One year on, the consequences of the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant are becoming clearer. Aside from the distress to the displaced people who used to live around the plant, the disaster has also damaged the possibility of a revival of nuclear-powered electricity generation in the UK . Some consider the setback is temporary, and indeed it may be. But in my opinion, the setback will prove fatal.
There are two reasons for my belief. Firstly, the meltdown sequence was completely understood and preventable. Secondly the world has become sceptical about the financial cost of nuclear power.
- Fukushima was a ‘loss of coolant’ (LOC) accident. Despite years of design work, no reactors currently under construction world-wide are immune to a similar LOC accident. The different designs have multiple levels of back-up and different degrees of passive cooling capability, but none of the designs are unconditionally stable against meltdown. There is no reason why nuclear power stations can not be built which are unconditionally incapable of meltdown. But we have chosen not to build them. Why would we do anything so unwise?
- Because building an unconditionally-safe nuclear reactor requires ‘research’. Unfortunately over many decades, the nuclear industry in the UK has (collectively) lost all credibility when it comes to promising the results of ‘research’. When that research was funded by taxpayers it could continue for decades with little to show. The research had to funded by the state because the level risk of the research is beyond even the largest industrial companies. Now that large portions of the industry are privatised, their only viable business option is to promise to build something they have already built and to make relatively minor modifications. These designs are what is on offer to the UK now by the consortia detailed at the end of this article.
Some might point out the damage routinely caused by coal-burning world-wide is dramatically worse than a nuclear accident. I agree! In addition to the greenhouse gas issue, coal-burning causes terrible air pollution, shortening the lives of millions. Also radioactive emissions from coal plants are much larger than those from nuclear plants. And coal-mining destroys the environment on an almost inconceivable scale, and kills hundreds of miners every year. This is all true. But when a coal-fired power station explodes, it cannot cause the evacuation of an entire region for decades. In my view in the UK at least, it is no longer publicly acceptable for a technology to have even that possibility.
So what is going to happen? Well obviously I don’t know.
- In the UK, the recent withdrawal of Eon and RWE reflects the delicacy of investment decisions. This leaves only French and French/Spanish consortia (see appendix below for details). Is it just me, or is it a bid odd to have nuclear power stations in the UK owned and run by French state-owned company? In any case, I predict that over the coming year they too will withdraw, blaming either a lack of capital or a lack of political support. The UK government promises that it will not subsidise nuclear power. However, without government backing, no company can face the uninsurable losses associated with a meltdown, even one like Fukushima in which no one was directly harmed.
- World wide, it seems likely that more vigorous industrial countries, particularly China, will develop new nuclear technology which is intrinsically incapable of meltdown. And in coming decades they may well export it back to us.
Appendix: Details of the UK nuclear consortia from the Financial Times website
EDF/Centrica – Hinkley and Sizewell: EDF Energy paid £12.5bn to buy British Energy, the country’s nuclear generator, in 2008. Together with Centrica, which owns a 20 per cent stake, the company plans to build Britain’s first new reactor at Hinkley Point by 2019. Four new reactors are planned, two at Hinkley Point and two at Sizewell, with a total generation capacity of 6.4GW. France’s Areva will provide its EPR reactor.
Horizon – Wylfa and Oldbury: German utilities Eon and RWE yesterday put Horizon up for sale citing financial constraints, notably in the wake of Germany’s decision to abandon atomic power. The groups had planned to build reactors with generating capacity of at least 6GW at Wylfa and Oldbury. The consortium had been close to choosing the reactor designer, with Areva’s EPR and Toshiba’s Westinghouse AP1000 in the running.
NuGen – Moorside near Sellafield: GDF Suez of France and Spain’s Iberdrola each own half of this venture. Scottish and Southern Energy, a third partner, pulled out last year citing a decision to focus more on renewable energy. The partners plan to develop 3.6GW of power at their Moorside site close to Sellafield in west Cumbria. No design has been chosen yet.