Power generation is a ‘risky’ business

The Engineer

The radiation leaks triggered by the earthquake in Japan in 2011 prompted an understandable – if not always rational – debate on the safety of nuclear energy. The Engineer was quick to point out that ‘Fukushima’ shouldn’t – and probably wouldn’t – trigger a nuclear rethink. But it seems that we underestimated the impact of the disaster on the public relationship with atomic power, and the extent to which politicians would be prepared to back the technology.

One year on and the industry’s worst fears are being realised. Two weeks ago, Japan shut down its last active reactor. In Europe, Germany and Switzerland are phasing out the power source, while in France the industry is anxiously considering president Hollande’s pledge to reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear energy.

“Nuclear has to be a major component of any credible low carbon energy mix”

Wherever you stand – and we stick by our argument that nuclear has to be a major component of any credible low-carbon energy mix – there’s no denying the world’s appetite for it is diminished. However, no energy source is entirely without risk. And if the world does turn away from nuclear, these risks will only become more pronounced, whether it’s the financial risk of subsidising the renewables sector; the risk to the climate of relying too heavily on fossil fuels; or the environmental tightrope we tread – illustrated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster – when we try to exploit untapped deep-sea oil and gas reserves.

As always, engineers have a major role to play in mitigating these risks. Recently, we looked at how new approaches to manufacturing could help the cost-effective production of offshore wind turbines. In our latest in-depth feature, we look at how advanced blowout prevention technology could help prevent a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

It’s a reassuring development. Although as one of the contributors to our careers feature, BP’s Simon Drysdale, points out, oil and gas exploration is a frontier-busting pursuit, with perhaps more in common with space engineering than anything else. Indeed, one of BP’s top safety experts is a recent recruit from NASA.

It’s an important reminder that the technology that sustains our largely comfortable lives frequently pushes at the limits of what is possible. And if we want to sustain this existence, then surely we must accept an element of risk.