By Jonathan Sebire / In-Debate Journalist
The fallout from the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the worst radiation disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown 25 years ago, has reverberated around the world. An industry on the cusp of a worldwide renaissance has become crippled by doubt. Countries around the globe have found their energy policies under attack from both opposition parties and public opinion. The European union has called for all nuclear facilities to be “stress tested” whilst China, the US, Switzerland, India and Germany have suspended approval for new plants. UK energy secretary Chris Huhne has also ordered a strategic review into safety at all British nuclear facilities. The Fukushima crisis has highlighted the dangers of aging nuclear plants at a time when crude oil prices have surged to record highs following political unrest sweeping through the oil-rich middle-east.
Is Britain’s only hope for an energy secure future nuclear power? Are there better alternatives? Or do we face a choice of a return to fossil fuels and rolling blackouts?
THE ANTI-NUCLEAR REACTION TO FUKUSHIMA IS ALARMIST
No energy source can ever be 100% risk free, but dangers associated with nuclear power have been highly exaggerated by what The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neil calls “catastrophists”. The Financial Times argues that “facts disappear into the cloud of fear that nuclear accidents produce,” and it is clear that the Fukushima tragedy has tapped into a latent fear of nuclear power that has been festering since the 1970s. Panic created around incidents such as Three Mile Island have lead to similar sweeping statements about safety but most of the calls to abandon nuclear power ignore the disparity in age, design and environmental risk between Fukushima and Britain. In the Guardian, George Monbiot, stated: “As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support it. A crappy 40-year-old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. Yet no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”
NUCLEAR POWER IS VITAL FOR ENERGY SECURITY
The political unrest that has swept along the coast of North Africa and into the Gulf States poses a real threat for British energy security. Oil workers have been forced to leave Yemen and Libya as both countries fall into civil war. Libya was the UK’s third highest importer of oil in 2010. Coupled with dependency on natural gas from a Russian government that has already proved it’s willingness to shut off supplies and the case for continued domestic nuclear dependency becomes highly credible. A Department of Trade and Industry white paper on the future of nuclear power states that “nuclear fuel supply is a stable and mature industry” and that expansion of nuclear power in Britain, “may result in a reduced need for gas supplies which are more heavily concentrated in countries with political instability.”
NUCLEAR ENERGY IS VITAL FOR CURBING CLIMATE CHANGE
Britain has proposed that it will reduce it’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. In order to achieve this nuclear power must be included in the mix of energy sources that Britain uses. The current long-term energy strategy is based on a three prong attack which includes: a commitment to nuclear energy; the development of more renewable energy, such as wind and sea power; and new carbon-capture technology to mitigate the damaging environmental effects of fossil fuel-fired power plants. Removing nuclear from this equation would require massive extra investment in renewable energy sources, as Tim yeo, Conservative Party chair, points out: “Other forms of low- carbon energy, such as solar or offshore wind are more expensive than nuclear. Solar and wind are not reliable generators of electricity – on cloudy or still days they produce nothing. So they have to be backed up by reliable sources of power.”
WE ARE OUT OF TIME FOR VIABLE ALTERNATIVES
All but one of the UKs 10 current nuclear facilities is scheduled for closure by 2023, with eight sites marked out as replacements. EU emission regulations mean that by 2015 most of the country’s coal based power plants will also have to shut down creating a deficit in the national grid that could lead to rolling blackouts that plagued the country in the 1970’s. Tim yeo stated: “It is very likely that without new nuclear power stations we will simply not have enough reliable electricity generation in time to replace the contribution nuclear currently makes.” The options available to post nuclear states are limited, and as George Monbiot argued in the Guardian the answer will be “not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel,” and “On every measure ... coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.” Whilst exploratory investment in green technology is admirable, if we are going to meet our future energy demands we must build new nuclear power stations.
