One year to Fukushima and future of nuclear power

Today our research group was visited by a Scientific Advisory Committee. As for the students, we were also seated down with the chair of this committee to talk about our experiences at the research group this year. Let me tell you first that, the group of attended students consisted of 2 PhD candidates (I’m one of the 2) and 3 Master’s students. The meeting went on for more than an hour and I really enjoyed listening to and discussing various topics. I brought up the Fukushima accident which happened almost one year ago. Around this time last year, I was in the process of finishing my Master’s thesis, preparing for the defense. I still remember, soon after accepting the offer from the RI, I was almost glued to the computer screen for every piece of news about Fukushima, from the first explosion, to the next one. Then I found out Switzerland politicians were considering a phase-out of nuclear. That did not deter me from coming here. However, I have to admit that, since my arrival, several research staffs already left and in comparison, there is fewer people coming to replace those positions. I reported my feeling of uncertainties to the Chair and we shared further opinions of how we evaluated Fukushima in terms of our future career prospects.

This led to another topic that I was interested in hearing the opinion from the meeting participants. As Switzerland, Germany are phasing out nuclear, Japan is planning to reduce dependence on nuclear power, we cannot ignore the more and more political support and activities in countries such as Iran, China, UAE, Turkey [WNA] . I have concerns that while nuclear energy is considered to provide energy independence for countries which obviously need it, they might not actually have enough of trained nuclear engineers, scientists, and advanced technological capabilities to accomplish the complex tasks of constructing and running, maintaining nuclear power plants.

Let’s be honest, will skilled engineers be willing to relocate from Switzerland or Germany to Iran, China, Vietnam, Jordan for more abundant jobs after their own countries decided to shut down their reactors?  If not, where will those nuclear-growing countries get the  expertise? They could of course develop themselves or buy from others (which seems to be the only commercial activities left for nuclear engineers in German). Well, take China for example. It buys and builds all types of NPP and from them, it tries to learn of the technological know-how. However, from every Chinese nuclear engineer I met, I was told that the nuclear activities in China are disorganized and the actual knowledge of nuclear power is immature. That’s the situation in the most “promising” nuclear-thirsty nation in the world. Not an assuring thought, is it? And don’t let me start on the situation in Iran!

I guess what I’m really worried is that, the safety of nuclear technology may not be adequately secured in countries that are (too) fast developing. On the other hand, the number of competent nuclear engineers are going to be smaller and smaller in countries that have a long history of nuclear presence after the decision of phase-out. Switzerland, Germany should have stayed unswayed and showed to the world that their nuclear power plants are safe and they have the competent nuclear engineers to make them safer.