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Safety of nuclear power and death of the nuclear renaissance

Euan Mearns | 15.03.2011 21:50 | Climate Chaos | Energy Crisis | Health | Sheffield | World

Yesterday I believe will go down in history as one of the most significant for mankind. Whilst most citizens of the developed and developing world’s do not realise this yet, the future course of the human global energy system has just changed course with potentially far reaching consequences for human civilisation.

A hydrogen explosion destroys the reactor building of the Fukushima #3 reactor,
A hydrogen explosion destroys the reactor building of the Fukushima #3 reactor,

With a breach of the containment system of the Fukushima #2 reactor and release of significant amounts of radiation we now have the answer to whether or not nuclear power is safe. In the eyes of the public and politicians the answer will be no, even before the final tally of nuclear casualties is counted. Looking to the future, the question should boil down to whether or not the risks of nuclear accidents are outweighed by the benefits to society of nuclear electricity. But in the current environment, and for years to come the risks are going to dominate government thinking and the benefits, all too readily ignored at present will be forgotten completely until we begin to feel the consequences of growing reliance on expensive fossil fuel imports and intermittent renewable energy.

It often takes a disaster to test our systems and to bring into the public domain certain frailties that may exist. The Fukushima catastrophe has brought into the public eye frailties than most were not concerned about until Saturday 12th March 2011 when news of the reactor problems broke following the earthquake and tsunami of the previous day. Fukushima’s fate was sealed on the day the Japanese government gave approval for the reactors to be built on a coastline where there was a high probability of earthquake and tsunami in the plant’s lifetime. The risks were known and understood and the facility was engineered to a high specification to withstand such events. For three days, the fate of the global nuclear industry has hung in the balance. Had the Japanese engineers managed to contain the incident then it was possible that the nuclear industry could emerge strengthened with proof that well designed and maintained American reactors could withstand the worst that nature can throw. But alas, this is not the case.

In granting consent to build these reactors the Japanese government, with little to no supplies of indigenous primary energy such as coal, oil and natural gas, must have decided that benefits to Japan of providing over 30% of electricity from nuclear sources outweighed the risks of building nuclear plant in one of the seismically most active regions of the world. Not only did they consent to build, but they built 4 reactors in close proximity to each other, right on the coast where they would feel the maximum effect of any tsunami. The coastal location proves beneficial now since this provides ready access to cooling water, much of the radiation released will fall on the sea and not on land, and there is reduced risk of pollution of ground water. But had they been built on higher ground a short way inland then they would not have been hit by the tsunami in the first place. How such risks have been weighed will go under the microscope in the weeks and months ahead. Building a cluster like this is no doubt based on a shared defence system, but it has been surprising to watch hydrogen explosions in one reactor compromise neighbouring reactor buildings. Were these risks properly weighed?

It has also been instructive to learn that steel and concrete containment systems alone are not sufficient to guarantee safety. Maintaining the engineering ability to pump water through the core after emergency shutdown means that pumps, pipes and valves located outside of the armoured core defence systems must also continue to function, and as is the case with many disasters, damage inflicted by the disaster itself may compromise the safety systems and their backup. In the case of Fukushima, the plant survived the initial onslaught of earthquake and tsunami. Damage inflicted at that stage set in motion a sequence of events, starting with the venting of hydrogen gas and the explosions they caused, and further degraded the capability to contain an escalating crisis. In terms of reactor design, it strikes me as odd that hydrogen should be vented into the confines of the reactor building, effectively creating a bomb. Have these eventualities been anticipated by the engineers who designed the plant?

And so what will become of Fukushima and the future of the global nuclear industry? As I write the reactor site is being rendered uninhabitable by the release of radiation and I imagine in the days ahead we will see heroic Japanese engineers risking their lives in an extreme hostile environment as they continue to try and contain the situation. With three out of the four reactors at varying stages of melt down it is difficult to predict the outcome. This is already the worst civil nuclear power accident in recorded history - Chernobyl was a military reactor and the Windscale reactor fire in England in 1957 was never properly recorded. The social and economic costs I believe will already exceed Chernobyl given the location of this event close to the heart of the world’s third largest economy. There is still ample scope for this event to get considerably worse.

