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.