British and European nuclear plans have been thrown into disarray in the aftermath of the worsening nuclear power disaster following last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Battle to avoid meltdown
Japanese engineers were battling to avoid a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant as NCE went to press.
In response, Germany and Switzerland have put the brakes on their nuclear power programmes. Russia is also understood to have ordered a review.
As NCE went to press on Tuesday the European Commission was holding a meeting to assess the Japanese situation and the European Union’s (EU’s) state of preparedness in case of similar incidents.
EU energy ministers, all 27 national nuclear safety authorities, and all operators and vendors of nuclear power plants in the EU were ordered to attend.
Ahead of the meeting EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger told German television that European states needed to examine alternatives to nuclear power.
“We must raise the question of if we, in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy,” he said.
“We must raise the question of if we, in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy”
Britain’s energy secretary Chris Huhne has called on chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman to review the implications for the UK of Japan’s crisis and to learn any lessons.
Current ICE President Peter Hansford said he welcomed the government’s investigation.
“It is vital that we learn from the situation in Japan and apply these lessons to the new build programme here.”
Spotlight on gas
However, other experts said it was inevitable that the spotlight for energy provision would now fall on gas.
Past ICE president Mark Whitby told NCE that the UK government should immediately retreat from its new nuclear plans in favour of gas production in addition to introducing legislation to curb energy use.
Whitby, now a director at consultant Davies Maguire, and Whitby, said that while safety measures may still be proven to have worked at the damaged plant, public support will be hugely dented.
He added that banks will now be “very reluctant” to invest.
Nuclear renaissance ‘setback’
Investment bank Société Général analysts agreed that Japan’s nuclear disaster could “lead to a setback for the world’s nuclear renaissance”.
This could see gas become the “fuel of no choice”, they cautioned.
“The interim solution is gas,” said Whitby. “In Europe we still have significant gas reserves and we can clearly buy time with gas.”
Legislation for the long term
Energy saving legislation would be the best option in the longer term, he said. “Everybody [in the UK] could save one third of electricity right now. We must invest more in gas production and make a super human effort to introduce legislation to reduce individual reliance on energy.”
French energy giant EdF is set to build new nuclear in the UK, with plans for plants at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk.
It is understood that the firm is on the verge of awarding its first major Hinkley Point contract to a URS Scott Wilson/Bam Nuttall/Kier joint venture.
It is not yet know if the firm will go ahead with the award of the £100M earthworks package this week.
EdF said it was “happy to support” Huhne’s review in whatever way it could, but stressed that it believed all its designs to be safe.
“We have no reason to expect a similar scale of seismic activity in the UK”
“We have no reason to expect a similar scale of seismic activity in the UK,” it said.
“All EdF Energy’s nuclear power stations are protected against the effects of seismic events.
“These measures cover the kind of seismic and storm surge events that could be expected in the UK and are detailed in approved safety cases which are agreed with the regulator,” it said.
‘High levels of complacency’
Whitby agreed that the UK was unlikely to experience anything like the scale of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. But he stressed that there was a high level of complacency in the global nuclear industry.
He said there should have been a thorough review after the Asian tsunami of 2004 in the hope that it could have changed a culture of dismissing safety criticisms.
He said that there was still too little understanding of the “highly complex devices” in the technology of nuclear power.
“We are pushing the limits of technology and our failure is not in our ability to make things work but in our ability to appreciate their complexity,” he said.