The explosion at the Japanese nuclear reactor, triggered by the devastating earthquake this weekend, raises serious health concerns for people in the vicinity as well as questions about the viability of nuclear energy. In recent years, experts have maintained that nuclear energy is safe, that it will help the world overcome its dependence on oil, and that it prevents hothouse gas emissions. Events in Japan are being closely monitored by nuclear experts in Israel, among them Prof. Eli Stern, who heads the Center for Risk Assessment at the Gertner Institute of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. Before that, he was a member of an international committee of experts that investigated the safety of nuclear energy and collaborated on a study about the environmental and health repercussions of the Chernobyl disaster.
Prof. Stern, do events in Japan threaten the future of nuclear energy in the world?
Until a few days ago, the future of nuclear energy appeared to be bright. Not because of any great love of nuclear reactors but because of their advantages, like the fact that they don't emit hothouse gases and air pollutants, among them nitric and sulfuric acids, and also because we can't possibly supply all our needs through renewable energies. Today there are 442 active nuclear reactors in the world, and it was believed that by 2035, another 180 facilities would be set up and that they would supply a little more than the portion of total global electricity consumption they supply today - about 16 percent. We still don't know exactly what is happening at the Japanese reactor, and there is lots of confusion at the International Atomic Energy Agency. But I have no doubt that this will spark a renewed discussion about the amount of atomic energy that should be developed. There will be those whose opposition to nuclear energy will be strengthened by these events, but there will also be others who will say that, in the final analysis, the safety systems did prevent a terrible disaster, like the one in Chernobyl.
Has something in your basic assumptions about the safety of nuclear facilities been shaken?
I personally don't feel that there has been a massive undermining of my basic assumptions about the safety systems of nuclear reactors, and I want to emphasize that I'm saying this on the basis of the information I have today. It is precisely for situations of this kind that safety systems were created, and they're supposed to back up one another. What we had here was an earthquake of tremendous magnitude and a tsunami wave that hit the generators that were the back-up to the emergency system. Despite that, the worst case scenario has not been realized up to this point. And I stress, up to this point. I feel frustrated because the Japanese are not volunteering information and it is difficult to know exactly what they are doing. There is still more that we don't know than what we do know.
What can be said now about the possible health repercussions of the event?
If there is no worsening of the situation, we can say that this event will not have significant health repercussions. It's true that small quantities of radioactive materials were released, but these are not expected to cause serious health-related problems. If the worst-case scenario happens and there's a total meltdown of the reactor, we are likely to find ourselves in a situation where large areas will be polluted by radioactive material, similar to what happened in Chernobyl. It's also possible that there will be a greater risk of developing malignant tumors, leukemia and cancer of the thyroid. Nobody expects huge numbers of people to face immediate death. We have to remember that in Chernobyl, which was a dreadful and terrible incident, 41 people died, and they were directly exposed to the radiation.
There are nuclear experts who have complained during the present crisis that one of the problems is that the public doesn't understand how a nuclear reactor works and what this activity means. That is indeed a problem because we're talking about a complex subject. There's no doubt that one of the key messages that has to be conveyed is that a problem occurred in an existing reactor. The reactors planned for the future - what is known as third- or fourth-generation reactors - will use much more advanced technology. They will be built in such a way to withstand even disasters more serious than what has happened in Japan. They will not reach a state of meltdown, and even if that does happen, it will be for very short periods and only extremely small quantities of radioactive materials will be emitted into the air. In my opinion, that is an extremely important message.
What can we say today about the safety of the existing nuclear facilities in Israel?
To the best of my knowledge, these facilities are supposed to be able to withstand earthquakes of the magnitude expected in Israel and even to withstand quakes of a greater magnitude. It's true that I haven't dealt with this directly in the past 20 years, but we need to remember that earthquakes of the magnitude that took place in Japan are not expected to happen here.
What is your position with regard to the plan to set up a nuclear reactor in the Negev, in the Shivta area?
I neither support nor oppose this plan. I think that if we reach the conclusion that we are unable to supply our electricity needs, we will have to hold a serious discussion that will take into account the risks involved in setting up a nuclear power station so that we can make a decision about whether there is place for it here in Israel. A discussion of this kind will have to also take into account the technology that will be used to build it.
Is there a possibility that what is happening in Japan will intensify efforts to make use of renewable energies that don't rely on nuclear power? Renewable energies have certainly received a tremendous boost in recent years, especially those that exploit the sun and moon. It's possible that this trend will gain momentum after what has happened in Japan, but we have to wait and look at things in proportion. It could still turn out that after this is over, we'll be able to say that the safety measures proved themselves despite the terrible risks to the facility.
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