Should the catastrophic damage caused to Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power station following the earthquake and tsunami turn us off nuclear power?
For all the attention that is understandably paid to them, natural disasters rarely generate heated debates about the future direction of particular government policies. Questions are rightly asked about whether or not we were sufficiently prepared and whether more could be done to minimise loss of life and damage to property in future. But we tend to accept that earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and the eruption of volcanoes are what human beings living on planet Earth have to expect and put up with.
The earthquakes and tsunami that devastated Japan a week ago are different, however. The catastrophic damage they inflicted on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in the north east of the country has raised again the fundamental issue of whether it is sensible for human beings to depend on nuclear power for some of their energy needs. It has done so just as the case for nuclear, as a ‘clean’ alternative to the carbon-burning, global-warming energy sources of oil and coal, has been making headway. With overall demand for electricity set to soar, as newly-developing countries such China and India add to already growing demand, the world has been planning to double its output of nuclear-generated electricity over the next twenty years.
At the time of writing, it is not yet clear how big a disaster Fukushima will turn out to be. Although the Japanese authorities are still raising the level of alert, most experts agree that it will not prove to be another Chernobyl. That explosion in 1986 pumped out lethal radiation that spread round the world and its effects are still being felt. There is still hope that the radiation leaks at Fukushima will be much more limited and localised.
While it waits to discover just how great a catastrophe this may (or may not) be, the world has been watching images that shatter confidence in the nuclear industry: images of generators exploding and of the authorities apparently at their wits end trying to contain the situation. They have resorted to seemingly desperate measures to cool the reactors down, including flooding them with sea water and even using helicopters in a futile attempt to douse them with water. If nuclear is supposed to be the high-tech energy source of the future, these images make it all seem much more Heath Robinson.
What should be the rational response of policy-makers to what has happened?
Defenders of nuclear power have been anxious to say that we should not rush to conclusions. The situation in Japan is exceptional. The power stations affected are of an old design. Newer systems have much better technologies to shut down and cool stations hit by earthquakes. And, in the case of Britain’s policy choices, we don’t have to worry about earthquakes because they don’t happen here.
Nonetheless, even countries that do not perch on geological faultlines have felt the need to respond to the events in Japan. Germany has temporarily closed its oldest nuclear installations and suspended plans to extend the life of others. Switzerland has put a hold on the building of new stations. And here, the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, is holding an inquiry into the implications for Britain of Fukushima.
For Britain the main question is whether to proceed with building eleven new nuclear power stations on sites where existing stations are due to end their lives. In the next ten years or so, Britain will lose about a quarter of its existing electricity generation capacity, both nuclear and coal-fired. This has to be made good if the lights are not to go out.
The argument is that if we are serious about fighting global-warming, there is no alternative to building new nuclear capacity. Renewables, such as wind power, have their place but few experts believe they can fill the gap in time. Also, concerns about energy security make the Government reluctant to depend even more on imported Russian gas. So nuclear it is. At the moment nuclear generation accounts for about 18% of our electricity supply, compared with 76% in France. The French seem to live perfectly happily with so many nuclear power stations, so why shouldn’t we?
Some of the arguments against are perennial. One is cost. The Government has been anxious to claim that taxpayers’ money will not be involved in new nuclear generation and that the role of government is simply to facilitate the opportunity for private companies (including French ones) to build the new capacity. Sceptics say they have heard all this before, going back to the early days of nuclear power when it was boasted that nuclear-generated electricity would be so cheap to produce that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to charge for it. In reality, hidden (or not so hidden) costs always end up landing on the taxpayer. Paying for the disposal of nuclear waste is one of them.
But it is the safety issue which mostly concerns opponents of the nuclear power. Even the problem of how to dispose of the waste has not yet been solved and creates huge public alarm whenever a proposal arises to store the stuff, which has thousands of years of potential radiation toxicity, near where anyone is living.
But it is the safety of nuclear power stations themselves which is the most burning issue in the public’s mind and which Fukushima brings again to our attention. Supporters of nuclear energy like to state the figures. They point out that far more people are killed every year in the production of coal and oil than die as a result of anything to do with the nuclear industry. Even Chernobyl, they say, was in these terms nothing like the disaster for human life it is imagined to have been. According to the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Authority only 56 people died as a direct result of exposure to radiation after Chernobyl and 'only' 4,000 will ultimately die of the cancers it caused – though these figures are disputed and are inevitably difficult to measure.
The problem for advocates of nuclear power is the usual one about risk. Two factors matter in any risk assessment: the likelihood that an event will happen and the scale of the disaster if it does. Nuclear accidents may be rare but the public still fears that eventually one of them will be on a huge scale in terms of loss of life, however tiny the number of casualties so far may have been. There is now the additional fear that terrorists, seeing the havoc and alarm that can be caused by nuclear power stations going up in smoke, will be prepared to target them.
Wherever they may start from in the argument about nuclear power, governments tend to come round to thinking that nuclear energy is unavoidable. Then their problem becomes political: how to persuade a sceptical and alarmed public. Fukushima will make it much harder for them.
This political problem was once made vividly clear to me by a now-retired MP. He was trying to persuade a meeting of his sceptical constituents about the virtues of nuclear power and how exemplary its safety record was. He cited all the relevant statistics. Then a man got up at the back of the hall and said: 'You’re telling us that nuclear is safer than coal, are you? In that case why didn’t we dump a whole load of coal on Hiroshima in 1945?' The MP’s temporary loss of words made clear to him how difficult the political task of making the case for nuclear can often be.
What’s your view?
- Has Fukushima affected your attitude to nuclear power?
- How safe do you think nuclear power is?
- Do you think the fact that Britain does not occupy an earthquake zone is significant or not in the debate about whether we should have nuclear power stations?
- How important do you think the need to generate electricity from non-carbon sources is in the equation concerning the future of nuclear?
- How worried do you think we should be about a possible terrorist threat to nuclear power stations?
- And do you think the British Government should go ahead with plans for eleven new nuclear stations or not?