15 Mar 2011

Japan: how will Fukushima crisis affect world's nuclear future?

Make no mistake, the disintegration of the four nuclear reactors at Fukushima represents a turning point for the world. The incident in the Daichi nuclear power plant is not over. What it has done – even thus far – is to accentuate what we already knew. Running a nuclear power plant represents a series of (to abbreviate Donald Rumsfeld) “known knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns”.

We are in the phase of “known unknowns”.

Nobody knows where this goes..or where the crisis at Fukushima‘s second power plant goes. Nor indeed where the other two worrying nuclear plant failures here in Japan go.
Japan has lost vital generating capacity that she will not quickly replace. In the short term this is going to have economic consequences for Japan and maybe for us all.

There is already a run on Japanese stocks (the Nikkei down another 12 per cent as I write). But what about energy futures – the boiling Middle East and/or the nuclear dependent Western economies and suppliers?

We have a humanitarian disaster of vast proportions but one with which Japan is dealing in an ordered and disciplined manner. She will need help, and she will get help.

Read more: Channel 4 News Special Report on the Japan crisis

We have a nuclear disaster of untold proportions – untold in the sense that we have no knowing its limits…local…global.

And we have a potential hammer blow to the world economy, whose consequences we cannot predict.

Finally we have a vast challenge to our extraordinary complacency about energy use and supply. Fukushima will for ever sound the wake-up call that speaks a truth oft articulated; nuclear can only be an interim to global energy transition from oil to sustainable energy sources. We appear to have spent that interim.

Today, it is almost impossible to imagine any democracy approving another round of nuclear power build. That’s today. Tomorrow perhaps seismological cases will be made for “safe” building. But one of the known knowns, is that no one can absolutely guarantee against human error, unpredicted meteorological or seismological events.

Britain and other western economies may have to enter a new interim – that of serious energy conservation, and energy rationing – voluntary or imposed. And ultimately we may have to live as half the world does with power cuts. Parts of Tokyo are today losing power for three-hour cycles per day.

Hang on to your seats. Being here I may be exaggerating, but is it possible that Japan’s earthquake has just created just that? A global financial, energy based, nuclear-fuelled earthquake?

Japan: five key reasons Fukushima is not like Chernobyl

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

47 reader comments

  1. Ian Craig says:

    Is everyone deliberately ignoring the possibilty of attacks launched upon nuclear power stations, or are you all going to be surprised should that ever occur? Also, as usual we hear from Mr Cameron the evils of people in the future having to pay of the country’s debts but nothing about the underground stockpiling of nuclear waste and how this will, over time, make the earth’s resources harder and more dangerous to extract. Why do we hear nothing of this future legacy ?

    1. sue_m says:

      Spot on Ian – all the vested interests in the nuclear industry can say is ‘our plants are different’ and ‘we dont have earthquakes’. No but the entire world has terrorists and the UK seems to harbour quite a few of them.
      Also, Ian Hore-Lacy of the World Nuclear Forum had the front to say we should get the inicident at Fukushima in proportion as only tens of people have been harmed compared to thousands from the tsunami. What planet is he on? Tens of thousands will suffer or die if radiation covers half of Japan, and not just this generation but the next will be affected. Is the nuclear industry run entirely by ostriches with their heads in the sand. Nuclear never has been clean or safe and never will be – it should be phased out as soon as possible. We have renewable alternatives, we just need the will and effort to invest in them.

  2. Saltaire Sam says:

    I’m beginning to believe that energy limits are going to have to be imposed because we seem to have become so profligate we are incapable of setting our own limits.

    Take a simple example: petrol. Every motorist is complaining about the price. Calls are made daily for the government to do something to bring the price down.

    Yet, drive on any motorway and you will see people driving faster than the speed limit when reducing to 60 or even 50mph would reduce their petrol consumption considerably.

    1. robin yates says:

      the people you see driving like bats out of hell are in the main company owned vehicles so there is no incentive to stop this crazy behaviour

    2. Barbara says:

      People moan about the price of petrol cos there’s 50% tax on it. The actual stuff – like diamonds – is cheaper than a loaf of bread.

