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Counting the cost of Fukushima

Events at Fukushima have correctly forced people in the UK to reassess the role of nuclear power.  At this time however we must ensure we don’t forget the benefits of nuclear, not only in just “keeping the lights on” but also in mitigating future events worse than the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The energy challenge in the UK remains huge. Of the low-carbon energy sources available, nuclear power currently provides around 20 per cent of the electricity used, while renewable sources make up less than 5 per cent of the mix. The government hopes to boost renewables to 15 per cent of the energy market by 2020, but that still leaves us a long way short of our target to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. With all but one of the existing UK nuclear plants set to close by 2023, there is the risk that nuclear won’t feature at all in the UK’s future energy mix, and widespread adoption of more fossil fuel generation is a realistic prospect if we do not act now.

The UK government is right to launch to Weightman review to look at the UK’s nuclear safety regime in light of events in Japan. But we cannot pause for too long as the challenges we face are too huge and too urgent. For the moment, renewable technologies are neither cheap nor reliable enough to supply us with the energy we demand.  The consequences of countries, like the UK, rejecting nuclear power is that we will be forced to rely on fossil fuels like coal and gas, which will lead to a continued growth in the world’s carbon emissions and the increasing likelihood of devastating floods, droughts and water shortages caused by climate change.

It is clear that Fukushima is one of the worst ever nuclear accidents, but it is important to acknowledge that under the dual pressures of one of the biggest earthquakes and one of the biggest tsunamis in history, the plant is still predominantly intact.

So far, of the more than 10,000 people killed by earthquake and tsunami, and only one has been as a result of the nuclear activities at Fukushima. Precautionary measures – such as the evacuation of people living close to the reactor – have made the headlines, but these steps have successfully protected local residents against significant contamination. This is particularly remarkable given that over 1,000 tonnes of radioactive materials is on site.

The week after the tsunami struck Japan 30 coal miners died around the world – compared to one in the whole international nuclear industry this year.

There have been concerns about levels of radiation in the areas around Fukushima, but the built-in safety systems at the plant and the Japanese government’s precautions have limited risks here too. The level of radiation at Fukushima is 100,000 times less than at Chernobyl and a person would experience more radiation during a normal transatlantic commercial flight than in most of the exclusion zone around the nuclear plant at Fukushima.

Nuclear has its problems, like any other form of electricity generation, but it is also part of the solution. The fact is that we still need it: it is reliable, low-carbon and even when tested against one of the biggest natural disasters in human memory, less dangerous than some would have us believe.

Readers' comments (7)

  • Colin Brown,

    I think you will find that the Titanic is also predominantly intact.

    And if nuclear power is the only choice for the future, why are the nuclear power operators demanding a guarantee of purchase of its product from us customers?

    As for safety, deaths from nuclear weapons last year were far lower than those from conventional weapons, but I wouldn't take a bet on future years having the same numbers. And if the use of fossil fuels keeps increasing, which it is, look where the UK's nice new nuclear power station will be sighted; by the sea, in the path of those devestating floods that you predict.

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  • Of course there are questions to be asked in the aftermath of Fukushima, and lessons to be learned. For example "How did no generating capacity survive the tsunami?" and we need to question the sense of venting hydrogen and oxygen into the containment building rather than to outside. Despite all this the real harm to humans is very small. We must not compare this to Cherobyl which was appalling in many ways. Nuclear generation is the only well-developed, large scale, low carbon dioxide option we have to maintain our generating capacity. The so-called renewables are either small scale (and hence requiring very large machines in large numbers) or are intermittent in nature (wind). We do not have the means to store energy and release it later to match demand patterns and this becomes big issue if we ever have more than a very small percentage of our generation from renewables. Our politicians need to make the decision to build more nuclear stations now.

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  • It certainly seems nuclear power will always have a place in power generation, but does it have to be uranium based? Thorium fueled fission reactors seem to answer most of the important safety concerns and be more economical to operate. Why is there so little R&D on uranium alternatives to avoid the dangers posed by uranium?

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  • I still dont believe we need to spend a fortune on nuclear. When you realsitically calculate what little land is required for solar, some wind and wave generation to sort out the worlds energy needs.
    Its a shame about Politics, corporate greed and the supression of new and exciting alternatives.

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  • Almost all the arguments against nuclear power are emotional. The facts are simple. Chernobyl killed about 75 people directly and 4000 indirectly or so I have read. Fukushima has so far killed 1 or 2 depending on the source. Those fatalities were not from radiation so perhaps should be added to the 27,000 killed by the earthquake and sunami.

    Coal, oil, gas energy sources also have accidents such as the 11 killed a year ago on the oil rig in Florida.

    Because of climate change predictions, political power over oil resources and the finite size of fossil fuel resources we need a mix of generating capacity.

    Nuclear has to be a major player in this mix.

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  • We shouldn't forget that the supply of Uranium is limited and so far only a small percentage of electricity has been produced through fission. If the world ramps up construction of fission power plants then the fuel won't last for long.
    There is no good reason for all demand to be met. I'd guess that half of uk demand is completely wasted running lights, heating, aircon, TVs etc that isn't needed. Ever seen an office block ablaze when everyone has gone home? Me too. Turning the tariff upside down so we pay more for higher consumption might help. People for whom the electricity bill is small beer just don't care how much they use.

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  • I agree with the author in that it is fool hardy by now not to have several nuclear power stations agreed and ready to build. We can look forward to brownouts as they have in the Phillipines.
    Where is the maths for wind turbines? Surely they are deaply flawed and the whole programme will come to be regarded as a mistake?

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