Counting the cost of Fukushima

Colin Brown, director of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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.