    3. Philip says:

      Taxes that were intended to help the UK achieve our climate change targets by limiting demand. Of course people complain & for many (usually poorer people) it is a genuine hardship. But we should still be limiting discretionary use of non-renewable energy. We need to compensate the poorest who are hit by increases in the price of petrol in a different way.

    4. Jim Flavin says:

      ”I’m beginning to believe that energy limits are going to have to be imposed because we seem to have become so profligate we are incapable of setting our own limits.”
      So you look to the Bosses to tell you waht to do – Sad . Did you ever hear about the Banks crisis – and what did the bosses tell you then ??.
      Re the ” enetrtainment busines ” – can you ever see Las Vegas being curtailed – or formuala one – or the rest of that rubbish . Of course we will be told – their useage is insignificant – – now that bwould be a surprise . We are being conned virtually everday in most things we buy – but who the heck elects these politicins that are in the obvious employ of others .

    5. adrian clarke says:

      Saltaire i have just travelled up the M1 at a steady 70mph, in the second lane of a four lane highway.To drive at 50 mph on that road would be almost tantamount to trying to commit suicide

    6. John says:

      Why do you not show some scenes – as they were, as seen on Google Streetview – so that we can get a greater sense of the disaster. Also a map of the affected coast.

    7. Saltaire Sam says:

      Adrian, for starters you should be on the inside lane unless overtaking. If you were constantly overtaking then it shows that other people were doing less than 70mph, so you could have been.

      And I bet you were being overtaken by others breaking the speed limit and consuming petrol as though it were an infinite resource.

      When I (and I suspect you) were a lad, we managed to live quite well without going at 70+mph. In fact most of us didn’t even have a car. We do have a choice about whether or not to use up all the planet’s resources and many of the choices we have made in our lifetime have been poor ones.

    8. adrian clarke says:

      Saltaire,i was not disagreeing with you, just pointing out the mind set of the current generation.
      A generation that builds cars for speed and not to last, despite their ads.A generation that wants more tarmac , yet can not keep what it has in good condition .A generation that pays lip service to public transport, yet it is not available to most people,going to where it is required.
      The obvious way to bring the prices down ,is to boycott several brands.i.e Esso Shell etc,Buy from the supermarkets until the price starts to reduce , and then if the super markets do not play ball , return to the cheapest option.
      I do not like the idea of limiters ,as i think they can be dangerous

    9. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      lads , lads, stop prodding each other and start using the train, there isn’t any overtaking there.

    10. Jim Flavin says:

      Sam – will you stop knocking yourself – and me – and look upwards . Will the Big boys sell their Yachts / Mercs etc . Will the C/mas lighting worldwide be turned off . All that rubbish Neon Advertising Lighting – virtually an endless list without knocking the general poulation , also the USA uses 40% + of oil for &% of worlds pop. The politicins knock us enough without you joining them – and you a ” Socialist ”!!!

  3. Barbara Robertson says:

    I wonder why nuclear powered electricity plants were built in Japan with its seismological tendancies?
    Perhaps the United Nations or other bodies should make recommendations and guidelines, if not rules, for such constructions.Are there international standards set for the construction of such plants? Are there inspection teams to oversee the planning and construction of such facilities? Let us hope that countries such as Iran are thinking carefully after this disaster.

    Perhaps the expertise of the British Nuclear Energy Authority and other nuclear experts could issue some thoughts on the wisdom or otherwise of such forms of power generation in varying parts of the world, although unbiased political opinion would be difficult to find.Presumably the operation of such plants is largely computerized and robotical.So human error is minimalised.
    Environmental considerations should be paramount until sustainable and green methods of production are universally available. The installation of solar panels where practical should be prioritised.

    Perhaps it is time to consider harnessing the hot deserts for the production of solar energy if this is feasible.

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    Gosh, that Rumsfeld guy eh…..where would we be without the stunning intellect of people like him and, say, Dick Cheney……..

    Nearer home, the threat of nuclear energy once again draws attention to the unlamented tenure of one A. Blair esq – Remember when he was trying to talk up new nuclear energy plants in the closing era of his tenancy at 10 Downing Street?

    The long term economic impact also has serious political ramificatiosn. For if we enter yet another era of intensified costs, maybe even rationing, guess who will be expected to bear the brunt?

