By Dr Ian Fairlie
As we mark the tenth anniversary this week of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan where an earthquake and a tsunami led to a meltdown of nuclear reactors, the emission of huge amounts of radiation and a continuing humanitarian disaster, the fact remains that only in a world with the political drive to rid itself of nuclear power can we be safe from nuclear disaster.
Even 10 years later, the human cost of the disaster remains immense. The release of radioactive caesium and strontium isotopes over a wide area poses as yet not understood risks to human health, including the risk of cancers. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced from their homes.
Towns like Iwaki and Iitate will likely never see human habitation again. A vast “no go” zone some of some one thousand square kilometres surrounds the remains of the plant. And as a recent report by Greenpeace pointed out, many former residents have faced the unenviable choice between returning to their radioactively contaminated homes or leaving their properties forever.
The response of the Japanese people, if not Japanese politicians, was a swift and enduring one. In the two years immediately following the disaster, public support for nuclear power dropped from over 85 per cent of the population to below a quarter.
Japan is decommissioning around half of its reactors completely and only nine ever restarted after the events of 2011. By way of contrast, targets for (cheaper and safer) renewable energy production in Japan have been broken time again, with the country hitting its 2030 target of around 23 per cent of energy from renewable sources nearly a decade earlier than planned.
Yet in other regards, successive Japanese governments have been drawn in by the seductive but ultimately false allure of nuclear power as a somehow “green” energy source. The current government under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is aiming for around a fifth of the country’s energy in 2030 to be provided by nuclear.
Parallels can be clearly seen closer to home, where in a 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution unveiled by Boris Johnson and the then business secretary Alok Sharma in November 2020, the government promised hundreds of millions of pounds of subsidies to develop and bring online small modular and advanced modular reactors.
As expounded by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the case against civil nuclear power remains a straightforward yet convincing one. Nuclear is hugely expensive, even more so when compared to the alternatives.
Cost over-runs and crippling delays are frequent. In Britain at least, nuclear only remains viable because of the vast public subsidies it receives. One nuclear project alone, the reactor at Hinkley Point C, is expected to cost around £25 billion by the time of its completion and it is already four years late.
More fundamentally however, as the long nightmare of Fukushima demonstrates, the cost of even a single nuclear disaster in human terms is unimaginably high. Even relatively minor nuclear safety breaches, which happen on a regular basis, can have serious unintended consequences.
This is compounded when, as was the case in Fukushima, governments and corporations are unable or unwilling to provide transparency to their people and other countries about the scale of nuclear accidents, in part to protect the wider legitimacy of their nuclear programmes.
Most frustrating of all, of course, is the fact that the UK is in some regards perfectly placed to take advantage of the shift to renewable energy, with plentiful supplies of wave and wind power, both on and off shore.
Every pound invested in nuclear power is one that could be better spent on wind, wave or solar, with the much greater number of skilled and well-paid jobs they bring.
In the medium term we can expect no relief. The dangers associated with nuclear will be further heightened as climate change drives the increasing frequency of extreme weather events in unexpected places. On current projections of global warming, the unexpected snow storms which paralysed much of Texas’s electricity grid are merely a harbinger of things to come.
Other countries, particularly those in the Global South, will look at the renewed turn to nuclear in the developed world and see a high-prestige and supposedly “green” power source, particularly as small modular reactors technology continues to develop. For the right type of company, nuclear power remains a profitable business — and much like other big polluters, that profit will be fiercely defended.
Ever since the opening of Calder Hall at Sellafield in 1956, billed by the government of the day as Britain’s first civil nuclear power plant (in actual fact, one of its key functions was the production of plutonium for weapons use), British civil nuclear has raised not only an environmental question but a political one.
The American philosopher George Santayana once said that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Governments across the planet seem determined to repeat the errors of nuclear power which led to Fukushima.
The best way to work for a clean, safe and sustainable future for people across the world remains energetic democratic participation, including through the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, at 64 years old one of the oldest and most active campaigning groups in the country. (IPA Service)