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japan earthquake, politics. nuclear power. fukushima daiichi, radiation, tsunami

UK Nuclear power programme has just gone up in smoke.

     There is a long established protocol for dealing with accidents at nuclear power plants.   First. the authorities insist there is no possibility of radiation escaping and that the public shouldn’t worry.  Then various nuclear experts appear on television saying that this accident shows just how safe nuclear power really is because it can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.   As the reactors explode one by one we are told that the detonations don’t mean much because the nuclear containment vessels cannot be penetrated.   Until they are.  But even then we are told not to worry because any radiation leak will be less than background radiation in the granite city of Aberdeen.  The final act is always the same.  It emerges that nuclear fuel rods have been exposed,  radiation is pouring into the atmosphere, and that there is a potential catastrophe in the making.

   At the striken Fukushima Daiichi plant in northern Japan, selfless power station workers risk their lives to try to put out the nuclear fires.  Last night it emerged that radiation at the nuclear power station had reached at a critical level of  400 millisieverts an hour.  The normal ‘safe’ dosage of radiation is 100 milliseverts A YEAR, according to the World Health Organisation.  The plant managers were reduced to hosing sea water from fire engines onto superheated reactors cores in a desperate attempt to prevent a meltdown . Then one of the fire engines runs out of fuel.

 And so history repeats itself as tragedy as well as farce.   Windscale, 1957, Three Mile Island, 1978 and Chernobyl, 1986 and now in Fukushima Daiichi. This, though, must be the ultimate nuclear nightmare:  a disaster of epic proportions in the country, Japan, which has led the world in the development of supposedly safe nuclear power generation.    We don’t know what is going to be the final fate of Fukushima Daiishi – but one thing we do know for certain:  civil nuclear power is finished. This is the end of the nuclear dream.  It finally died when the third explosion ripped through those innocent-looking concrete blocks on Tuesday 15 March 2011.

   You only need to see the pictures of men in radiation suits holding geiger counters over children.    The UK government might as well cancel its programme for building 10 nuclear power plants because they will never happen.  The public will  never allow them to be located anywhere near population centres and if the government is stupid enough to try, it will find itself engaged in a protracted and bitter legal argument that it simply cannot win.

   As a long standing critic of nuclear power I take no pleasure in this.  I have long argued that nuclear generation is an unreliable and ruinously expensive means of generating electricity.   There is no safe method yet discovered for solving the problem of highly toxic nuclear waste.  Nuclear power stations are vulnerable to  natural disasters and terrorist attack.   I didn’t expect to be proved right in Japan, though.  If any country in the world could harness civil nuclear power it was surely Japan – the one country that has experienced the devastation of nuclear attack.

    However, over the years of relentless lobbying from the nuclear industry, and given the signal failure of politicians to take renewable energy seriously, we had all become cowed into nuclear submission, nuclear quiescence.    Anyone who questioned the viability of nuclear power has been dismissed as a green luddite out of touch with scientific advance.   Didn’t we know that the modern nuclear power stations are ultra-safe?  That accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are impossible now?  We were told that by opposing nuclear power we are allowing the planet to cook just because of a irrational fear of the ultimate green power source.

   I half believed it myself.  I don’t have any prejudice against nuclear fission and I really wanted to believe that it was possible to make them safe.  A get-out-of-jail-free card for climate change. It would clearly the best option for generationg the kind of base load electricity supply that modern society demands without using fossil fuels or generating harmful carbon emission.   Unfortunately though, nuclear power stations have  a habit of emitting something even worse.

  The nuclear industry seems incapable of learning the first lesson of public relations – that if you have bad news you simply have to get it out as early as possible = even at the risk of causing public alarm. The danger of delay is too great.  People cease to believe what they are being told and the there is melt-down in official credibility.

   Anyway, it’s finished now. Over.   The resources that were being channelled into nuclear must now be devoted to real development and exploitation of the only safe and abundant non fossil fuel: wind and wave.  The billions that were going to go into building a new generation of nuclear power plants should go into a crash programme for developing tidal power in the Pentland Firth – the Saudi Arabia of renewables.

   It might take a generation to harness the power of the tides, but the sooner we get started the better.  Nuclear power is over.  It died this week.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


18 thoughts on “UK Nuclear power programme has just gone up in smoke.