    And no, it won’t be the transnational companies and banks trousering millions in extra profits…….

  5. Meg Howarth says:

    Another ‘spot on’ comment, Sam.

    Don’t know figs, but heard recently that bulk of UK electricity supply used on non-essentials like entertainment etc. Fine if there were an unlimited safe supply but there isn’t. Lots of talk about ‘living within our means’ over financial and economic affairs but NEVER when it comes to energy. C21 bread and circuses. Pro-nuclear argument still misleadingly put as ‘keeping the lights on’ to try and keep us all onside.

    Shadow minister for energy (former Sellafield worker) – so unimpressive, name already forgotten – on Newsnight last night repeating the mantra: ‘We need both’, ie nuclear plus other. No mention of profligate use of finite resources. NB increasingly unimpressed by most politicians, all banging party-political drums.

    Off-topic: BMA meeting today to consider Lansley proposals re NHS. This from Dep of Health: http://bit.ly/e9pnqE, As one Tweet’s put it: ‘Lansley:170 sigs; http://saveournhs.org >36,000!’.

    Re NHS: have hunch that most people still don’t realise
    that GPs are self-employed, ie, small businesses, and that Lansley exploiting this to his advantage for privatisation purposes – See Tussyisme comment at: bit.ly/h6Bmow.

  6. Antje B. says:

    I agree with you, Jon, and the comments so far. Nuclear may be ‘clean’ in terms of CO2 emissions but it clearly isn’t in terms of its waste for which a permanent solution is yet to be found! Leaving completely aside the ‘uncleanness’ of any serious accident.

    For the time being, let decision makers decide on nuclear power stations on the basis of whether they would be happy to live next to one or not. That should be a consideration over and above energy security or profits for utilities. In fact, to prove their belief in nuclear power being ‘clean’, anyone involved in the decision making, including utility CEOs, should be made to live near one.

  7. Proactive Paul says:

    I suspect that the true outcome of the Fukushima incident will be a radical redesign of nuclear facilities. That means the inclusion of a “panic switch” arrangement (and the necessary resources) whereby an unstable plant is instantly decommissioned using the best practices learnt from all previous disasters.

    If that means containment in a concrete sarcophagus, then that’s what I mean. What do the experts suggest?

  8. John Kirk says:

    The North Sea land bridge to the UK was wiped out by a tsunami from Norway. We have several nuclear power stations on the North Sea coast, and they are not far above sea level. Earthquake proof – sure – but tsunami/severe flood proof. I don’t think so.

    1. Philip says:

      We don’t have to build the next generation of nuclear plants where there are ones already

  9. Boudicca3 says:

    Jon – the return to nature / doomsday scenario is old hat. Just because nuclear power has and will fail (Ian Craig’s point above is absolutely spot on) does not mean we will have to make energy cuts. From where? You only have to look at how we misuse recyling – sending it off to the shores of India rather than reuse it as energy – to see the problem is government complacency and poor bureaucracy rather than armageddon. And it’s not even a matter of cost, if you look at what the CEOs from the major energy companies earn. It takes political will power but its not impossible

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      You seem to be alone in talking about ‘return to nature/doomsday’, Boudicca3.

  10. ColinT says:

    Arthur Scargill’s warnings over nuclear energy still reverberate down the years. How right he was. Seek out his article in The Guardian from 8 August 2008 (Comment is Free), which highlights the folly of the UK’s shift towards nuclear power and reliance on imported energy sources.

  11. Johnny Was says:

    I’d be really interested to know where the energy is going to come from. Some of the greener solutions are clearly not practical [wind], some are unproven on a large scale [tidal] and some just seem to be ignored [solar and hydro]. Nuclear just fills so many holes – perhaps we just don’t build in earthquake zones.

    There have been far far fewer nuclear related deaths than through air crashes and yet no one suggests banning flight. There are far more road causalities per day than death through nuclear power – perhaps we should legislate all vehicles off the road?

    I’m sure the greens would love that, but we have to balance practical against realistic.

    Road transport is necessary for a vibrant economy and electric vehicles simply shift the CO2 problem to the generators and more electric cars = more electricity required = more power stations, what ever their fuel.

