‘Crazy’ US-China cooperation on nuclear energy key to tackling climate change, forum hears on Fukushima anniversary

By Eric Ng

The United States should cooperate with China so that nuclear energy can play a bigger role in decarbonising the world, a forum held on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has heard.

While this might seem like a “crazy” idea amid tense US-China relations and public scepticism towards nuclear energy, it was common sense given “we will either sink or sail together” in face of carbon emissions-induced climate change whose impact knows no borders, said James Hansen, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who is famous for his testimony on climate change to US congressional committees in the 1980s.

He was speaking to an online forum jointly organised by City University of Hong Kong, National Tsing Hua University, Seoul National University and Tokyo Institute of Technology on Wednesday.

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“The US still has great potential for innovation in nuclear power, but the need for it is greatest in places like China, India and Indonesia,” he said. “If we cooperate, we could drive down the price of nuclear to less than that of coal, and then we will be on the track to solving the climate problem.”

China’s nuclear power projects pipeline is the world’s largest. Premier Li Keqiang said in his annual work report, presented last week during the National People’s Congress, that China will develop nuclear power “actively” in an “orderly manner”, on the premise that safety was ensured.

Hansen said the key to tackling climate change lay in raising the cost of fossil fuels and funding research to lower the cost of low-carbon alternatives. He called on the US and China to impose a rising across-the-board fossil fuel fee on domestic fossil fuel mines and ports, including duties on products imported from countries without a carbon fee.

“The [key to emissions falling rapidly] is a rising price of carbon to make fossil fuel prices honest, and viable alternatives, which require greater government support for research, development and demonstrations,” he said.

Fukushima was hit by a strong earthquake, a tsunami and three nuclear meltdowns on March 11, 2011. But almost none of the about 16,000 resulting deaths have been linked to the nuclear disaster, which is considered most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Hanssen said nuclear energy, among the safest forms of energy over the past 50 years, was a good complement to renewable energy as well, if its cost was below that of fossil fuels. This lowering of costs required mass equipment manufacturing and licensing of advanced technology, he added.

Per trillion-kilowatt-hours of power generated, nuclear had the lowest mortality rate, at 90 deaths, according to Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear science and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In comparison, 150 deaths were associated with wind, 440 with solar, 1,400 with hydro and 170,000 with coal power.

Nuclear energy also had the lowest land use and highest consistency among sources of energy, Buongiorno told the forum. This means it could provide 82-292 times more generating capacity for dispatchable electricity per square mile compared to wind and solar farms, he said.

Solar, wind and hydro plants also consumed 10-16 times more building materials such as cement, glass, concrete and steel, compared to nuclear, Buongiorno added.

Spent fuel, a major long-term safety concern, was stable physically and chemically when stored properly, Seoul National University nuclear engineering professor Han-gyu Joo told the forum. It is typically stored in 5cm thick copper containers surrounded by a waterproof material among 500-metre deep bedrock that lacks oxygen, he said.

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