Comment: We need a sober approach to the crisis in Fukushima

Neil Hyatt is professor of radioactive waste management at the University of Sheffield.
Neil Hyatt is professor of radioactive waste management at the University of Sheffield.

The terrible environmental and human impact of a nuclear disaster is overshadowed by the impact of fossil fuels, climate change and natural disasters.

By Professor Neil Hyatt

What is the future for nuclear power in Britain, following the Fukushima emergency? The Cabinet debated this issue on Tuesday, and energy secretary Chris Huhne has stated there should be no "rush to judgement" as events in Fukushima continue to unfold. In contrast, the German chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Monday that the decision to extend the lifetime of 17 nuclear plants would be delayed by three months. Today came the surprising news that China has suspended approval for 27 new reactors: that's 40% of the total currently under construction worldwide.

So, has the government got it right? So far, it has. Let me explain.

There is no question that the situation at Fukushima is an extremely serious nuclear incident, it is still developing, and the important detail of events leading up to and following the emergency will only become clear as time goes on. Mr Huhne, rightly, has asked the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, "for a thorough report on the implications of the situation in Japan and the lessons to be learned". This independent and authoritative report is essential for maintaining public confidence in UK nuclear safety standards and any possible improvement required in the light of Fukushima.

Taking a step back, it is important to acknowledge that the sequence of events at Fukushima was triggered by a failure of conventional back-up power systems, principally as a consequence of the tsunami. Automatic shutdown of the reactors, in response to the earthquake, went to plan. However, the tsunami overwhelmed the diesel generators designed to keep coolant flowing through the hot nuclear core in an emergency and loss of electrical power. Referring to the Fukushima emergency at prime minister's questions on Wednesday, David Cameron commented, "We don't have those reactor designs in the UK nor do we plan them, and also we're not in a similarly seismically important area". To this we can add the fact that the proposed new fleet of UK reactors use a passive gravity and convection driven cooling circuit and do not require a power source to keep coolant flowing through the core in an emergency, as at Fukushima.

Public scepticism of nuclear power will undoubtedly increase, following the Japanese emergency. However, provided that the stricken reactors can be safely stabilised without release of substantial radioactive material, then transparent reporting and a thorough appraisal of the lessons learned should help to address genuinely held public concerns. The Japanese emergency is a powerful reminder that nuclear power is not without risk, but this is safely managed in 143 European plants every day. Accepting the safe management of this risk balanced against the benefit of a secure supply of low carbon energy is a decision that individual nation states do, and indeed should, now wish to reconsider. Alternative energy technologies provide no silver bullet to combat the effects of climate change and security of supply: both alternative and nuclear energy generation are vital components of a balanced energy economy. As the prime minister commented on Wednesday, "nuclear power should be part of the mix in the future as it is part of the mix right now".

So what of the German and Chinese positions? Germany has had an on-off relationship with nuclear power for decades as a consequence of the influence of its Green party within a coalition government. Looking through the prism of coalition, nuclear energy is one issue for which Lib Dem MPs are permitted freedom to abstain in any Commons vote and Liberal Democrat MEP Fiona Hall has already called for a "halt on further nuclear power developments". But what is the immediate alternative to nuclear? Most likely, a speedy return to fossil fuels. Financial markets have already responded to this potential, the Financial Times reports today that the price of gas and coal for April delivery has increased by more than ten percent following the Japanese earthquake. China, of course, has immense fossil fuel reserves.

Consider the potential environmental impact of such a return to fossil fuel. According to the UN World Health Organisation, indoor air pollution from solid fuel use is responsible for 1.6 million deaths every year (that's one death every 20 seconds) and present climate change is leading to 150,000 deaths annually. In contrast, WHO and IAEA state that 56 people are known to have died directly as a consequence of radiation released from Chernobyl, but that up to 4,000 may die from it eventually. The sobering fact is that the terrible environmental and human impact of a nuclear disaster is overshadowed by the impact of fossil fuels, climate change and natural disasters.

Following Fukushima, much will depend on how the current emergency evolves and whether public confidence in nuclear operating and regulatory authorities can be maintained. Thus, the current government approach of sober judgement of the impact of Fukushima on the future of UK nuclear power, following a genuinely independent and authoritative safety review, is the right one. Public perception of nuclear energy eventually recovered following incidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and may do so again. An immediate cancellation of nuclear power, research and training programmes, in response to the Fukushima incident would be an ill-considered and potentially expensive folly.

Neil Hyatt is professor of radioactive waste management at the University of Sheffield.

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