Environment, Science

The future of nuclear

One year on, ripples of the disaster at Fukushima are still reverberating around the world. The earthquake, estimated to have been nine on the Richter scale (the fifth most powerful since modern records began). This, in turn, triggered the formation of a tsunami which devastated the northern coast of Japan. With over 60,000 people killed, injured or missing, and over a million buildings damaged or destroyed, the wounds of March 2011 will be slow to heal.

However, this catastrophe has had a wider impact beyond the loss of life and economic wreckage, in the form of changing opinions on the future of nuclear energy. As the tsunami ripped through Japanese infrastructure, it also knocked out the electricity connection to the now infamous Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, and flooded rooms containing the emergency generators. This resulted in the shutdown of the pumps circulating coolant water, leading to the uncontrolled heating and eventual meltdown of three nuclear reactors. The subsequent explosions and radiation leakage forced the evacuation of a 20-30km radius around the power plant. In the weeks following the event, traces of the radioactive isotopes iodine and caesium that leaked from Fukushima were detected worldwide, including in the UK, at sites in Glasgow and Oxfordshire.

At the end of May that year, Germany declared it was abandoning its nuclear energy programme, initiating the shutdown of six of its power plants with the remainder to be closed by 2022.

Over the past year, the Japanese government was forced to shut 49 of its power stations, following mounting public pressure, leaving only five still in operation as of January 2012.

This has been followed by an Italian majority vote to remain non-nuclear; Switzerland and Spain banning the construction of new plants and in France, one of the world’s biggest producers of nuclear energy, the political opposition leader, François Hollande, has proposed cutting nuclear power’s electricity contribution by a third by 2025.

However, emerging economic giants India and China have five and 26 new plants under construction respectively, and China isn’t planning to stop there. A further 100 stations are in the pipeline, a hefty addition to nuclear energy production worldwide, considering there are currently 435 reactor units in operation.

This has been mirrored by other big players in the nuclear field, including the Russian Federation, which currently has 10 plants under construction. As for the UK, the planned construction of new power stations by French-owned EDF Energy and British-owned Centrica promises to lead us into a controversial nuclear future, given the apparent shunning of nuclear power by other European countries.

Nuclear power remains an ominous force with the potential to devastate global environmental and public health, especially in regions of seismic unrest, as the Fukushima disaster demonstrated all too clearly. Given the dangers involved, perhaps it is time to come to an international agreement on the role nuclear power has to play in our energy future.

27/03/2012

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