The nuclear option; As the Government gives the nod to a nuclear future for Britain, MICHAEL BROWN examines the arguments for and against the decision.
AS explosions tore through Japan's Fukushima power plant in the wake of March's devastating earthquake and tsunami some predicted an end for nuclear energy.
Critics pointed to the dangers of radiation and the 20km exclusion zone that raised spectres of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
But yesterday, seven months on, Britain's Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said a report by the country's nuclear inspectors had concluded there was nothing to worry about here and rubbished calls to stall plans to build and rebuild the UK's reactors.
So should we be worried? Or have the environmental lobby got it wrong and should we be embracing nuclear as the solution to a low carbon future? Nuclear safety expert Professor Mike Reeks, of Newcastle University, said he had actually been reassured by the Japanese situation. "I take the view that the Fukushima reactor was quite encouraging for the nuclear industry because, in a very unique situation, an old style, 40-year-old reactor actually survived intact.
"Yes, there was a release, but that was due to separate explosions and the reactor containment withstood a major disaster. "Nobody mentions the fact that there were many new reactors in a similar location which shut down without incident.
"The industry has moved 40 years on and the style of reactors are much safer, so I find it reassuring and I totally agree with the report and there is no reason not to go ahead."
The explosions which rocked the power plant - and the public's confidence - were caused by a hydrogen build-up in a fuel pump system, Professor Reeks said, and had long since been designed out of modern reactors. "All of these things have been looked at," he said. "And as a result we should be embracing nuclear in Britain." Emeritus energy professor Ian Fells, agreed, saying that without a nuclear future Britain would be "in very big trouble". "If we don't build or rebuild more reactors then the chance of meeting our carbon dioxide reduction targets are zero," he said.
"Renewable energy produces only about 7% of the UK's energy, with wind less than 4% of that - it is expensive, highly subsidised, but insignificant. "If an average electricity bill is pounds 500 then pounds 100 of that of that is going on renewables - 20% of the cost for only 7% of the energy. "I just don't think you can go on doing that." Both academics agreed that the UK couldn't afford to go down a similar road to Germany, which has turned its back completely on nuclear. "The main problem is that people are scared of radiation," said Professor Meeks. "But you look at what Germany have done and it's total economic madness." "There has been a hysterical reaction to Fukushima over there," said Professor Fells, "but they've no idea what to do now because renewables can't make up the shortfall.
"People say an important in dealing with it would be to be energy efficient but we've been working on that since the oil crisis in the 1970s and even back then, when we worked extremely hard and had the Save It campaign, it only reduced energy consumption by about 1%." Professor Fells offered a bleak outlook for the future, even with nuclear power being included as part of the solution "The next big political hot potato will be the increased cost of energy," he said. "Our demand for electricity increases year on year and if we are going to be taking cars round on electricity then we will need to generate much more. By 2020 I think our electric bills will have doubled. "That increases the problem of fuel poverty - people spending more than 10 percent of their income on fuel. "It affected 2.2 million people, and then the last Labour government said they were going to do something about it. Now it's 5.5 million. "I'm all in favour of reducing it, I've just no idea how to do it.
"People are looking for a silver bullet - last year it was carbon capture and storage. But while everyone talks about it, nobody has yet built a test plant to demonstrate it can be done, as it's too expensive. "You have to take the long view and as sure as little apples the price of energy is going to go up." But while experts backed the government's announcement, green groups criticised the report, which was produced by chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman. Dr Weightman, who led a visit to Japan and Fukushima in June, insisted that, although it was only six months since the disaster, it was possible to have drawn "reliable conclusions and identified the main lessons to improve safety."
There are 38 recommendations in the report, including reviewing the reliance on off-site infrastructure such as the power grid in the case of a disaster, and looking at flooding studies to make sure nuclear sites are sufficiently protected. The final review did not find any significant defects in the UK's approach to nuclear regulation, which includes periodic safety reviews every 10 years. But the report found Fukushima's aging reactors highlighted the need to deal with facilities such as Sellafield's legacy fuel storage ponds and waste storage silos "with the utmost vigour and determination". "We will ensure lessons are learned from Fukushima," it said. "Action has already been taken in many cases, with work under way to further enhance safety at UK sites." But From21 Sean Morris, of the group Nuclear Free Local Authorities, which used to include South Tyneside Council, said the report had been rushed and did not take account of concerns raised. "We were very disappointed about this nuclear safety report," he said, " as we feel it was too narrow in looking at only small aspects of safety. "There were a lot of other issues which we put into our submissions which were not considered in any great depth. "All this report does is confirms the status quo.
" Mr Morris said that any claims that renewables were too expensive by comparison could be dispelled by looking at other new build nuclear projects across Europe. "Finland and France have seen huge cost and time overruns which make renewables just as cost effective." Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas said the report would do little to reassure the British public that the nuclear industry can be trusted to power our energy future. "The status of our nuclear facilities is a crucial national security issue, yet the government has concluded that nothing needs to change in the light of the Japanese disaster - the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl," she said.
"There has been a continuous failure to properly interrogate the environmental and economic viability of nuclear and the huge risks involved, both in further expansion and in dealing with the UK's scandalous decommissioning legacy." Friends of the Earth's energy campaigner Tony Bosworth added that the Weightman report did nothing to alter the "Alice-in-Wonderland economics" of nuclear power - "it's a gamble we don't need to take," he said. "After more than five decades of nuclear generation, the industry still relies on huge public subsidy, while solar is set to operate without taxpayer support within a decade. "Getting tough on energy waste and plugging in to the
UK's vast green power potential will meet our energy needs and build the new job and business opportunities our economy is crying out for." The industry most likely to be initially affected by such a jobs boom welcomed the news that the reactor programme was to go ahead. Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) director- general Tom Foulkes said the nuclear industry could now move forward "with renewed confidence" "Nuclear is a vital part of the UK's energy mix - at present there is no other viable, low-carbon alternative to replace baseload generation from gas and coal-fired plants set to come offline in the next decade," he said.
"Weightman's review has rightly set the standards high for UK nuclear, putting the onus on industry to strive for continued improvements in safety and risk assessment. Ensuring these lessons are understood at every level of delivery is crucial to minimising project risks. Alistair Smith, of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said the report would reassure people that UK nuclear engineers work to the most stringent safety regulations and that builders would proceed with "an even safer regime" when constructing the new generation of nuclear plants over the course of the next decade. "
I hope work can now progress to finalise the generic design assessments in the UK as the fact remains that without new nuclear power we stand no chance of meeting out climate change obligations and the very real possibility of the UK's lights turning off in a decade's time," he said. Mike Clancy, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, which has 21,000 members in the energy sector, added that Dr Weightman's recommended areas of review "reflected his own members' thinking - that there is no room for complacency and that we must remain committed to continuous improvement for all existing and future facilities."
DAMAGE This satellite image shows the damaged Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan on Monday, March 14, 2011 LESSONS FROM THE PAST The town of Chernobyl, present day THERE IS A NEED Emeritus energy professor Ian Fell believes that without a nuclear future Britain would be "in very big trouble" SAFETY FIRST A man uses a radiation detector to measure the levels in a pack of strawberries produced in Iwaki City, Fukushima
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Oct 12, 2011|
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