russia, India and China soon as a BRIC economy. BRIICs, anyone? To keep growing at about seven percent, Indonesia needs energy, and lots of it. Hence the plan to build nuclear power plants.

That was before Japan’s March 11 earthquake and nuclear accident, which ranks alongside Three-Mile Island as among the world’s worst. If a country as developed, technologically advanced and earthquake-ready as Japan must scramble to avert a nuclear catastrophe, what hope do developing nations have?

No disrespect is meant. No one needs to convince me of Indonesia’s promise or how impressively far it’s come since the dark days of the 1997-1998 Asian crisis. Yet Indonesia’s regulatory environment is poor and its public sector far less tech-savvy than Japan’s; its disaster-response record needs work and it’s a very seismically active place.

Indonesia’s nuclear-reactor plans may have been thinkable BF (before Fukushima). In an AF (after Fukushima) world, they’re lunacy. If the ongoing drama in Japan tells the world anything, it’s that earthquake-prone nations should be aggressively pursuing non-nuclear options to fuel growth.

Granted, Japan’s drama is unique. At 40, the Fukushima Dai- Ichi power plant is almost as old as the median age of Japan’s 126 million people. The technology going into today’s reactors makes them far safer. The role of age in Japan’s crisis prompted some world leaders, like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, to shut their oldest reactors.

The crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s crippled plant is arguably more a product of the tsunami than the quake (at least Indonesia plans to locate reactors far enough above sea level to be safe from such surges). Still, Japan’s disaster has been decades in the making thanks to falsified safety reports, underestimated risks and plain old corruption.

Incestuous ties between government and industry helped fuel the excesses behind the 1980s bubble economy. That same public-private collusion also plagued responses to the economic downturn that followed. A bad-loan crisis festered, deflation took root and competition from China exploded. All the while, Japan Inc circled the wagons and tried to stave off both change and tough decisions.

If ever there were a microcosm of what ails Japan, its nuclear power industry and a legacy of fatal accidents and conflicts of interest provide it. Too often, those writing nuclear-safety rules were also doing surveys and signing off on inspections. Here’s an issue well worth the attention of Julian Assange at WikiLeaks.

Were Japan’s nuclear sites better inspected and maintained, we’d all be better off.

None more so than the technicians battling in Fukushima. We in Japan are humbled and moved by their courage and dedication in trying to prevent radiation from billowing into our skies. We watch their fight against the clock with the nagging thought that none of this should have happened. Nor should the world let it happen again.

Japan demonstrates the difficult balancing act world leaders face. With minimal energy reserves of its own, nuclear power became a national priority as Japan clawed out of the devastation of World War II, a conflict it fought partly to secure oil supplies. Japan has 54 operating nuclear reactors - more than any country except the US and France - to power its industries. This pits economic demands against safety concerns in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone places.

For developing nations like Indonesia, the allure of nuclear power is obvious. Here’s a number that worries me: 110. That’s Indonesia’s ranking in Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index. That’s lower than Senegal and Kazakhstan, and far behind India and Thailand.

Unless engineers can build nuclear reactors out of rubber or elevate them on huge shock absorbers, they’ve got no business locating them atop the Ring of Fire, that arc of fault lines and volcanoes encircling the Pacific Basin. And that’s before we consider the risks associated with corruption.

Japan’s crisis, even in a worst-case scenario, isn’t a second Chernobyl. That’s easy to forget given the global media’s over-the-top coverage during the past week.

One lesson we should remember from events in modern-day Ukraine in 1986 was the role of everything from design flaws to shoddy construction materials to insufficient training of reactor personnel. In other words, the human factor.

At Fukushima, back-up diesel generators that might’ve averted the disaster were located in a basement and swamped by waves. “This in the country that invented the word Tsunami,” noted Ken Brockman, a former director of nuclear installation safety at the IAEA in Vienna.

If these things can go this awry in Japan, as efficient, tech-savvy and work-ethic oriented a nation as there is, where won’t they? It’s a question Indonesia and other economic upstarts should consider long and hard.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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