The natural disaster caused by the huge earthquake and consequential tsunami in Japan last week has rapidly been joined, if not overtaken, by the man-made disaster now unfolding at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.
And while the shocking devastation reaped by the wall of water that poured through communities last week will take months, years, perhaps even decades to repair, it is clear that whatever the outcome at Fukushima, the impact will stay with Japan for considerably longer.
Despite the UK chief scientific officer John Beddington’s bizarre downplaying of the situation on the Radio 4 Today programme on Tuesday, it is clear that the consequences of meltdown in Fukushima’s four nuclear reactors will be monumental − environmentally, socially and globally.
With the exclusion zone around the plant widening by the day and no real plan in sight to tame the out of control station, the worst case scenarios look set to be reached, exceeded then rewritten on a daily basis.
Hence, it is not just in Japan that fears over nuclear contamination and the invisible poison from radiation have returned.
Whether that means the scaling back of future global nuclear power aspirations is, however, doubtful. The thirst for electricity and the need to reduce carbon emissions provides a twin driver to ensure that nuclear remains in the mix.
Besides, there are significant differences between Fukushima and the modern design of stations planned, say, at Hinkley Point. And, like so many parts of the world with nuclear power programmes, we do not live in an earthquake prone location.
“Fundamentally, we must be absolutely sure not just that we know how to run a safe nuclear industry but also how to protect it from the worst that nature can throw at it”
But as Germany’s foreign minister Guido Westerwelle pointed out this week after his nation pressed the pause button on its nuclear plans, “after what happened in Japan, it cannot be business as usual”.
Given that Russia, Switzerland and the United States have also announced reviews, it is right that the UK government also seeks lessons that can be learned from Japan, not least given that central to the UK nuclear plan is the life-extension of so many older power stations.
Fundamentally, we must be absolutely sure not just that we know how to run a safe nuclear industry but also how to protect it from the worst that nature can throw at it.
The implications of failing to properly protect critical national infrastructure has, of course, been a major theme promoted by the ICE over the last couple of years.
So while we cannot prevent or even predict natural disasters we must ensure that we invest in good engineering, good risk management and good critical infrastructure defence to prepare.
The question then is, under this new wave of conservative thinking, will nuclear power still be affordable?
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor