Mizu Nishikawa-Toomey discusses the risks and challenges surrounding the past and potential future use of nuclear energy
The number of nuclear power reactors operating in Japan was an impressive 54 before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. After the disaster in 2011, all of the reactors were closed down and as of 2016 only 2 have been given the go ahead to reopen.
Japan certainly is not alone in weaning off nuclear power. Germany is well on its way to shutting down all of its 14 nuclear power plants and aims to have them all closed by 2022. Spain and Switzerland have banned the construction of new nuclear plants.
The question is, is this really a step in the right direction? Or, are these countries simply continuing to be manipulated like puppets, by oil?
Last month, I attended a seminar at the House of Commons to try and find what some of the leading experts on nuclear power thought about the future of the controversial energy source. The seminar was organised by one of UCL’s Honorary Research Fellow from the Energy Institute, Paul Dorfmann.
The Houses of Parliament
After passing through parliament’s stringent airport-like security, I was directed through an intricate maze of historic looking corridors and rooms. The interior resembled an architectural love child an Oxford College and the Sistine chapel. When I finally arrived at the conference room, I found Naoto Kan, the ex-Prime Minister of Japan, who was still Prime Minister at the time of the Fukushima incident, sitting with his translation headphones on at the speakers’ table.
Inevitably, Kan knew every detail about the Fukushima nuclear disaster. He recounted how a series of fortunate coincidences stopped the leakage from being a lot worse than it could have been. There was a significant risk of melting of the fuel rods, which thankfully did not occur. If it had, it would have meant the radiation zone would have extended far further, and devastatingly, to Tokyo. If this had actually happened, it would have displaced a total of 50 million people. This would have meant a number of Japanese refugees that numbered 10 times the population of London.
As of 2015, 220,000 Japanese refugees of the Fukushima disaster are still not allowed to return to their homes, due to the radiation levels remaining high. That’s 10 times the number of Syrian refugees the U.K has pledged to take in by 2020, to put the scale of this catastrophe into further context.
Ex-Prime Minisiter of Japan, Naoto Kan
The current U.K liability of nuclear power is £134 million. This would definitely not be enough to cover a spillage the size of the Fukushima disaster, which is estimated to have cost £73 billion pounds in damages. As Professor Paul Dorfmann said,
“In the U.K, there is significant political heft behind nuclear, which is difficult to understand. However, the reality is this; Germany – the most scientific and technologically advanced and industrially successful country in all of Europe, in six years time will have no nuclear plants, and will go towards a renewable future.”
In contrast to this, Bill Gates is a prominent environmentalist who thinks there is a place for nuclear power as a primary energy source in the future. In his spare time, as well as jumping over swivel chairs for journalists, he helps to run Terrapower, a nuclear reactor design company that aims to revolutionise nuclear power.
The average family, over a lifetime, produces an amount of nuclear waste equivalent to the size of a golf ball. The aim of Terrapower is to further reduce nuclear waste by using it as a source of fuel. The Terrapower reactor is designed to be built in the ground, and to be enclosed until all the fuel inside has been burnt out. This reduces the need for refuelling or removing any waste, making these new reactors safer than the ones we currently use. Nevertheless, the company has not been given the permission to build any of its prototype reactors as of today. One thing is certain however: if large scale use of nuclear power is going to be implemented in the U.K, there needs to be huge changes to the way nuclear power stations and waste systems are built to minimise risk of leakage.
Moving from fossil fuels to nuclear energy as well as to renewables poses large technical problems and much new infrastructure need to be built. Since 50 of Japan’s nuclear power plants were forced to shut down, the country has kept up with the energy demand with solar power. These solar panels now contribute 20 million kwh of energy to the grid, equivalent to the energy output of 20 nuclear power plants.
So, would the U.K need to experience a nuclear disaster on the scale of Fukushima before it seriously considers switching to renewable energy? Or can we learn from the successes of other countries that continue to support their renewable energy sectors, and pave the way forward for sustainable energy production?
Featured image credit: Wikipedia