    Perhaps now is the time for a dash to solar.

    1. Sam Foster says:

      We need all of them, no-one is asking us to choose. Diversity will make the grid more resilient, and also allow different regions to play to their strengths.

      Only by getting efficiency at all scales, from chicken poo to wind turbines to large coal/gas/nuclear, and pairing that with sensible energy use – which may preclude the millions of 30% efficient internal combustion engines – will we see long term stability.

  12. Dan says:

    Disagree with the statement that “We have a nuclear disaster of untold proportions” – we don’t have a nuclear disaster at all, yet!

  13. AndyB says:

    I think (and hope) you’re completely wrong Jon.

    I hope we don’t blink on nuclear, and we go ahead with fresh builds of power stations here in the UK.

    Why should this situation panic a rational person living in the UK? What has a new built power station in our country got to do with a 40 year old design in a seismic zone?

    Can we really supply our electricity needs using only renewables? I doubt it. How many people died in Iraq as part of our recent oil-driven war in the region? The political pressures surrounding the reaching of ‘peak oil’ are set to be immense.

    You’re right that this century is going to be defined by access to energy. China will happily build as much nuclear power as they need to support their growth. If we don’t, we’ll be consigning ourselves to being a broke and irrelevant backwater.

  14. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Don’t bank on it Jon, you may become bankrupt.It should be a watershed event where international concerns are addressed, but we have been here before, although to a lesser degree. Pro-active Pauls positive outlook may take the cake..I hope it does.

    Work on alternative energy sources should be given the greenist light possible. We all remember your visit to the energy summit Jon and Chinas reluctance to interact; wanting to do it their way. We remember Indias desire to keep up with the energy Jones’, we remember the fall back safety net of nuclear fuel. There is something rather pathetically poignant now when we reflect.

  15. Mim Umney-Gray says:

    Thank you Jon for the most sensitive beautifully observed and written report from you and Alex Thompson yesterday evening (14th) on Channel4 News. It was truly touching and by far the best report we have been given by any news team since this dreadful desaster first happened.
    Yours sincerely Mim Umney-Gray

  16. Jim Flavin says:

    ”nuclear can only be an interim to global energy transition from oil to sustainable energy sources”
    Why – because Nuclear stations sited in Earthquke zones break down – big surprise .
    The tone of the posts I have read so far is distrurbing – to me it is the mind of the Slave expreesed too often . ”We Have to do this ”, – etc .There is plenty oil – yes we are told it is scarce – what do you expect to hear . Someone mentioned Diamonds – scarce – its another con . They should be the price of Bread – but idiots pay fortunes for them .
    Renewables – as of this moment they cannot replce Nuclear / Oil etc . Some said put Solar panels in the desert !!!!.
    By all means – all new homes etc should have as much as they can renewables – and they can ease the burden – but replace – Get Real .
    Why should the population have less – have power cuts etc – That is preaching Slavery . There are plenty sources of Energy eg Oil , Coal etc . As for CC – be glad that the planet is warming – not cooling to another Ice age . As for Co2 – another con – but maybe that that is all humans are capable of – Obeying their ” masters ” .

  17. bnweasel says:

    As per our conversation on Twitter, Jon, I feel you’re overstating this. How many people have actually died from radiation? What is the significance of a ‘meltdown’? These emotive words taken out of context bring to mind Chernobyl, when this is a completely different scenario.

    These facilities have stood up quite well to an unprecedented natural disaster. Doesn’t this actually make the case for building more of them, not less?

    Here’s a link to someone with the opposite view, for balance: http://reg.cx/1NcD

  18. Philip says:

    Does anyone seriously believe that any British Government is going to ration energy – except by price? Indeed, when any obvious price gets too high, the Government backs down & mitigates the effect (as we’ll see in the next Budget).
    Personally, I don’t think this will have a significant effect on the UK decision on nuclear power. The media always overreact to events. The different levels of seismic activity in Japan & the UK mean that the issues about using nuclear power are massively different. And actually, the Fukishima plant seems to have withstood what was thrown at it remarkably well so far.
    Much as I would prefer us to use solely renewable energy resources, the only encouragement we’re going to get from Government to use less energy will be through price – which is very regressive without countermeasures. Clean energy is expensive & its intrusive nature is often resisted (well, would you want a wind farm in your neighbourhood?).
    Remember avian flu? Then it was global pandemics that were going to wipe us all out.
    I fear some perspective is needed.

