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European nuclear plans on the rocks in wake of Japan disaster

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.

Alternatives examined

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”

Guenther Oettinger

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”

EdF

“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.

Readers' comments (21)

  • Oh dear - this is the kind of knee jerk reaction that must not be allowed to dominate the future power generation in the UK.

    Questions, of course, must be asked (such as why the risk of coolant pump failure due to inundation by a tsunami was not designed out) and lessons learned.

    I would hope that the ICE and NCE will do their parts to apply pressure for a reasoned and logical assessments to hold sway.

    Perhaps an inspiration would be the remarkable bravery and control exhibited by the victims of this terrible natural disaster.

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  • Fully agree with the comments of David Watts above.

    The media have not helped by not broadcasting details of what caused the nuclear accident - it appears from what various experts on the ground have said that, even though the Works are 40 years old, all the nuclear works safety systems worked - the Reactors tripped immediately after the earthquake, the standby power came on once the general power supplies in the reactor failed, but these standby generators then failed due to being overwhelmed by the tsunami which in turn caused the cooling water circulation to stop. If the cooling water system had been protected it appears that there would have been no problems!

    As DW says, investigations of this external sub-system are needed, but on all other plants its seems simple retro fits are all that may be needed to make the cooling water system "bomb and tsunami proof"!

    This incident needs to be treated as a very severe operational scenario real life test with Richter 9 earthquake plus a massive tsunami, plus internal hydrogen explosions following fuel rod overheating. Some valuable lessons can be learnt and necessary amendments to design standards are needed.

    What we don't need is more examples of reporters and politicians generatiing widespread hysteria!

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  • We should not predicate all logical decision-making on the possibility that a 1 in 1000 year event may damage engineered systems designed and built decades ago. Engineers can bomb- and tsunami-proof anything given enough time and money, but I suspect no one will like the price tag.

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  • Keith Nicholls

    Tsunami are not restricted to seismic events, and can be caused by landslides (including submarine slips). I seem to recall historical flooding of the Somerset Levels (not far from Hinckley of course) attributed to a possible tsunami.

    Likewise there is evidence along the east coast of Scotland for a major event a few thousand years ago.

    Chances of another one happening in the lifetime of the new build reactors - very small, probably vanishingly small...certainly smaller than the east coast of Japan. Cost of designing out all the risks that could occur at this level - very high, probably vanishingly high!

    Chances of us accurately predicting return periods of such events at specific locations given the paucity of base data to work from also vanishingly small.....

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  • Selena,

    What are you talking about? Simply build or retro-fit or relocate Standby Generators, and any ancillary systems such as the Cooling Water Circuits not inside the main tsunami and earthquake resistant Reactor Building, inside a solid thick walled concrete box compound with walls well above any likely tsunami wave height at the site location. Small change within any Nuclear Power Plant budget!

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  • Peter

    What are you talking about? There is a massive difference between a new build and an operating budget, even for nuclear plant. And the value of "small change" is always relative to the size of the purse.

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  • Keith Nicholls

    Peter

    "any likely tsunami wave height" pretty much nails the problem down....
    How high? How likely?
    What's being trundled along in front of it? Ships? Cars? Pieces of concrete revetment? the bridge from a couple of km down stream?
    What happens if the tsunami hits when the doors are open?
    There are a million other things that could happen at this level of probability - not just tsunami - trying to design them all out is impossible - even trying to figure out the design case is clearly beyond many of us

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  • Just about everything we do as human beings involves risk. We have to balance that risk against the likely consequences.
    Should we ban all vehicles from the roads, considering that many thousands are killed and injured every year? No, not if we want to maintain the most basic needs of society.

    Similarly, if there isn't a practical energy supply policy for the future, the very real risk is that there will not be sufficient power to meet requirements. How many deaths (particularly elderly people) would that result in?

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  • David this is a very good point:
    "Similarly, if there isn't a practical energy supply policy for the future, the very real risk is that there will not be sufficient power to meet requirements. How many deaths (particularly elderly people) would that result in?"

    However is nuclear even the answer, by some accounts we are approaching "peak uranium"? How much oil and gas is used in the construction, transport of fuel and spent fuel, disposal of waste, and finally decommisioning? How does the whole life cost (in terms of energy) of a nuclear power station compare to the energy produced in its relatively short lifespan?

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  • Joel, those are the questions that need answering. However, there are many questions that also need to be considered for the other forms of energy supply.

    The trap we must not fall into is dismissing nuclear out of hand because of the problems in Japan. I don't think engineers should be led by emotional responses.

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