VIENNA - Global warming and rocketing oil prices are making nuclear power fashionable, drawing a once demonized industry out of the shadows of the Chernobyl disaster as a potential shining knight of clean energy.
Britain is the latest to recommit itself to the energy source, with its government announcing support Thursday for the construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants produce about 20 percent of Britain's electricity, but all but one are due to close by 2023.
However, some countries turning to nuclear power have poor industrial safety records and corrupt ways that give many pause for thought.
China has 11 nuclear plants and plans to bring more than 30 others online by 2020. And a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report projects that it may need to add as many as 200 reactors by 2050. Of the more than 100 nuclear reactors now being built, planned or on order, about half are in China, India, and other developing nations. Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa plan to expand existing programs; and Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt, and Turkey are among countries considering building their first reactors.
The concerns are hardly limited to developing countries. Japan's nuclear power industry has yet to recover from revelations five years ago of dozens of cases of false reporting on the inspections of nuclear reactor cracks. Swedish operators of a German reactor came under fire last summer for delays in informing the public about a fire at the plant. And a potentially disastrous partial breakdown of a Bulgarian nuclear plant's emergency shutdown mechanism in 2006 went unreported for two months until whistle-blowers made it public.
Nuclear transparency will be an even greater problem for countries such as China that have tight government controls on information. Those who mistrust the current nuclear revival are still haunted by the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor and the Soviet Union's attempts to hide the full extent of the catastrophe.
The revival, the International Atomic Energy Agency projects, means that nuclear energy could nearly double within two decades to 691 gigawatts - 13.3 percent of all electricity generated.
Philippe Jamet, director of nuclear installation safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency, describes the industry's record as "second to none." Still, he says that countries new to or still learning about nuclear power "have to move down the learning curve, and they will learn from [their] mistakes."
The International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN body, was set up in 1957 in large part to limit such trial and error, providing quality controls and expertise to countries with nuclear programs and overseeing pacts binding them to high safety standards.
But the agency is already stretched with monitoring Iran and North Korea over their suspected nuclear arms programs, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's chief, says his organization cannot be the main guarantor of safety. The primary responsibility, he says, rests with the operators of a nuclear facility and their government.
Developing nations insist they are ready for the challenge. But worries persist that bad habits of the past could reflect on nuclear operational safety. In China, for instance, hundreds die annually in the world's most dangerous coal mines and thousands more in fires, explosions, and other accidents often blamed on insufficient safety equipment and workers ignoring safety rules.
Chinese state media yesterday reported that nearly 3,800 people died in mine accidents last year. While that is about 20 percent less than in 2006, it still leaves China's mines the world's deadliest. A Finnish study published in 2005 said India's annual industrial fatality rate is 11.4 people per 100,000 workers and the accident rate 8,700 per 100,000 workers.
Overall, Asian nations excluding China and India have an average industrial accident fatality rate of 21.5 per 100,000 and an accident rate of more than 16,000 per 100,000 workers, says the report, by the Tampere University of Technology in Finland. Countries with nuclear power are obligated to report all incidents to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the study said most Asian governments vastly underreport industrial accidents to the UN's International Labor Organization - fewer than 1 percent in China's case.
Separately, China and India shared 70th place in the 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by the Transparency International think tank that ranked 163 nations, with the least corrupt first and the most last.
Corrupt officials in licensing and supervisory agencies in the region could undermine the best of the International Atomic Energy Agency's guidelines and oversight, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia specialist with the Australian Defence Force Academy.
"There could be a dropping of standards, and that affects all aspects of the nuclear industry, from buying the material, to processing applications, to building and running the plant," he said.