The nuclear crisis at Fukushima plant in Japan could lead to a long overdue re-think on nuclear power, experts tell Channel 4 News, as Germany moves to close all of its pre-1980 nuclear facilities.
Countries around the world scrambled to reassure their citizens frightened by the nuclear crisis in Japan, where authorities have confirmed that the radiation levels in the air caused by leaks and explosions at the quake-damaged Fukushima plant are now high enough to damage human health.
As the severity of the accident increases, with thousands evacuated and experts suggesting it could be the worst disaster since Chernobyl, the question of the safety of nuclear power has jumped to the top of the agenda.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would be discussing whether plants which began operation before 1980 should be closed and promised to answer all questions over nuclear safety by 15 June after a three-month suspension of her previous nuclear policy.
Germany and France will also put forward a nuclear safety initiative on G20 level, she confirmed. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered officials to check Russian nuclear facilities, and to review the country’s atomic energy expansion plans.
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In the UK, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has asked the Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, to carry out a swift review of the implications for the UK’s plans to build eight new nuclear power stations.
“It is essential that we understand the full facts and their implications, both for existing nuclear reactors and any new programme, as safety is always our number one concern,” said Mr Huhne.
Walt Patterson, an authority on the nuclear industry and associate fellow at Chatham House, told Channel 4 News the accidents would almost certainly affect policy.
“The Fukushima events are clearly going to make the safety issue come right up the agenda again and suddenly it will get an awful lot of attention from the public, which was fairly lackadaisical about nuclear power as a policy issue over the last few years,” he said.
Suddenly it will get an awful lot of attention from the public, which was fairly lackadaisical about nuclear power as a policy issue. Walt Patterson
“Because the Government needs votes, it is going to be much more hard pressed to do what people want it to do. It is going to make it much more difficult for promoters to persuade anyone to let them build new plants, and since promoters won’t put their own money in, they have got to wait for the taxpayers’ guarantee – and it’s going to be much more difficult to get the taxpayers’ support.
“It could be a serious blow for the nuclear power industry.”
But the UK Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, Keith Parker, said that the nuclear industry in the UK would ensure that lessons were learnt from the catastrophe in Japan and he remained confident.
“Nuclear power stations are some of the most robust buildings ever built – and training and safety culture in the nuclear industry is excellent. The chances of a similar earthquake and tsunami happening in Northern Europe are thankfully extremely remote. Independent nuclear regulation in the UK is extremely stringent. The regulator has said that it is confident that the UK’s fleet of nuclear power reactors and operators are prepared appropriately for any seismic activity that could be anticipated in the UK.
Read more in the Channel 4 News Special Report on the Japan crisis
“We remain confident in the UK’s nuclear future and are very keen to see the outcome of the report which will be prepared by the Chief Nuclear Inspector on the implications of the situation in Japan.”
Ian Hore-Lacy, spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, told Channel 4 News it was too early to say much about the incident in Japan, which his organisation was working to understand.
He said the nuclear incidents were a “high profile sideshow” on a “monumental disaster” in which thousands have died, compared to ten injuries caused by the blasts at the plant.
“Perspective is important,” he said.
In terms of the long term impact on the nuclear industry, he added: “Whether the nuclear industry will proceed – why not? These are three old reactors that have had misadventures due to particular vulnerabilities. It looks like they will be written off and nobody is building anything like this today. So what’s the problem?
“We are saying don’t panic about this circumstance – things appear to be reasonably under control although there could be other surprises. But also don’t panic with regards to the long-term nuclear future.”
A post-nuclear future?
"Make no mistake, the disintegration of the four nuclear reactors at Fukushima represents a turning point for the world, writes Channel 4 News Presenter Jon Snow.
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...
Read more from Jon Snow on Japan: how will Fukushima crisis affect world's nuclear future?
But many remain convinced that the public perception of nuclear power could be irrevocably damaged. Mr Patterson said this could “spike the guns of the nuclear enthusiasts in the civil service that have been beating the drum for new nuclear plants in the UK.”
However he said he hoped that any move away from nuclear fuel would not go back to fossil fuels, and instead focus on efficiencies. In fact he is going in to discuss this with the Department of Energy and Climate Change this week, he said.
“The whole nuclear thing has been a terrible distraction from what we should be doing – firstly getting serious about the extravagant amount of wastage in the electricity and gas industries. We have known for decades that we can do better – this will add renewed urgency to that.”
Mr Patterson – who warned in the 1970s that water-cooled nuclear reactors were inherently dangerous, and repeated his warning on Channel 4 News over the weekend – said he hoped people would take renewable energy more seriously.
“At least we know you can’t get contaminated by a wind farm,” he said. “That’s the tabloid view, but that aspect of public perception has quite an influence on policy.”
He added: “If we are really concerned about climate, why pick the slowest, most expensive, narrowest, most inflexible and riskiest option available? I have just meant financial risk when talking about nuclear in the past, but now that includes a safety risk as well.”
The campaign group Greenpeace said it hoped renewable energy would become a more viable option in the light of events in Japan.
In a statement, Greenpeace Executive Director John Sauven told Channel 4 News: “It is right that the Government begins to consider what this means for the UK’s own energy plans.
“In opposition Chris Huhne stated clearly that the success of Britain’s wind power industry made proposed new nuclear plants redundant. He recently shifted position in Government, but we hope he’ll now put all his effort into ensuring Britain maintains its internationally-competitive lead in safe offshore wind, wave and tidal power.”