It may sound alarming but that is what could happen in many developing countries which are either building nuclear power plants or considering doing so – a prospect that raises serious questions after Japan’s experience handling a nuclear crisis.
A trove of U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and provided to Reuters by a third party provide colorful and sometimes scary commentary on the conditions in developing nations with nuclear power aspirations.
In a cable from the U.S. embassy in Hanoi in February 2007, concerns are raised about storing radioactive waste in Vietnam, which has very ambitious plans to build nuclear power plants. Le Dinh Tien, the vice minister of science and technology, is quoted as saying the country’s track record of handling such waste was “not so good” and its inventory of radioactive materials “not adequate.”
In Azerbaijan, a cable written in November 2008 describes the man who would have the responsibility for regulation of a proposed nuclear program, Kamaladdin Heydarov, as “ubiquitous, with his hands in everything from construction to customs.”
“He is rumored to have made his fortune while heading up the State Customs Service, and is now heavily invested in Baku’s rampant construction boom,” says the cable, which followed a meeting in Baku between Heydarov, the minister of emergency situations, and then U.S. Special Envoy Frank Mermoud.
Even in India, which already has a well developed nuclear industry and plans to build 58 more reactors, eyebrows can be raised. The security at one nuclear facility visited by a U.S. delegation in November 2008 is described in one cable as only “moderate” with security officers performing bag and vehicle checks that weren’t thorough, a lack of cameras in key areas, and some parts having very little security at all.
In response to the disclosures, a Vietnam government official said that the quotes attributed to Tien were “completely ungrounded” and that the country manages radioactive waste in compliance with local laws and recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
An Azeri official said the government had not taken a decision to construct a nuclear reactor but instead had a plan to conduct a feasibility study into the construction of a nuclear research reactor, which was the subject of talks with the IAEA and had been put off until 2012 from this year. Heydarov could not be reached for comment.
A senior official at India’s atomic energy department, A.P. Joshi, said it hadn’t previously heard of the security doubts and therefore couldn’t comment on them.
The anecdotes illustrate risks ranging from corruption to poor oversight and bad infrastructure. The dangers have been thrown into stark relief by two shattering events half a world apart – the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and the popular unrest that has brought unprecedented political turmoil to the Middle East.
This helps to explain why leaders of the Group of Eight nations late last month sought more stringent international rules on nuclear safety.
The speed with which the operator of the Japanese nuclear plant lost control, and the subsequent meltdowns of three reactors, ensuing explosions and overheating of fuel rod storage pools, were a wake-up call for nuclear regulators.
If in a modern, stable democracy, there could be apparently lax regulatory oversight, failure of infrastructure, and a slow response to a crisis from authorities, then it begs the question of how others would handle a similar situation.
“If Japan can’t cope with the implications of a disaster like this,” said Andrew Neff, a senior energy analyst at economic analysis and market intelligence group IHS Global Insight, “then in some ways I think it’s a legitimate exercise to question whether other less-developed countries could cope.”
REGULATION AND CORRUPTION
For many, rule No.1 for a safe nuclear program is a regulator with at least some semblance of independence from government or corporate influence.
Critics worry that authoritarian governments will not tolerate an authority with even pretensions to partial independence or transparency of decision-making. While nuclear authorities in the West have also faced criticism for being too close to the industry they regulate, they are at least open to media and lawmaker scrutiny.
Rampant corruption in some developing countries could also lead to corners being cut in everything from plant construction to security, critics say.
For Najmedin Meshkati, a professor at the University of Southern California, the dilemma for regulators in authoritarian countries can be summed up by a saying in his native Persian: “the knife blade doesn’t cut its handle.”
“If you have a government regulator overseeing the building of a plant by a government utility,” said the nuclear expert, “then there is no way the knife will ever cut its handle.”
Samuel Ciszuk, a senior analyst at IHS Energy, cited the example of Saudi Arabia, which was reported this month to be planning to build 16 nuclear power reactors by 2020 at a cost of more than $100 billion.
“In countries where you have an authoritarian, personalized power system in place, the very idea of a completely independent oversight body is anathema,” he said.
A spokesman for King Abdullah City for Atomic and Reusable Energy, the Saudi center for nuclear research and policy, did not respond to phone and email requests seeking comment.
Led by the increasingly hardline President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan is an interesting case where poor regulation and corruption meet. It ranked joint 134th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In the meeting with Mermoud, Heydarov said his ministry had been given the task of researching the regulations needed for possible future nuclear energy plants in Azerbaijan and that the government was considering a move to nuclear power in the next 20-30 years, according to the cable.
When asked about its nuclear plans, an Azeri official sought to play down its nuclear ambitions, saying that the nation does not need additional energy resources.
“There is a plan to conduct a feasibility study on construction of a nuclear research reactor in Azerbaijan,” said Siyavush Azakov, the head of the state agency on nuclear and radiological activity regulation. “Initial plan was to conduct a feasibility study together with IAEA experts by the end of this year, but then it was extended till next year,” he said.