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Could Fukushima derail the UK’s nuclear new build plans?

Japan's crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear power station

Japan’s crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear power station

Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis has inevitably led to questions over the wisdom of putting nuclear generation at the heart of our future energy mix.

With all but one of the UK’s 10 existing nuclear power stations due to come out of service by 2023, plans to build 8 new nuclear reactors are seen as critical in ensuring a secure supply of energy. 

But a series of explosions and fears of a possible meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant have prompted many to call for a rethink on nuclear power. Public confidence in nuclear energy - which has been slowly recovering since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster - is also likely to plunge.

Against the backdrop of the catastrophic events in Japan however, it’s important to remember that nuclear power is neither riskier nor safer than it was this time last week, and the circumstances here in the UK are very different. 

The two candidates for the UK’s new reactor fleet - Areva’s EPR reactor and the Westinghouse AP1000 - are quite unlike the 40 year old Hitachi boiling water reactor at Fukushima. Both boast a range of safety features, and critically don’t require diesel generators to keep coolant flowing through the core in the event of a shutdown. It appears that the crisis at Fukushima was triggered by the failure of these generators.

What’s more, although major earthquakes aren’t beyond the realms of possibility, the UK doesn’t face anywhere near the same risks as Japan which sits on the so-called “Pacific Ring of Fire” and experiences over 1000 earthquakes per year. According to a 2005 DEFRA study, published in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (you can read it here) the risks of a Tsunami hitting the UK coastline are correspondingly low.

One of the two candidates for new nuclear build in the UK, the Westinghouse AP1000 is designed with passive safety systems

One of the two candidates for new nuclear build in the UK, the Westinghouse AP1000 is designed with passive safety systems

The decision to press ahead with Sizewell B in 1987 wasn’t derailed by Chernobyl, and it’s unlikely that the events in Fukushima will have a major impact on the UK’s current nuclear roadmap. Although with the reactors not yet in the design phase,  there’s still plenty of time to incorporate lessons from Fukushima, whatever they may be.

Away from the geologically benign shores of  the UK however, the impact on industry is less clear. New nuclear build is at the heart of a large number of country’s energy plans, many of which, such as China, India, Indonesia and Turkey have a history of seismic activity. And these countries plans will now come under increasing levels of scrutiny.

Like the AP1000; EPR, the other candidate for the UK's new fleet of reactors, also boasts a range of advanced safety features

Like the AP1000; EPR, the other candidate for the UK’s new fleet of reactors, also boasts a range of advanced safety features

The sequence of events and failures that have prompted Japan’s nuclear crisis read like the improbable storyline of a disaster movie. But they happened. And they should serve as a reminder that if nuclear power is to take an ever more central role in global energy generation no risk, however unlikely, should be considered too small to worry about. Industry must prepare for the unpredictable.

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Readers' comments (30)

  • Once again we are seeing the natural human reaction to a disaster and I feel common sense will win the day.
    Do we all stop getting on aircrafts when their is a major aircrash?
    Do we all stop using our cars when their is a mulit car pile up on the motorway?
    Do we all stop riding on the trains or tubes when their is a major collision?
    No of course we don't. It's also human nature to utilise and embrace technology and strive to limit the risks

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  • Remember one important area, when comparing risk from conventional and nuclear. The employees at conventional sites are the ones implicitly accepting the risk associated with working in and around that operation.
    A nuclear accident can expose entire populations (local and national). like it or lump it, most people dont have the option of a choice.

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  • Correct me if I'm wrong but I understood that the recirculation pumps stopped when their supply failed, followed by failure to start the standby generators owing to out of condition batteries.
    So nothing inherently wrong with the old technology, just lack of proper maintenance/and QA checks!
    If our politicians hadn't wimped out under pressure from the green lobby [which has now reversed its opinion] we'd still be world leaders in nuclear design and construction and have well proven technology all over UK.

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  • Just updated on the generators/batteries - please ignore incorrect 1st para above!

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  • There will inevitably be two sides, one will be the anti's using scare tactics, and the pro's using common sense. Scare tactics work because they make dramatic headlines which the popular media exploits on slow news days. This invariably means the anti's message is the most prevelant and also the most manipulated for effect.

    What is really needed is for the entire nuclear industry to promote itself through honesty and publicity. Many of the popular misconceptions are 40 years old and no longer apply as technological advancement prevails. Yet, it is these popular misconceptions which most people accept as fact.

    One other thing needs doing urgently, and that is to learn from the issues of all nuclear incidents and improve facilities to prevent them from happening. Publicising this will gain more public acceptance, and dismiss the old myths, and alow people to take a balanced and objective view.

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  • I have read many different facts, views and stats for nuclear power and the Chernobyl disaster. It is hard to know what to believe, especially when we cannot trust our own government. My own engineering judgement is that I am against nuclear power as it is. I will accept it more, when I see that we can fully control it in every possible worse case scenario, and deal with the waste properly. Nuclear fuel is a finite source and there are clean, cheaper alternatives. I would want to see the maths and real tests to show their full potential first before trying to build and invest in new Nuclear plants in our back yards. As long as technology is allowed to progress and is not supressed by the business interests of the oil companies etc, it will make engineering more exciting and inspire new developments. I don't know many young engineers interested in Nuclear power.

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  • If the gifting of our nuclear waste to the next 10,000 generations to guard and monitor doesn't stand head and shoulders above all other considerations, then consider this for the shorter term:

    An ailing dictator suffers a rebellion. He knows that, due to his past crimes, this means win or die for him. Neighbouring nations decide to help the rebels by imposing a no-fly zone. The tide turns. The dictator finds himself surrounded in his bunker. His predicament flows directly from foreign intervention so he opts to take down his foreign foes with him. Can you think of a way he could do that? Because that is a situation we could be in, 10 days from now.

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  • Carry on with the nuclear option but learn from risk management that includes both
    natural disasters [flooding in UK] and terrorist attack [9/11]

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  • Of course there's a need for nuclear power however we need to weigh up all the risks with regards to nuclear energy particular attention being placed on sites and security, the industry and governments have been too lax and short sighted and money driven, as to number of deaths resulting from nuclear power being compared to fossil fuels its early days.
    Unfortunately Japan's problems could just be the wake up call we all need.

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  • The article and most of the responses are written by engineers. They are therefore logical and reasoned.

    Unfortunately, politicians are not so reasoned and the public at large doesn't know the difference between a Generation 2 reactor and a Generation 3+, let alone between a BWR-3 and a BWR-5 (Incidentally, the BWR-5 reactors at Fukushima are all safe and well - with hindsight, there appear to be significant design errors in the BWR-3 reactors and the emergency planning and response).

    Hundreds of people were killed in High Speed Train "accident" caused by the Tsunami - so perhaps Merkel should close the German High Speed network!

    That said, I do expect rationale arguments in the UK and France to prevail. Germany however will probably have to give up on CO2 reduction targets, or become reliant on French nuclear electricity.

    However, nuclear build in the UK is all on the coast and Tsunamis do need to be planned for. About 8,000 years ago a Tsunami hit Eastern Britain - the nuclear sites need to be safe for 100 years.

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