  1. I earnestly hope you are way off target with your prognosis – but you're probably right.

    Posted by Barontorc | March 15, 2011, 11:13 am
  2. I feel heart sorry for the people in Japan and what they are going through just now. Those men working to try to contain the nuclear reactors would probably live near the plant so may have family missing in the tsunami.As to nuclear power in the UK, people will claim it has a good safety record but when there is an accident then it is one whose effects are devastating.

    Posted by CWH | March 15, 2011, 11:28 am
  3. You might be right, but that's only because people are very susceptible to ludicrous fearmongering.This was a gigantic event that killed thousands or tens of thousands of people. It was a far from modern reactor (but nice misdirection in implying otherwise, well done). There's some contamination that will no doubt cause some problems, but in the context of the direct effects it's pretty minimal. What's the problem?

    Posted by jasonw | March 15, 2011, 11:37 am
  4. I think if you look into it you will find that renewable energy developments such as tidal are further advanced than you think. There is a system in France which has been working since the 1960s churning out 240 MW per year. And one in Northern Ireland which has been going for 5 years. The prototype was tested in Loch Linnhe in the 1990 I believe.You also have marine energy and there is a major research/development centre based in OrkneyYou have Underground coal gasification and liquifaction – the gas from that can be used to generate energy – the 'clean coal' option. CCS of course eg Longannet and another coalfired power station with CCS planned for Ayrshire. But there is also a lot of research and development going into finding alternative uses for the CO2 emissions from coal-fired stations i.e. look on CO2 as a comodity not as a waste product.And offshore windfarms as well as land based with the possibility of a Europe wide grid system.

    Posted by CWH | March 15, 2011, 11:38 am
  5. "The UK government might as well cancel its programme for building 10 nuclear power plants because they will never happen. The public will never allow them to be located anywhere near population centres and if the government is stupid enough to try, it will find itself engaged in a protracted and bitter legal argument that it simply cannot win."I think you've confused yourself. This is Britain 2011 not Britain 1950. The only way the public will give a crap about this is if they plan to build these power stations on Cheryl Cole or Victoria Beckham. The government will build them, people will grumble, but ultimately they'll shut up and do what they're told.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 15, 2011, 11:53 am
  6. Humankind may have developed the technology to split the atom and with it the ability to produce nuclear power.What it lacks is the wisdom to conclude that there is no moral justification for doing so.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 15, 2011, 12:45 pm
  7. I certainly hope you're right, Iain.In the short term, I anticipate bluster from the Westmidden coalition and another but this time very prompt U-turn "Scottish" [sic] Labour, hopefully just too late to matter for the Scottish general election.

    Posted by Barbazenzero | March 15, 2011, 1:31 pm
  8. I'm sorry, Iain, I just don't buy this. You are using the current example as the proverbial drunk uses the lamppost – for support rather than illumination.Lots of things are dangerous – coal-mining, oil exploration – even living by the sea. We're not going to stop those. Indeed we're told it's the burning of fossil fuels that puts millions at risk from global warming, yet we're not stopping that.What happens to your tidal power when that gets hit by a tsunami? We need to have a variety of sources, nuclear probably needs to be one of them. How many people died at Windscale, at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Yes it's a disaster, yes it's a tragedy, but we need to have a sense of proportion. Why focus on the nuclear power station when so many have been killed, injured or left homeless by the tsunami?You are entitled to oppose nuclear power for whatever reasons, but you should not scaremonger to further your ends.

    Posted by 1971Thistle | March 15, 2011, 1:54 pm
  9. It is true 1971 Thistle that lots of things are dangerous but when they go wrong their effects do not last for tens of thousands of years.

    Posted by CWH | March 15, 2011, 3:27 pm
  10. The rocks will melt with the sunbefore Nuclear power is made redundant you give one example after another but each time just show how Nuclear just goes on.France highest use of nuclear in Europe and the lowest carbon emitters in Europe.

    Posted by Mr. Mxyzptlk | March 15, 2011, 4:31 pm
  11. The rocks will melt with the sunbefore Nuclear power is made redundant you give one example after another but each time just show how Nuclear just goes on.France highest use of nuclear in Europe and the lowest carbon emitters in Europe.

    Posted by Mr. Mxyzptlk | March 15, 2011, 4:31 pm
  12. Which party stopped new nuclear plants being built in Scotland which party invested in renewables ?That would be the SNP so the the argument is vote Green ,Lib Dem ,Tory and get a pro nuclear Labour government or vote SNP and have a SNP with green input government .

