The Santa Barbara & Tri-Counties Chapter of the United Nations Association hosted a forum on nuclear energy featuring several notable speakers and activists on Saturday in recognition of United Nations Day.

Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and UCSB’s Physics Dept. gathered in Santa Barbara City College’s Fe Bland Forum to speak about nuclear safety, the Fukushima reactor meltdown and the future of nuclear energy. The event was co-sponsored by UCSB’s Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies and SBCC’s Global Studies program.

Geoffrey Shaw, a representative for the International Atomic Energy Agency Director General, said the global agency has seen a spike in concern about nuclear safety following destructive reactor meltdowns at various Japanese nuclear power plants in March.

“The question over the safety of nuclear energy is timely in light of the accident in Fukushima,” Shaw said. “It created an enormous amount of public concern. Just how safe is it? The media and public concern is understandable.”

According to Shaw, the IAEA wants to focus on implementing measures to ensure safety in the field of nuclear power, especially as the global need for alternative energy sources increases.

“Nuclear power is already here with us; the IAEA expects growth in the use of nuclear energy,” Shaw said. “The question that needs to be asked is, ‘Can we make safer reactors?’ In other words, we need a viable action plan for nuclear regulation and the IAEA has already adopted a twelve-point action plan.”

Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility Outreach Coordinator David Weisman said shortcuts in regulatory processes are a main concern when moving forward with research into nuclear energy.

“Damage claims against Tokyo Electricity in the Fukushima reactor meltdown have already exceeded $24 billion — can we afford that kind of damage here? Insurance will not cover such incident,” Weisman said. “When an earthquake happens, how much can we get by without the nuclear power plants? What if Fukushima happens here? Our electricity bill will soar through the sky.”

However, according to Shaw, these considerations need to be put in perspective by considering other issues related to nuclear energy, including the expansion of nuclear power in some countries.

“This concern over safety needs to be considered with interrelated issues on the nuclear agenda,” Shaw said. “For example, developing countries need energy to develop. Australia and Germany intend to gradually phase out nuclear energy, but India and China intend to expand its use. It is because China is an energy-scarce country.”

While each nation has the right to choose whether or not to use nuclear power, safety and regulation are paramount to energy needs and often must extend beyond national borders, Shaw said.

“Nuclear energy can be part of the long-term plan for many countries and nuclear safety is the responsibility of national governments,” Shaw said. “The U.N. leadership reaffirmed the rights of nations to choose their own energy resources, but safety and regulatory measures and high standards of security need to be developed first before the introduction of nuclear energy. IAEA works with those governments to help them toward this end.”

According to Shaw, nuclear power is in especially high demand in countries struggling to provide energy sources to develop modern infrastructures.

“Many countries have asked us for nuclear reactors — mostly in the developing countries — but IAEA is not in the business of selling nuclear reactors so we had to decline these requests,” Shaw said. “Energy polarization is widespread and in Africa it is especially severe.”

Nuclear energy has a broad range of applications that make it desirable to developing nations, Shaw said.

“Nuclear energy is used widely for [purposes] other than energy, such as environment, health and water management,” Shaw said. “For example, nearly a billion people lack fresh water supply and nuclear technology can be used to detect sustainable water sources. In food and agriculture, nuclear energy is used to develop better seeds.”

According to Weisman, local voices are essential to the debate on nuclear energy, particularly in areas like Santa Barbara that are in close proximity to nuclear power facilities.

“We are 90 minutes south of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant,” Weisman said. “Most of us are paying for electricity to Southern California Edison and thus for nuclear power. We are well placed and this is a local issue.”

Benjamin Monreal, an assistant professor of high-energy physics at UCSB, said while the Diablo Canyon facility is a liability, nuclear energy in general is not always a negative option.

“Diablo Canyon is dangerous because it is on the San Andreas fault line,” Monreal said. “[However], having a safe, controlled reactor away from population centers can be a good idea.”

Monreal said widespread use of nuclear energy is a growing reality, especially as a viable alternate for carbon-based energy sources.

“Nuclear energy is growing and carbon energy is still growing,” Monreal said. “Can solar and wind energies shrink the usage of carbon energy? I am skeptical. I really hope that wind and solar can do a lion’s share of replacing nuclear energy as the alternative to carbon energy, but it is really impossible. Unless conservation is really happening, turning off nuclear power is only increasing the share of coal.”

Despite these benefits, Weisman said the Diablo Canyon facility highlights a central question of accountability in the process of authorizing and regulating nuclear power.

“When Diablo Canyon was up for relicensing, the state asked the company to do a full seismic safety study, but the company simply bypassed the state regulators and got relicensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the federal level,” Weisman said. “Do we trust our regulators? That is the fundamental question. Diablo Canyon represents everything that is wrong about the process.”

According to Weisman, a mistake during the planning of the Diablo Canyon, plant has sapped local taxpayers money since the 1980s.

“When the company designed the Diablo Canyon plant, they Xeroxed the blueprint upside down, so they had to build the exact same thing twice — with our money,” Weisman said. “This is an economic issue — an unfunded mandate coming out of our own pockets. Since 1988, you’ve all been paying for a $4.4 billion blunder by a utility company.”

In situations such as this, advocacy groups struggle to raise public safety concerns against the lobbying power of multinational energy companies, according to Weisman.

“This issue is where local meets global,” Weisman said. “NRC and utility companies say that public safety doesn’t matter and advocacy groups like ours are out-funded by these utility companies by a million to one in lobbying, so local control over this issue is important.”

According to Monreal, the drawbacks of nuclear energy — including safety and economic concerns — should be viewed from a perspective that takes into account the negative aspects of other energy sources.

“It’s a matter of risk,” Monreal said. “Two past failures of nuclear reactors have killed 10,000 plus in cancer deaths. Coal power has killed 6,000 miners every year in China alone since 1970 and countless more in air pollution in places. We quantify and balance environmental health, safety and ethics tradeoffs all the time. Nuclear power should be in this same ballpark.”