It is very telling that the German government acted yesterday to cancel license extensions for aging reactors even before the containment system of the Fukushima #2 reactor was breached. The nuclear renaissance in the west has always been lukewarm. In the UK for example, pro-nuclear Conservatives are in coalition government with Liberal Democrats who are instinctively anti-nuclear and who had to compromise on this long held policy stance to enter government. The Scottish minority government lead by The Scottish National Party (SNP) has adopted a no nuclear policy that is supported by Liberal Democrats and The Greens. The Conservatives alone are pro-nuclear with Scottish Labour hedging their bets on territory between the anti and pro camp. Most democracies will have tenuous alliances such as this and I think it is safe to now say that the nuclear renaissance is stone dead. I would anticipate a mass of safety audits to ensue with accelerated closure of aging nuclear plants and cancellation of plans to build new. A quick look at the stock prices of uranium miners and nuclear plant builders suggests I am not alone in holding this view.

OECD politicians believe their pro-nuclear stance was driven by a need to reduce CO2 emissions and still seem to be sublimely unaware that the real driving force is to replace supplies of cheap natural gas and coal that are likely now to become even more scarce on the international markets as countries scramble to replace lost nuclear capacity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported as saying:

"Merkel added that she was not worried about Germany's electricity supply as the country was a net exporter of energy."

Presumably what is meant is a net exporter of electricity. What will become of countries dependent upon these German electricity exports?

It is time for cool heads in the OECD but, unfortunately with the energy debate driven by emotion, this will not happen. Decisions made now in the wake of an emergency in Japan may sow the seed of energy poverty in countries like the UK for decades to come. I have for a long while been pro-nuclear but must admit that my faith in nuclear planners is shaken by this sequence of events. Now is not the time for knee-jerk decisions. Governments must carefully weigh the benefits of stable supplies of nuclear electricity to society against the risks posed by nuclear power plants. This is not an easy task.

Euan Mearns
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Ten reasons why new nuclear was a mistake

15.03.2011 21:53

Absolutely hideous developments in Japan at the moment. Our deepest commiserations to everyone there. Developments at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, described in this morning’s papers as ‘very grave’, prompted Alexis Rowell, Director, cuttingthecarbon and Joint Organiser, Transition Belsize to write the following:

It’s hardly a surprise that building nuclear power stations on seismic fault lines, as Japan has done, turns out to be a foolish thing. In the pause for reflection about the safety of nuclear power that the Fukushima disaster is bound to create, here are ten reasons why it’s a mistake to build a new round of nuclear power stations in the UK.

Nuclear power is too expensive

Nuclear has always been an expensive white elephant. UK taxpayers currently subsidise nuclear directly to the tune of more than £1bn per year.[1] But the indirect subsidies such as decommissioning and insurance are far greater.

The cost of decommissioning old nuclear in the UK is now estimated to be at least £73bn.[2] Surely therefore that anyone wishing to provide new nuclear should have to put that sort of sum into an up-front clean-up fund? But of course they won’t. They can’t possibly afford to.

If there’s a nuclear accident in the UK, then who will pay? An insurance company? Not a hope. Existing UK reactors are insured to the tune of £140m each, which the government is talking about increasing to £1.2bn, but that’s still nothing like enough to cover a serious accident like Fukushima or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.[3]

Nuclear power is uninsurable. It’s too risky and the potential payouts are too big. The government, meaning the UK taxpayer, will have to pay as we did to bail out the banks. The free market will never bear the true costs of nuclear.

A report published by the US Union of Concerned Scientists last month said nuclear power had never operated in the United States without public subsidies.[4] The existence of an Office of Nuclear Development at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) makes a mockery of Chris Huhne’s claim that no public money will be spent on new nuclear.[5]

Only two atomic power stations are under construction in Western Europe: one in France and one in Finland. The Finnish reactor, which was supposed to be the first of a new generation of “safe” and “affordable” units, has been subsidised by the French nuclear industry (and therefore the French state) as a loss leader in the hope that it will spark a new nuclear building boom. When the decision was announced Standard & Poor instantly downgraded to “negative” the stock of the Finnish utility commissioning the reactor. The project has been plagued with cost overruns and delays (it was due to open in 2009), is under investigation by the Finnish nuclear safety regulator STUK and is probably the single best reason why new nuclear is a mistake.[6]

New nuclear power stations won’t be ready in time

According to the 2007 Energy White Paper the earliest the first new nuclear power station could possibly be ready is 2020.[7] Chris Huhne occasionally says it might be possible by 2018 but most observers disagree. However we need to replace 40% of our energy generation by 2015 because old nuclear and coal-fired plants are set to close. New nuclear will come too late.

