Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Nuclear Power Plant Crisis in Japan

If it wasn’t bad enough for the people of north eastern Japan, that the strongest earthquake in the country’s history, and the second strongest recorded anywhere in the world, followed by a devastating ten metre high tsunami, with probably thousands killed, now two of the country’s nuclear power plants have exploded. Reports are coming in that a third reactor has over-heated and exploded adding to radiation emissions that have led to an exclusion zone being created, and an evacuation of the population in a 20 kilometre radius of the power plants.

Whether a 20 kilometre exclusion zone is large enough has to be called into question, as the US navy has reported detecting low level radiation 160 kilometres off shore from these nuclear installations. Unfortunately, governments and nuclear authorities do not always divulge the full truth about nuclear leaks, with the old USSR supressing accurate information for years about radiation emissions from their nuclear plants, and I remember reading in Tony Benn’s diaries, that when he was Energy minister in the 1970’s, he was informed, by ironically, a Japanese diplomat, that there had been a leak at Britain’s Windscale (now renamed Sellafield) nuclear plant, when he had received no such information in the UK.

Why nuclear power plants were built so close to seismic fault lines as they have been in Japan, defies all sense, and I have read in the British press that some Japanese scientists’ have been warning the authorities about this for years. Japan has been very enthusiastic about nuclear power, and has a plan to increase their capability from a third to a half, of electricity generation over the next few years. But, at what risk?

The whole nuclear power debate in the UK has gone rather quiet lately, with the Lib Dems doing one of their numerous U turns, and now backing the ConDem government’s stance on increasing nuclear power capability here. The last Labour government, also did a volte face and started looking more favourably on the nuclear industry, once it dawned on them that reducing carbon emissions, and so slowing climate change, would be extremely difficult without recourse to nuclear power.

Even some greens like James Lovelock and George Monbiot have sided with nuclear in an effort to halt climate change, and some in the English Green party itself have become advocates of this approach. But nuclear is not carbon free and stocks of uranium, needed to power these plants, is estimated to be fairly low, whilst non uranium based nuclear power is at least fifty years away, if indeed it will ever become feasible.

This debate needs to be reopened, and potential risks need to be reassessed, as well as costs and the disposal of waste. Although the UK is not particularly susceptible to earthquakes, these nuclear installations are always built on the coast, and if the oceans rise as a result of climate change, which seems to be highly likely, the same sort of problems experienced in Japan as a result of the tsunami, could be coming to a town near you.

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