  19. AFS says:

    HI JON,

  20. adrian clarke says:

    Jon i think the tone of your blog,is completely wrong as are many of the comments.If we wish to continue with our current way of life and use of energy, great changes are going to have to be made.Gas and oil are both finite.So is the reachable coal,at a realistic price.Wind, water,solar and wave power although very useful are not sufficient to cover our energy needs.
    So we need nuclear.
    This calamitous disaster in Japan,has shown us that although nuclear is dangerous , the technology is there to control such a disaster.The Japanese have been very open,and admit releasing radiation in a controlled way as they fight to cool the core.The actual plants have survived where most buildings haven’t.I think the Japanese should be lauded for their heroic efforts,and not the channel 4 coverage, as i blogged the other day.As an earlier blogger said , there is no real news coverage , only voyeurism.
    This disaster is more appalling than the Haitian one,by far, yet the Japanese are going about the clearing , recovering bodies in a quiet methodical way in an example to all ,as to how to deal with emergencies.

  21. HPMorgan says:

    I have to say that I disagree with you Jon but agree with Johnny Was’ first paragraph and Sam’s subsequent response. We need resilience and a base in the grid, one that we can turn higher or lower when the other sources are not producing or simply no available (such as the wind) since we cannot really store energy. Old Northern Europe is not a region of high seismic activity either; so while we must learn every lessons from this sad series of events, e.g. on how to better protect the back-up generators or how to cope with “flooding”, we must look at the events in a context relevant to the place under consideration and avoid knee-jerk reactions, as tough and touching the situation over there may be. Take care in Japan.

  22. Tim says:

    Should we worry about sushi overnighted to restaurants on California?

  23. asher says:

    when next speaking to nuclear specialists can you please ask about thorium nuclear power which is supposed to be much much safer – (meltdowns not theoretically possible) and much much cheaper to decommission

    1. Adam Weber says:

      Oh, asher! You are a hero! I was just about to post a similar remark.
      Russia has been using 1950’s US Thorium technology since 2006-07 and they say it will work in ALL current nuclear power stations and all next-generation nuclear facilities. Thorium reactors, if designed the right way, can CONSUME Plutonium and enriched Uranium. The Russians will be *charging* France, Japan, the USA, etc, a nice premium for getting rid of their dangerous nuclear wastes…Smart business people!
      Countries like Nth Korea and Iran could make a better impression on the rest of the world if they went for Thorium technology…FOR PEACEFUL PURPOSES…Like hell! They want the Plutonium for their nuclear arsenals to control their enemies…I mean their neighbors–sorry!

  24. Paul Blezard-Gymer says:

    Dear all at C4 news,

    I trust I will not be alone in expressing the following sentiments and sincerely hope that you will have received many such comments.

    I would like to congratulate you all, from Jon, Alex and Krishnan to those behind the scenes, on the most extraordinarily sensitive, compassionate and humane coverage from poor Japan during what is clearly an unprecedented hat-trick of disasters.

    Your coverage has been clear, objective and informative and markedly different from the confused and confusing coverage of many other news services who seem to be more interested in the Hollywwod disaster movie angle, with little thought for the lives of those who have been affected.

    From the role of the photocopier in a crisis centre, to the eloquence, dignity and stoicism of your many interviewees, you have brought the sense what is really happening and how it feels to those who are there right home to the screens of the UK and in doing so have made our hearts ache for the families, workers and residents of N.E. Japan.

    Of course it is no more than followers of C4 News would expect, but given the difficulties of getting to the stories, let alone getting them back to the UK, what

  25. Paul Blezard-Gymer says:

    (follow on from previous post) what you have achieved and are achieving should fill you all with pride.

    I hope that when the various awards for news coverage are announced C4 achieves the clean sweep it deserves.

    Yours sincerely,

    Paul Blezard-Gymer

  26. Saltaire Sam says:

    OK, C4News, now I’m cross.