Nuclear does not and will not safeguard our energy security

Nuclear power currently provides 18% of our electricity but only about 1% of our total energy needs.[8] Three quarters of the UK’s primary energy demand comes from gas and oil.[9] Gas is used for most of our space heating and hot water. Oil is used for virtually all forms of transport. Indeed the vast majority of our oil and gas consumption is for purposes other than producing electricity. Nuclear power cannot replace that energy, while gas and oil deliveries are threatened by tightening supply (peak oil) and political instability. A 2008 Sussex University study concluded: “we are not convinced that there is a strong security case for new nuclear, especially if the costs and risks of strategies that include new nuclear are considered alongside those of strategies that do not.”[10]

Nuclear power is not green

Mining uranium requires fossils fuels. So does building a nuclear power station. And so does trying to dispose of radioactive waste. Over its lifecycle a nuclear power station produces as much carbon dioxide as a gas-fired power station.[11] Better than oil or coal but not carbon-free. And it will get worse. In the not too distant future uranium will become so hard to mine that it will require more fossil fuels to extract it than the energy that will be produced from it.[12]

Nuclear power will do little to reduce our carbon emissions

Even if Britain built ten new reactors, nuclear power would only deliver a 4% cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025.[13] But that’s too late. We need the carbon reductions now. We’d do better to ban standby buttons on electrical appliances than to develop new nuclear power.

Nuclear power stations are inefficient

We really need to stop producing electricity in huge power stations hundreds of miles away which waste 60% of the energy they produce as heat through cooling towers and another 7-9% in transmission losses across the national grid. If we produce energy locally and use Combined Heat and Power (CHP), then we can reach efficiencies of 80-90%.[14] Nuclear cannot and never has been made to work with CHP because to distribute the heat you need residents or businesses to be close by. But how many people want to live near a nuclear power station?

Plane crashes are a risk to nuclear power stations

In February 2011 a Loughborough University aviation expert suggested the chance of a plane crashing into a UK reactor was 20% higher than official estimates and The Guardian reported that a Health & Safety Executive internal report had admitted that a crash could trigger “significant radiological releases”.[15] Finally, if you can fly a plane into the Twin Towers, then you can certainly fly one into a nuclear power station.

Nuclear power kills

Miscarriage rates by women living near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility are higher than would be expected.[16] Billions of fish are killed every year when they get trapped in the cooling water intake pipes of nuclear reactors.[17]

It’s a myth that renewables cannot provide baseload

There has never been a day on record when the wind has not blown somewhere in the UK. The point about baseload is that what you need is enough people in enough places producing electricity. The more you decentralise electricity generation the more secure the baseload becomes. The same principle holds for investing in shares – it’s much more risky to invest everything in a couple of big companies than it is to invest in a basket of shares that reflect all aspects of the market. The real reason why proponents of nuclear are obliged to talk about baseload is that it’s uneconomic to do much with atomic reactors other than run them continuously, whether or not the energy is needed. And in the UK that has usually meant prioritising nuclear over available wind energy.

Global expansion could lead to new nuclear security risks

In February 2011 the Royal Society launched an inquiry into nuclear non-proliferation saying that a global expansion of nuclear power “could lead to the wider proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as creating new nuclear security risks”, which could “impact on international progress towards nuclear disarmament”.[18] Look at the problems the international community is having with the Iranian nuclear power programme. Many observers believe the US and Israel recently collaborated on a cyber sabotage project to slow the Iranian development up and prevent it from developing atomic weapons.[19]

And we still have no idea what to do with nuclear waste

All those arguments against new nuclear and not one of them was about nuclear waste. The 2003 Energy White Paper said one of the reasons why the then government wasn’t proposing new nuclear was because there were “important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved”. Have they been? No.

