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The Future of Nuclear Power in the UK

As recently as last October, the former Government gave the go ahead for eight new nuclear power plants to be built at sites in the UK, suggesting that the fear that arrested the development of the nuclear industry in the UK post-Chernobyl had finally subsided.

Most had come to the conclusion that the very real threat from climate change now outweighed the potential threat from a nuclear accident and that nuclear power was the only viable mainstream alternative to fossil fuels, with other clean energy technologies not being sufficiently developed to produce enough power to have a serious impact. Then of course came the Fukushima crisis.

The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant happened as a result of a massive tsunami which flooded the plant. A sea wall was built to withstand a wave of up to 19 feet however the 46 feet high tsunami easily breached it. Even so, serious design flaws were blamed for the extent of the damage, including a failure to build the spent fuel pools high enough above ground and the failure of safety devices.

The cooling system failed, leading to overheating of the nuclear fuel in the reactors and the threat of a meltdown. Such an event could have had consequences similar to the Chernobyl disaster.

Thankfully this event was not as extreme however the fact that Japan, a nation so technologically advanced and with a long history of nuclear power, could have an accident of this nature sent shock waves around the globe. If it could happen in Japan, what about in our own backyards?

German State Elections

Germany has long been Europe’s champion of all alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear power. The Green Party was already against the ongoing nuclear program however and unrest was growing among the electorate. Shortly after the Japanese tsunami, and just as panic was at its height, two German state elections were looming.

In an attempt to appease the anti nuclear lobby Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, announced the closure of seven German nuclear plants however this was not enough and the Green Party won enough votes to form a coalition with her rivals, the Social Democratic Party. The result is that Germany will almost certainly now move away from nuclear toward more stable, “safe” technologies such as wind and solar.

Will Britain continue its Nuclear Program?

Immediately after Fukushima, the Government stated that it would not cause any material delay to the British nuclear program, further details of which were supposed to be announced in June 2011. There has since been a U-turn however, with any decisions now delayed a further three months, until a report is published in September on the Fukushima incident.

The pro-nuclear lobby are quick to point out that the conditions which led to the accident in Japan simply do not exist in Britain. We do not have major earthquakes and do not experience tsunamis, therefore the risks are not the same and we should not be concerned.

Whilst it is true that Britain is geologically stable, there is no doubt that conditions are changing. Floods are becoming more frequent, more dramatic and less predictable. We regularly experience high winds, and now even tornadoes. As well as these factors, there are other concerns.

At a time when money is hard to come by, the fear is that corners will be cut in an attempt to reduce the costs associated with building nuclear power plants. As well as this, Britain has never been more susceptible to the threat of terrorist attack. More nuclear facilities equals more potential targets.

Secrecy surrounding the Nuclear Program

It is the threat from terrorism which causes the Government to be so secretive about nuclear facilities. They claim, possibly quite correctly, that it is necessary that information about nuclear power is protected by the Official Secrets Act for reasons of national security however it is this secrecy which causes such concern. Details of security breaches, safety failures or design defects are not publicised.

In order to reassure the public that the nuclear option is the best option, the Government may need to be more open in future.

So What Will Happen Next?

In this writer’s opinion, the nuclear power program in Britain will not be delayed for very long. The challenge for the nuclear lobby is to convince us that the necessary lessons have been learnt from Fukushima and the challenge for Government is to press home the point that without nuclear, climate change cannot be controlled and fuel prices will spiral out of control.

Whether pressing ahead with nuclear is right is an entirely different matter. Cost will escalate now both in respect of insurance and dealing with the inevitable increase in regulation. Relying on nuclear will retard the development of other energy sources such as wind and wave power. The problem of dealing with waste has not been satisfactorily solved and there do not appear to be any answers on the horizon.

However minimal the risk of a Chernobyl scale accident in Britain, a risk will always remain and such an event in, say, the South East, which would lead to the evacuation of London for perhaps 100 years, would probably turn Britain into a third world country.

2 Comments to The Future of Nuclear Power in the UK

  1. Layne Bennink's Gravatar Layne Bennink
    March 29, 2012 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    This article has inspired me to start working on my own blog

  2. Lauren's Gravatar Lauren
    August 17, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

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