    I watched your excellent Japan coverage tonight and waited for the report about NHS doctors criticising the reform plans. I thought there might also be something about Hutton’s report on public sector pay.

    What did I get. Midsommer bloody Murders. Even the Japan coverage was a bit OTT with the interview with that author plugging his book.

    I bet Lansley, Cameron, Clegg and Co can hardly believe their luck. They are slipping through far reaching NHS privatisation that they never put before the electorate then along comes Egypt, Lybia et al, then Japan and then Midsommer Murders.

    Talk about C4 burying good news.

    There won’t be a baby boom crisis if these NHS plans go ahead because most of us old uns – certainly those of us without money – will die off for lack of proper medical care.

    What on earth were you thinking?

  27. Ray Turner says:

    I don’t have any great concern about Nuclear Power. I’d even go as far as saying that the safety record is pretty good. There’s more on my blog.

    What I’ll add here though, is that if we want something better than Nuclear Power, we need to be investing a lot more in science. Just as Prof. Brian Cox said on Radio 4’s “Start The Week” yesterday…

  28. Meg Howarth says:

    It’s ‘our way of life’ – yours above – that we must surely question, Adrian? Is it reasonable, sustainable – ie, one that everyone else can share – desirable even. I’ve seen you advocate elsewhere living within one’s means, but here you seem to be suggesting that the end (present-day lifestyle) justifies the means. Seems that the consumerist model – I want it and I want it now! – has got even in to your psyche.

    Re NHS: too knackered to notice that not on last night’s news, though turned on in anticipation that would be. Agree re interview with the author. At present time of events happening so fast, we could have done without that.

    Meantime on NHS: links re y/day’s BMA meeting –

    ‘Doctors urge government to abandon health reform Bill’: http://ind.pn/hmpMCf (Independent)

    ‘Tories sign motion attacking Lansley bill’: http://bit.ly/fQHLMD (Guardian)

    1. adrian clarke says:

      It’s ‘our way of life’ – yours above – that we must surely question, Adrian? Is it reasonable, sustainable – ie, one that everyone else can share – desirable even. I’ve seen you advocate elsewhere living within one’s means, but here you seem to be suggesting that the end (present-day lifestyle) justifies the means. Seems that the consumerist model – I want it and I want it now! – has got even in to your psyche.

      Meg,i think you have misread me. i do not get where you think i am a consumerist.I do believe we should live within our means.I would be quite happy to go back to parafin lamps (the so called energy saving ones are little better) Do away with motor vehicles,and bring back the horse.That would save our farms , who could transfer to livery.
      Get rid of the wretched TV that blights so many young lives ,with its obsession with sex and profanities.
      Stop the keep up with the Jones complex ,no matter what the cost.The belief that plastic is the answer,and debt immaterial.
      No i am not a consumerist.I have simple needs and desires, but i was trying to point out that the alternative to Nuclear can not sustain even the current energy requirements.

  29. Meg Howarth says:

    Omitted from previous re NHS: bit.ly/eUvcko

    Is this really what we want for our health service? If not, please sign/circulate http://saveournhs.org Results direct to MPs.

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Meg i would sign no petition to stop NHS reforms as the current system is just not sustainable.More and more money has been pumped in over the last thirteen years with no perceivable increase in efficiency or results.The bulk of it has been swallowed up in Labours burgeoning bureaucracy.Even now when the NHS and othe public bodies (councils police etc) discuss cuts , all you hear and read is of proposed cuts to front line services.Not the bureaucracy,where cuts would have a greater monetry value and probably produce a more streamlined and efficient service.
      In reply to a freedom of information request, though they have only given me a part answer so far,my local council(NEDDC) employs one manager /supervisor to every 5.7 workers.If thats efficiency i fail to see it.I would imagine that those managers/supervisers are like Margaret’s nurses , standing around discussing what is best for us the end users,WHILST NEGLECTING OUR REAL NEEDS.

  30. Amanda says:

    When did any of you voluntarily take a bus instead of a car? When did any of you count how many times you have had a day without electricity in the recent past? Have you any idea who lives near you who travels to work using the same roads in their own car, and would any of you actually be prepared to arrange to share lifts? If you don’t start thinking differently now, I can just imagine how tedious your moaning will be when these changes are imposed from above.

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