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Could Japan's nuclear crisis happen here?

PUBLISHED: 14:57 15 March 2011

The threat of a nuclear meltdown in Japan have sparked questions about the industry in this country

The threat of a nuclear meltdown in Japan have sparked questions about the industry in this country

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The Japanese earthquake and tsunami have threatened to set off a devastating nuclear chain reaction. Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe asks what now for the industry in this country.

The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in the north-east of Japan is a disaster on an unimaginable scale.

Villages, towns and cities have been swept away, thousands of people are feared dead or are missing; the nation is struggling to come to terms with the devastation nature has inflicted.

But Japan is not only trying to cope with the aftermath of that: also, there is the very real threat of a nuclear catastrophe.

The Japanese have prided themselves on being the most prepared country in the world to cope with the after-effects of tremors.

But, with scientists battling to prevent a potential nuclear meltdown at the reactor in Fukushima, quest-ions are again being asked world-wide about nuclear power safety.

In Britain, the government is looking at a new generation of nuclear fuel generators to meet the country’s energy needs. But some are asking whether, in the light of the events in the Far East, it should think again and say no to nuclear power.

Charles Barnett, chairman of the Shutdown Sizewell Campaign, said the situation in Japan was a wake-up call about the perils of nuclear technology. “It’s a warning to us all,” he added. “It’s not likely that we will ever get an earthquake of that intensity in the UK or a tidal wave of that magnitude, but the threat of a terrorist attack is very real.

“East Anglia could be turned into a nuclear desert. I don’t think we will be affected by what has happened in Japan – it is too far away – but it is a wake-up call.”

Bailie George Regan, chairman of pressure group Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA), believes events in Japan have implications for this country, too. “Japan has one of the most advanced nuclear safety systems in the world, but authorities are clearly struggling to deal with the impact of the devastating natural disaster on the nuclear reactors,” he said. “What is clear is this, though: if a wind turbine or a solar panel or combined heat and power plant fell down or broke due to a natural disaster, it would not be necessary to evacuate 170,000 people or pump gallon after gallon of sea-water in to try and cool a reactor, and it would not leave the possibility of environmental catastrophe.

“The UK government should ponder this in its dramatic push for new nuclear build.”

His solution is a new generation of renewable energy. And yet, as has become clear in Norfolk, companies struggle to have their applications approved for onshore wind farms.

And anyway, could enough energy ever be produced through wind power?

The events in Japan amount to a setback to the nuclear industry, which was enjoying a renaissance as public fears about nuclear safety had faded, along with memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States and Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Many countries, including Britain, plan new nuclear power plants, regarding nuclear as a clean alternative to expensive and dwindling oil and gas reserves.

But in other parts of Europe, some governments are already getting nervous. German chancellor Angela Merkel said a decision last year to extend the life of the country’s 17 nuclear power stations would be suspended for three months while the country examined how to accelerate the “road to the age of renewable energy”.

Switzerland has suspended its plans to build and replace nuclear plants. And Austria’s environment minister called for atomic stress-tests to make sure Europe’s nuclear facilities were “earthquake-proof”.

That said, nuclear power accounts for 16pc of Russia’s electricity generation and the Kremlin has set a target to raise its share to a quarter by 2030.

To do that, it would have to build a total of 40 new reactors.

In Poland, prime minister Donald Tusk has said the country will stick to its plans to build two nuclear power plants and have the first one running by 2022.

Meanwhile, safety at the Japanese power stations has been praised by engineer Len Green, who worked at both the Sizewell A and B power stations on the Suffolk coast as well as other reactors in eastern Europe, including Chernobyl.

The 72-year-old, who still lives in Suffolk and has 40 years of experience in the industry, said: “The reactor shut down absolutely correctly: it was perfect. I have nothing but admiration for the way the Japanese have handled the situation. What you have got left is a lot of residual heat – if you turn off a boiling kettle it is still hot. The problem has been how to keep it cool.

“Has there been a leak of radiation? No. Has there been radiation into the environment? Yes. It’s been deliberately put there because the risks were considered small. They evacuated the area and the amount of radiation was small; they needed to vent the reactor to keep the pressure under control. People will understandably be concerned, but we will not get a situation like Chernobyl.”

Last year, the UK government gave the green light to eight sites for new nuclear power plants.

So far, energy secretary Chris Huhne appears to be holding the line, with little sign that he is going cool on nuclear, stating only that the UK would be looking at the lessons that could be learned.

The key difference in this country is that we don’t have the kind of earthquakes unleashed on Japan.

But, if the Japanese reactors do reach meltdown, the political pressure on the government could yet place another, unforeseen, test on its resolve and start to raise more questions about this country’s nuclear future.

shaun.lowthorpe@archant.co.uk

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