IT IS THE PATH THE GOVERNMENT MUST TAKE
John McNamara of the Nuclear Industry Association, which advises the government on energy supplies, believes that while the Government must listen to the public over their concerns following Fukushima, “all energy sources have risks attached and we must plan for a safe, robust and low-carbon future to power our economy going forward.” He added that the current fleet of British Nuclear Power Plants has an excellent safety record and is a crucial part of our low-carbon power supply.
A FUKUSHIMA-LIKE MELTDOWN COULD HAPPEN HERE
It is folly to ignore the dangers the Fukushima disaster has highlighted. Nuclear power is not only a clear and present danger, but also a time bomb for our grandchildren. In fact as recently as September last year EDF admitted to not following correct procedures which led to “unplanned shutdowns” at two reactors at Torness in East Lothian. The event, which was highlighted in a report by the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate, show that you can never protect against incompetence and human error. “These are all events that should ring very loud alarm bells,” said Pete Roche, a nuclear consultant. Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, adds that rising sea levels pose a serious threat to coastal plants. “Many nuclear-power plants located along the British coast are just a few metres above sea level.”
NUCLEAR POWER IS A SECURITY RISK
Ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has spoken out about the terrorist threat posed to countries with nuclear power, he said: “After the heavy damage wrought by terrorists in New york, Moscow, Madrid, Tokyo, Bali, and elsewhere over the past 15 years, we must very carefully consider the vulnerability of reactor fuel, spent fuel pools and related fissile materials, and facilities to sabotage, attack, and theft.” Whilst the UK does not have to contend with the environmental risks associated with the pacific rim countries, such as Japan and California, it is a reality of the modern world that Britain is a target for terrorist attacks.
‘GREEN’ NUCLEAR IS A MYTH
The claims that nuclear power is the ‘green’ option and carbon free are somewhat misleading, completely dismissing the greenhouse gasses generated by the construction of the plant itself, the storage of nuclear waste and the mining of the uranium ore that fuels it. A 2008 report by the International Energy Agency showed that if global nuclear production was quadrupled it would still only make up 10 per cent of the worlds energy production by 2050. Greenpeace have stated that this level of expansion would only lower global carbon emissions by 4%. The issue of the waste legacy also presents a real environmental threat that will last for decades. In 2006, Gordon McKerron, chair of the Committee on radioactive Waste Management, warned the Government that: “We have a 50-year history of not finding any long-term management option for high-level, dangerous radioactive waste.”
BRITAIN SHOULD LEAD THE WAY ON ALTERNATIVE FUEL
Britain has the potential to lead the world on renewable energy sources that would allow it to move beyond nuclear power without risking energy security. But we are lagging sadly behind nations such as Germany, who’s rooftop solar panels produce more energy than the Fukushima plant. In October 2010 the Government dropped plans to invest in a 10-mile barrage across the Severn estuary, which could be used to generate “green” electricity. Instead they approved the eight new nuclear sites that are currently under review. At the time Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said: We urgently need investment in new and diverse energy sources to power the UK.” yet Chancellor George Osborne looks to have firmly thrown his weight behind the nuclear industry as in the latest budget they looked to subsidise the nuclear industry, by allowing the newly set up Green Investment Bank to make loans to companies looking to build new nuclear plants, and introduced a carbon floor pricing system that will see nuclear firms pick up a windfall of £1.3-3bn. Green MP Caroline Lucas called this: “A betrayal of our environment.”
THE PEOPLE WANT RENEWABLE ENERGY, NOT NUCLEAR
A post-Fukushima survey commissioned by Friends of The Earth shows that 75% of people now want the Government to invest in energy efficiency or renewable energy, whereas a mere 9% want further investment in nuclear power. Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns for Friends of the Earth UK, stated that the poll showed the Government’s nuclear expansion plans were “out of step with public opinion” and that they should “urgently refocus their energy policy”, before proceeding with building eight new nuclear power stations.
This debate is taken from In-Debate Magazine. Visit www.in-debate.com to sign up to their weekly Fully Briefed newsletter.