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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)

  • Sadly, the uninformed public is far too easily panicked by the word ‘radiation’ into a kind of unthinking Pavlovian response decrying all things nuclear. Too many 1960s B-movies I suspect. Every power plant creates risks, just like every factory or industrial process. But the world needs power, and while alternative sources are the Green’s dream, in reality they are insufficient and unsuitable for base-load, so we are left with a choice of fossil fuels obtained from unstable political regimes using a technology which may exacerbate Climate Change, or to develop the world’s nuclear industry into the safest and greenest source possible, until one day the holy grail of fusion proves commercially viable. Nuclear fission reactors have killed far fewer people than oil or coil. If only the emotion can be taken out of the debate and fact-based decisions made, this would be clear. The Fukushima situation should be taken as a lesson for use of Nuclear in seismologically active zones, and better backup safety systems, not as an indictment of the whole industry.

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  • It is interesting to see the usual anti-nuclear sensationalism appearing in what I would have believed to be a magazine read by fairly rational engineers.
    'the ground infertile for 1000 years' 'a legacy for 10 000 generations'.
    I would suggest that the authors of these comments find a table of half lives of the various isotopes, find out the quantities present in a typical reactor and see how long these really take to decay.

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  • It always pays to look at history on these matters. Has the tsunami of 1607 in the Severn Estuary and River been accessed when planning the proposed Power Station at Oldbury-on-Severn?
    The recent Bath Spa University College study issued by Dr Simon Haslett FGS, FRGS clearly defined the land covered by this tsunami in the area of Oldbury-on-Severn.

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  • As ever, the media have hyped the public and politicians into a frenzy. The Greens especially so. Even though nuclear power has an enviable safety record:

    * Far fewer people have died from radiation exposure from nuclear power plants than have died from poor air quality from coal-fired power stations;
    * 3000 people per year die on British roads, but we haven't stop driving (and British roads are among the safest in the world);
    * 1000s of people across the world have died in plane crashes in the past 100 years, but we keep flying.

    How many people have died from problems with nuclear power stations?

    * 3-Mile Island - zero;
    * Chernobyl - fewer than 50, but with an estimated 4000 possibles (see WHO link);
    * Fukushima - zero (we all hope it stays so).

    Let's get matters into some sort of rational perspective, and avoid the typical knee-jerk reaction endemic among those who want us to return to the Stone Age.

    Related links
    ------------
    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index.html

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100079763/nuclear-power-some-perspective/

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  • Alvin Weinberg invented, and held the patents on, Light Water Reactors (LWRs), of which the Fukushima ones are the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) version.

    50 years ago, Weinberg, so aware of the fallibility of his invention, warned about these types of accident (Three Mile Island and now Fukushima). He pushed and pushed for the introduction of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) for civil electricity generation, because they are several orders of magnitude safer than their LWR counterparts.

    Dan Brown could do justice to the political/military manoeuvrings responsible for erasing LFTRs, 40 years ago, from the minds of all 'energy-parties'.

    Now is the time for them to rise again. Google: "Nuclear community snubbed reactor safety message: expert" for Kirk (Indiana) Sorensen's views on the current crisis (Kirk resurrected LFTRs from paper records - remember them - at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in 2001).

    I host the only UK Blog advocating LFTRs. Google: "LFTRs to Power the Planet". I need all the support I can get, particularly from Engineers.

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  • In response to Trevor Stone's comment above, the nuclear power stations along the shores of the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel (e.g. Oldbury and Hinckley Point) are likely to be affected in some way by a coastal flood similar to the 1607 event, whether that flood was caused by a storm surge or a tsunami as myself and co-worker, Dr Ted Bryant (University of Wollongong) have theorised in our published papers from 2003 onwards. Also, just to update that I am no longer at Bath Spa, and now Dean of the School of STEM at the University of Wales.