    Posted by Conway | March 15, 2011, 7:12 pm
  13. I'm just waiting for Hunterston B to suffer metal fatigue. With the prevailing wind coming from south-west; If that happens then we will all be F****d. They tell me radioactive poisoning is a helluva to die

    Posted by Anonymous | March 16, 2011, 4:14 pm
  14. Nuclear power was never a cheap or even a particularly safe option.There has been statistical and economic sleight of hand all down the line. £3 billion to decommission Dounreay over the next 25 years?! These costs and the costs of disposing of nuclear waste were conveniently forgotten when nuclear's cheapness was being extolled. If even a fraction of the money that has been poured into nuclear over the years had been devoted to not just renewables but efficient carbon capture – as well as energy efficiency measures, especially in ALL new build properties – we wouldn't now be faced with such hard choices. The statistics of those who died AT Chernobyl are – of course – reasonable low. But a radiological protection officer here in Scotland once pointed out to me the patchiness of fallout here, and how it would accumulate more in some places than others, and how exposure to it would certainly have adverse health effects for anyone unlucky enough to be exposed over a period of time. People for many many miles around the plant suffer from ongoing ill health much of it as a result of badly compromised immune systems. Our problem (and the advantage to the nuclear industry) is that the effects are far from immediate and a correlation almost impossible to prove. But on the principle that you can't fool all the people all the time, perhaps now something may change.

    Posted by CC | March 17, 2011, 11:00 pm
  15. Hi Iain: My notes from a recent course I did on Radiation Protection at Glasgow Uni says that the IRR99 limit for radiation workers over 18 years old is now 20mSv per annum.

    Posted by Robert | March 18, 2011, 2:48 pm
  16. Although the official number of deaths resulting from the Chernobyl catastrophy has been put at thirty, the Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates have concluded that twenty years after the event, by using historical data pre and post Chernobyl, deaths that can be directly attributed to the fallout from the cloud of radioactive debris resulting from the explosion stood at approximately 100,000 and was likely to continue to rise into the future.That is understandable given the nature of the incident.Chernobyl is a disaster that is still ongoing.Hundreds of farms in the UK with restriction orders on them to this day.Huge tracts of once arable land contaminated beyond use and will remain so for hundreds of years.130,000 men women and children resettled and banned from returning to their homes.The scottish government has invited interested parties to invest in the huge inexhaustable reserves of green energy around Scotland's shores. They come they see and are impressed. What puts them off are the unrealistically high grid connection charges imposed by the westminster government under New Labour PM Gordon Brown to make (fabricate) the case in favour of the nuclear option.However,if we thought the Lib Dems shadow environment minister Chris Huhne would be true to his beliefs and reverse the vindictive policies of the previous government we were about to be sadly disappointed.This is what he said in Feb 2007 " The doubling of our electricity generation from wind in a little more than a year shows what renewables can do and gives the lie to the need for a new generation of nuclear power [stations]…"Now in power, when asked to put our money where his mouth once was. he declines.A genuine conversion or an act of political expediency?To those who took him at his word an understandable sense of betrayal.The question on many lips long after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl was 'Can we afford a second Chernobyl.'A generation on we are about to find out.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 18, 2011, 4:52 pm
  17. Good to see the thing that you told about to dealing with accidents at nuclear power plants,nuclear power plants are important and have such a great value in the society that dealing can become useful with them,paragraph is good with full of the useful details and will give help a lot in understanding about some objects.

    Posted by Dissertation Writing | March 19, 2011, 6:18 am
  18. 'As a country we no longer have the capability to design, manufacture or build a modern power station, whether nuclear or fossil fired' Quote from 'Professional Engineering' (Dec 2010).Yet the Westminster government insists on going ahead with its programme of nuclear new builds, eight in total, in England. With the likelyhood that Scotland will follow, should there be a change to a Unionist Party led administration in May's Holyrood elections.Whilst there are foreign companies who have stated an interest in building the proposed nuclear power plants; the question remains, 'How can the Westminster government guarantee the safety and integrity of the design chosen?' when it doesn't have the in-house expertise required to undertake the critically important analysis of all aspects of the designs on offer. Ignorance could prove very expensive! in all manner of ways.Proving Liability, in the event of a post commissioning incident, will surely be buried deep in the minutiae of any agreed contract.And should any liability be apportioned to the contractors they will simply bankrupt themselves, leaving all the downside and costs in the lap of 'Mr Jo Public'.It's not worth the carrot. Leave well alone!

    Posted by Anonymous | March 25, 2011, 3:32 pm

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