There are perfectly good non-nuclear solutions but they all require a lot more government intervention than the coalition government seems prepared to contemplate. They are:

1) Energy efficiency

As it stands, the government’s Green Deal – under which householders can borrow funds for energy efficiency measures to be repaid out of energy bill savings – is set to be a completely inadequate sticking plaster solution. It feels like the government has decided that existing buildings are too difficult to deal with seriously which is why they’re so gung-ho about new nuclear – to fuel electric radiators the energy from which will then be wasted through leaky windows, walls, roofs and floors. The only way to create genuinely low energy buildings is by using Passivhaus design.[20] Asking the UK’s building sector to refurbish buildings using a proper engineering standard will be a challenge, but it is at least a coherent approach. Unlike new nuclear and the Green Deal.

2) Renewables (and possibly Combined Heat & Power in urban areas if we can find enough non-fossil fuels to run it)

Nuclear has taken up a huge amount of civil servant time over the last few years. That’s time that could have been spent on renewables. Britain has by far the most potential for wind and tidal power in Europe because of our geography. 40% of Europe’s wind passes through these isles.[21] Yet in 2010 we produced just 3.2% of our electricity from wind. Germany obtained 9.4% of its electricity from wind in 2010, Spain generated 14.4% and Denmark managed a whopping 24%.[22]

The reason the Danes are so far ahead on wind is because they learnt the right lessons from the oil shocks of the 1970s and started planning for a renewably-powered future back then. The UK, by contrast, was blinded by the discovery of North Sea Oil.

3) Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs)

Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) are a way of using the market to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption.[23] Every adult is given an equal free entitlement of TEQs units each week. Other energy users (government, industry etc.) bid for their units at a weekly auction. If you use less than your entitlement, you can sell your surplus. If you need more, you can buy them. All trading takes place at a single national price, which will rise and fall in line with demand. When you buy energy, such as petrol for your car or electricity for your household, units corresponding to the amount of energy you have bought are deducted from your TEQs account, in addition to your money payment. The total number of units available in the country is set out in the TEQs Budget, which goes down each year.

There are greener, cheaper, more secure, quicker to install, safer alternatives to new nuclear so don’t let yourself be persuaded that it’s the only solution. It’s not.



[4] Koplow, D. (2011).


[6] Thomas, S. (2010). “The Economics of Nuclear Power: An Update.”




[10] Watson, J. & Scott, A. “New Nuclear Power in the UK: A Strategy for Energy Security?”

[11] Van Leeuwen, J. & Smith, P. (2008). “Nuclear power the energy balance.”





[16] Jones, K. & Wheater, A. ( 1989). “Obstetric outcomes in West Cumberland Hospital: is there a risk from Sellafield?”

[17] Speight, M. & Henderson, P. (2010). Marine Ecology – Concepts and Applications. p186







Alexis Rowell
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End of an age or is it

15.03.2011 22:09

Yes....BUT...It was a 8.9 earthquake on the Richter scale...and these only happen about 6 or 10 times in 200 - 600 years....
or this is what the Govts and Pro-Nuclear capitalists will now tell you.....
It is ALRIGHT really....not many Japanese got killed with the radiation you can vote for us next is OK really.
The 50,000 and more who WILL die prematurely in the next thirty to fourty years because of
Fukushima.....are not really any of our concern.
Radiation release won't do you any harm....its' Nuclear Power you need....see...

Newclear Billious

In reality

16.03.2011 13:11

Unless there's a massive catastrophe, I suspect there'll be inquiries and checks, and then business as usual after a few months'delay.

Did you know that producing the concrete used as a foundation for wind turbines releases more carban than is saved by their use??

Einstein's butler


16.03.2011 14:51

Einstein's butler - that's not actually true, now is it?

There's lots of misinformation and tubthumping floating round about what's happening in Japan. I'm going to wait and see what happens. But if it does derail new build, it'll most likely be because it increases the financing costs. Back to fossil fuels, then. That won't be good.


Alternate Energy Facts.

16.03.2011 17:18

I know loads of facts about so-called alternate energy and they aren't myths, they come directly from the Alternate Energy Factbook, available from all good bookshops price $19.95 published by the Republican Free Press in Washington.

Did you know that solar power frightens cattle causing massive fits of farting which increases CO2 and the destruction of the o-zone layer.

Or that wind turbines in really windy conditions speed up the earth's rotation shortening the days and if left unchecked means that in less than fifty years, each day will last only 4 minutes, meaning no-one will be able to go to work because you won't have time to get there before its home time.

Or that electric cars have electrocuted over 337,784 pedestrians on America's roads since 1951!

Food for thought.

Einsteins Butlers Manservants Pimp.


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