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  • In reply to:
    Roger | 17 Mar 2011 12:38 pm
    It is interesting to see the usual anti-nuclear sensationalism appearing in what I would have believed to be a magazine read by fairly rational engineers. ?'the ground infertile for 1000 years' 'a legacy for 10 000 generations'. ?I would suggest that the authors of these comments find a table of half lives of the various isotopes, find out the quantities present in a typical reactor and see how long these really take to decay.

    The second of Roger’s quotes (both misquoted) refers to my comment of 16th March 2011 (9:46 pm).

    My exact wording was “...the gifting of our nuclear waste to the next 10,000 generations to guard and monitor...” (cited as standing head and shoulders above all other considerations) . I shall first extricate this sentence from the context in which Roger placed it and then prove its validity using expert and peer-reviewed citations.

    It should be said at the outset that I feel it is important to counter the misinformation which leads people to believe that the long-term waste management problem can’t possibly extend to such long time scales and that any statement to the contrary constitutes “ the usual anti-nuclear sensationalism”. This is my only motivation for posting this second comment.

    CONTEXT

    I referred to “waste” advisedly (not ‘a legacy’), namely the non reprocessed spent fuel from fission reactors which is currently stored on-site, in the majority of cases, awaiting long-term storage. I shall refer largely to research done for the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository by the NAS and the EPA (see below). This is the largest proposed long-term storage site (70,000 tons of spent fuel and high grade weapons waste) and much of the research done was checked and corroborrated with many other countries’ research and standards. The conclusions are therefore robust and broadly applicable to other proposed sites around the world.

    The “various isotopes” Roger refers to are the fission products which are most likely to contaminate the surrounding area in a nuclear accident, the most troubling of which is cesium137 with a half-life of 30.17 years. However, I was not referring to nuclear accidents but very clearly to our nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel that contains the longer-lived radioactive actinides). The thread of comments was largely addressing the general pros and cons of nuclear power and my comment was therefore in keeping with that thread.

    CALCULATIONS AND SOURCES

    My reference to 10,000 generations is calculated on the basis of 25 years per generation, out to 250,000 years into the future. This is based on the National Academy of Sciences’ publication:

    “Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards” (National Academy Press 1995, page 55) which states:
    “In the case of Yucca Mountain, at least, some potentially important exposures might not occur until after several hundred thousand years”.

    It goes on to say that this was because the containment canisters would be likely to degrade after 60,000 years resulting in the leaching of radionuclides with half lives of “millions of years” and travel times of “hundreds of thousands of years” into the groundwater and through the rock into the atmosphere. Indeed “peak risk” was thought to be between several hundred thousand and one million years out, and deemed significant enough to require assiduous calculation and analysis on the part of the NAS to ensure that the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository did not exceed the relatively lax maximum dose of 100 millirem per year (single source dose above and beyond background dose and other anthropogenic sources, between 10,000 and 1 million years after repository closure); average annual anthropogenic dose today in the US is 63 millirem (.63 milliSieverts) [above publication, table p.38]. It should be noted that the nearer term (0 to 10,000 years) maximum dose was set at a stricter 15 millirem per year . The Environmental Protection Agency incorporated the NAS recommendation of a one million year safety factor into its projection criteria after a Court of Appeals ruling in 2004 (http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/yucca/about.html).

    Whilst the Yucca repository is designed so as to account for future civilisation collapse and “societal memory loss” to the best of the EPA’s (self acknowledged) limited ability, it would of course be everyone’s hope that future generations would be fully aware and apprised of the dangers posed by the site. It would be inconcievable that such a society would not choose to “monitor”, as I put it, the integrity of the site and the radionuclide emmissions for the entire period of 1 million years. This could involve intensive monitoring out to several hundred thousand years during peak risk- at least 10,000 generations.

