A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Nuclear Reaction

In Events, Foreign Affairs on April 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Japan is in crisis. Not only because of one the most devastating earthquakes in history. Not just because of the tsunami that followed. But because these events have damaged one of the Fukushima nuclear plants, threatening to spread nuclear radiation over Japan, including the capital city of Tokyo. International experts have  been flown in, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring the situation. Meanwhile, Germany has suspended its plans to build new nuclear reactions and prolong the life of its existing plants, the UK government is launching a review into the safety of nuclear power and protesters against nuclear power have suddenly materialised across Europe.

They argue that nuclear power is dangerous. They cite the Three Islands disaster, the Chernobyl explosion, and now point to the Fukushima crisis as evidence that nuclear power is not worth the risk. They point out that nuclear power is not a renewable energy, and that the world would be much better if we abandoned nuclear power and used renewable power. They complain that nuclear waste can remain dangerous for thousands of years. They say that nuclear power plants are a huge security risk; a terrorist might attack it and spread radiation all over the country.

All these are true. But there are counter-arguments. The specification for the Three Islands was much more crude than modern designs. The Russians were experimenting at Chernobyl without appropriate security measures. Nuclear power is not renewable, but there’s enough uranium in the world to last for a few thousand years, leaving plenty of time for renewable technology to become sufficiently efficient; and there are no carbon emissions to boot. Although nuclear waste is dangerous, there are ways of dealing with the problem: the Finns recently completed a waste bunker that will contain nuclear waste for 100,000 years. And nuclear power plants in the UK have been closed to the public since 2001. In addition, the material used to encase nuclear reactors and nuclear waste is incredibly secure. In the 1990s, the government thought it would be fun to drive a train into such a container. The train was by far the worse off; you can still see the container at Oldbury nuclear power station near Bristol. As for its safety, seven people have died in the last ten years generating nuclear power. This compares with over 20 with wind power. Given that wind power generates much less electricity than nuclear, nuclear is several hundred times safer per kilowatt-hour than wind power.

These arguments panned out before the Fukushima disaster, and the balance of opinion, in the UK, was in favour of using nuclear power. Does the Fukushima crisis change this? Not really. First, we should note the obvious that Fukushima was built on a tectonically sensitive zones. A DEFRA report concluded that there was a statistically trivial chance of an earthquake occurring in the UK; but they needn’t have wasted the money – the last tsunami to hit England was in the 17th century. Furthermore, the Fukushima plant was built to a much older, and less safe, specification than many European power plants. And safety does not seem to have been taken as seriously as could be desired; there were major resignations in 2002 over cover-ups in nuclear safety.

Even with all the panic concerning meltdown at Fukushima, the IAEA’s monitoring suggests that radiation remains low, lower indeed than the level of radiation one might exposed to in a CAT scan, for example. Despite scares about water contamination, food contamination, cancer and all sorts of other things, the danger from nuclear radiation, saving the complete collapse of the reactors (currently looking unlikely), is minimal.

Why then, are some European governments getting cold feet on nuclear power. In Germany, the answer is simple; Angela Merkel is facing re-election, and she needs to appease some voters who are opposed to her plans to expand nuclear power. Hence she suspends the plans, saying the anti-nuclear lobby that she doesn’t want the power, yet to the pro-nuclear lobby she says that the plans will go ahead. Meanwhile, in the UK, Chris Huhne has to balance the Liberal Democrats’ traditional suspicion of nuclear power with the realities of coalition, hence he has established a review to slow down the establishment of nuclear power in the UK. This review is unlikely to find any systematic safety failures, simply because British procedures and schematics are much safer than Japan’s. Whereas in France and Eastern Europe, where nuclear power is essential or very much desired, there has been no concern about safety, no plans to stop construction, no attempts to prevent the prolonging of the life of nuclear power plants.

Ultimately, individual views of nuclear power will determine whether the reader believes those who are not reviewing their attitude to nuclear power are sensible or foolish. But we have seen that the Fukushima crisis has many contingent factors that are not at work in Europe, and that those governments that are expressing concerns with nuclear power have political motives so to do. They, and certain anti-nuclear protesters, are trying to create a nuclear reaction against nuclear power. However, if common sense returns to government, it will fizzle out. This nuclear reaction will be about as dangerous as nuclear power.

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