The identification by external monitoring centres of an unexpected concentration of nuclear-related material in the air above Khazkhstan and across the region at the end of September was initially denied by the local and Russian authorities but has now been partially admitted in a statement from Roshydromet, the agency responsible for monitoring radiation in Russia. However, the source of the emission of ruthenium 106 ( a radioactive form of the rare heavy metal) has not been explained. Given the history of the region, the absence of an explanation can only undermine confidence at a time in the industry when the future of nuclear power is already in doubt because of its cost. The authorities that control the plant at Mayak, owned by the Russian state company Rosatom, should come clean, and allow open international scrutiny. Secrecy is the enemy of trust, and no part of the energy system is more v ulnerable to both secrecy and mistrust than nuclear power. Never mind that nuclear is safer measured by output against the number of people killed or seriously injured than any other form of energy supply. Never mind that the levels of protection around nuclear facilities are many times greater, and more expensive than for any oil or gas operation. The distrust remains and is compounded by each new incident. The Mayak facility in the southern Urals was built in the late 1940s as part of the Soviet programme to match American nuclear capability. The area subsequently became a centre of reprocessing and of civil nuclear power. Environmental protection was not, to put it mildly, the top priority. No waste disposal facility was built until 1953, with even high level waste initially simply being dumped into local rivers and Lake Kyzyltash. In 1957 a radioactive waste container exploded at the site near Kyshtym – an accident judged by some to be among the three most serious in the world’s nuclear industry. Secrecy in the nuclear business is not limited to the Russians, of course. EDF will not tell us what has gone wrong at Flamanville, their flagship new nuclear plant in northern France which is years b ehind schedule and billions of euros over budget. At Sellafield, the UK’s major centre of nuclear activity, there is still a culture of secrecy. The nuclear industry does not seem to realise the damage this does. The modern nuclear industry, including companies such as Rosatom, is highly professional in most respects, but not in communication. Overall, the safety record is good. But distrust creates a competitive disadvantage for the whole business. Without full and open information the inevitable regulatory response to each concern is to add more rules and more costs. That is why the industry is in relative decline in Europe and the US and recovering very slowly in Japan. It is growing only in areas such as China, where public scrutiny is limited or ineffective, but in an internet age even the most oppressive regimes cannot impose a blanket of silence when things go wrong. Nuclear power ought to be have a significant role in the global energy mix. But it will only achieve that potential if the industry changes its ways.
FT 5th Dec 2017 read more »