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Nuclear's future has come into question but so must our defences

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

Readers' comments (3)

  • "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."

    Given that Hinkley Point is located in the Bristol Channel, there is a potential for a tsunami to be sparked by seismic activity in the Atlantic ocean. There have been a number of tsunamis along the atlantic coast of Europe in the last 400 years. Also Oldbury station is located a little further up the estuary.

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  • A predictable knee-jerk reaction to an event happening in a totally different environment than our own.

    Quite apart from the fact that we do not live in the worst earthquake zone on earth, and that our future reactors were designed 40 years after the Japanese ones, what do you expect will replace nuclear? Dont tell me - Wind Farms. A system that rarely operates at more than 20% capacity, and at its capacity can never aspire to generate anything like the power of nuclear. Especially given that our leaders are detemined that our population will groe to 77 million by 2050?

    I work in the nuclear industry, and in nearly 50 years of generation there has never been a serious prospect of anything like Chernobyl, three-mile Island or Fukushima.

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  • The previous Head of the Nuclear Inspectorate basically agreed with UK Chief Scientific Officer on the Today programme this morning. It is not clear on what basis others, such as the French, are saying otherwise!

    On the basis of information available, even though this Plant is a 40 year old and less safe design, the "nuclear" components and safety systems worked immediately and correctly following the initial Richter 9 earthquake, the Plant shut down and on power failure the Standby Power Systems cut in and maintained power supplies and cooling water re-circulation. The Reactor Structure also withstood the follow-on tsunami but apparently the Standby Power System and/or the Water Circulation Pumps were not adequately protected resulting in severe damage to the cooling water system causing cooling water stoppage and resultant risk of fuel rod overheating and system instability. I know it is easy to be wise in hindsight but, knowing the tsunami risk in these areas, it is strange that these critical non-nuclear sub-systems weren't designed to resist the inundation that was experienced!

    This disaster scenario is probably as bad as it can ever get - hopefully at least in the actual "nuclear/health" outcome and probably in the severity, extent and combination of adverse imposed scenarios likely. Even on similar design Plants elsewhere in equally severe seismic environments retrofitting adequate protection of the Standby Power and Water Circulation Systems may be all that is necessary. It may not be engineers who decide this but insurers or even unilaterally the Plant Owners themselves!

    There is still a dearth of reliable and sufficient information as to the total circumstances and damage, but what is puzzling is that if the resultant safety problems are simply due to a lack of coolant water and/or power, then surely the Japanese could have lifted in replacement pumps and standby generators and connected them up almost immediately, stopping any problems before conditions got much worse than the day after the tsunami?

    Lessons need to be learned from this diaster, but lessons based on reliable and adequate and total information. The various national and international regulatory authorities should ensure this! Fitness for purpose in the future will include an ability to safely and structurally accommodate such scenarios. No doubt the insurers will do their duty and ensure that all future Nuclear Power Stations built and even other existing Nuclear Power Stations with necessary retro-fitting, will be safe, economically viable and acceptable to both themselves and their Clients.

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