    As regards “guarding” sites such as Yucca mountain, it is well known that un reprocessed nuclear fuel presents a proliferation danger. This is due to plutonium being present in the spent fuel which can be extracted using the PUREX method. Whilst expensive and technically difficult, it has been accomplished by several countries and will be knowledge that is in the public domain for all time, hence impacting on the security measures necessary at long term waste sites. There is plenty of information to support this stance in the following two Scientific American articles, written by experts in the field:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=smarter-use-of-nuclear-waste&page=2

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nuclear-waste-lethal-trash-or-renewable-energy-source

    I therefore stand by my statement in its entirety:

    “...the gifting of our nuclear waste to the next 10,000 generations to guard and monitor...” (cited as standing head and shoulders above all other considerations).

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  • 10,000 generations? U-238 has been safely stored on Earth for 4 billion years. Within 10,000 years nuclear waste is no more radioactive than Uranium Ore.

    But we shouldn't call spent fuel "waste". It Still has close to 99% of its extractable energy content. Spent fuel needs to be split in fission products and actinides. The actinides (which have very long half lives) can be consumed in fast spectrum reactors.

    The fission products need to be kept under water for a few years, but are mostly safe after 200 years. Given the heat produced by the fission products at Fukushima, it would be worth using this to make electric power.

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  • “Areva’s EPR reactor and the Westinghouse AP1000 ….. don’t require diesel generators to keep coolant flowing through the core in the event of a shutdown”

    Not true. The EPR uses diesel emergency generators like the N4 series which makes up most of France’s NPP fleet. Diesel only keeps for a limited period and needs periodic replacement.

    Knee Jerk? No, this is the latest confirmation of why there has been intense opposition to Nuclear Power from its earliest days for over 60 years now. How dare you disingenuously call it "knee jerk" when it is in fact the proof of exactly WHY informed scientists and engineers have been opposing nuclear power for decades - along with TMI, Chernobyl and many others detailed in the eminent Dr Ernest Sternglass' book "Secret Fallout".

    From an engineering perspective, why are engineers happy to use a technology which requires such multiple levels of safeguard redundancy and such expensive complexity to so called make it safe? Primary cooling system, secondary cooling system, residual heat removal system, safety injection system, emergency core cooling system, steel lined concrete containment dome, 4 separate electrical parallel power trains in the EPR to (try and) ensure redundancy. No self respecting engineer should even dream of using a technology that requires so many safeguards, redundancy levels and complexity particularly given that alternatives are available.

    What is the worst that could have happened with a few hundred 5 MW off shore wind turbines off the Tohoku coast? The turbines themselves give redundancy do they not – massive redundancy. A few turbines fall over and that’s it – we do not need all this safeguard complexity with gas, coal, wind, solar, tidal – none at all, the worst case failure scenario is simply loss of generating capacity.

    So why do you engineers participate in such an insane technology?

    The EPR being built in France is now going to cost €5 billion – for one 1GW reactor. 5 times the cost of on-shore wind, several times the cost of offshore wind.

    And as for the EPR being safer, again, more and more complexity added to try and “make safe” something that by the very virtue and need for such safeguards is clearly NOT SAFE. And what an irony, in an official report submitted to the French President last year reviewing the EPR program, the author said the EPR was “too safe” and so too expensive and the design should be watered down to compete with the Westinghouse design!!!

    Aircraft have multiple parallel systems for obvious reasons but there is no alternative technology to an aircraft for flying – there are multiple alternatives to nuclear power.

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  • To clarify - the cooling systems on the EPR and AP1000 do not require backup diesel generators in the immediate aftermath of a shutdown. Active cooling using diesel generators is eventually necessary but passive safety is the first line of defence.

  • Would it not be more useful to have smaller failsafe nuclear power sources distributed around a country.
    This would:
    1. reduce the mains transmittion losses.
    2. reduce the potental large scale effects for a disaster.
    3. allow distributed use of hot water as a byproduct.
    4. a rolling program of replacement and upgrade.
    The only down side I can see is they would need to be made in a secure way to prevent the possability of a terrorist getting hold of radioactive material

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