Does Fukushima spell the end for nuclear power?
Professor Peter Styles examines the ramfications of meltdown in Japan and suggests all is not lost for nuclear in Europe
As the scale of the work required to stabilise and secure the Fukushima Daiichi reactors goes on with much still to do and little sign yet of completion, the world's nuclear nations - both weapons and non-weapons states - are cogitating on what this means for peaceful nuclear power. Indeed, Chris Huhne has requested that Mike Weightman, chief inspector of nuclear installations in the UK, reports on the implications for the British nuclear industry of the accident at Fukushima.
He will certainly have to ponder long and hard as to whether extending the life of ageing stations is a good or a bad idea. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already announced a three-month moratorium on the extension of nuclear power plant lifespans. And French Premier François Fillon has also proposed a full audit of France's nuclear installations, to restore the previously strong Gallic confidence in nuclear technology as 75 per cent of France's energy is nuclear.
This is at a time when low carbon energy solutions are desperately required to stabilise climate change and underpin development in more than 50 new countries, which have expressed a wish to consider peaceful nuclear power. Many of these aspirants have little or no access to fossil fuels and renewables are not seen as adequate for their needs as yet - which drives them towards nuclear energy as a solution for their energy hungry populations. Even today, more than 1.6 billion people have no electric supply.
They are, of course, entitled to do this as they are signatories to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - which enshrines the right to assistance in developing peaceful nuclear power as a reward for foreswearing nuclear weapons. Despite the sequence of events, which devastated Honshu, some green soothsayers like George Monbiot - say nothing of James Lovelock who has long advocated nuclear energy - do not see this as a complete catastrophe on the part of Japan. And they have gained some confidence that even old nuclear reactors can more or less withstand even the largest tectonic events.
Would you legitimately compare the 1960 Ford Anglia to the 2011 Toyota Prius? So why compare GE's reactor design of 41 years ago with proposed new build designs. Even Jonathan Porrit concedes that Fukushima has not radically changed the case either for or against nuclear power, despite the occurrence of the fifth largest earthquake since the invention of the seismograph by James Milne in 1880 - in Tokyo as it happens - and the subsequent tsunami.
It is never quite that simple of course, as two major nuclear concerns happen to coincide at Fukushima - where as well as generating power, spent nuclear fuel is stored in ponds at the reactor while Japan decides how to deal with it. The questions of new nuclear build and disposal of radioactive waste are pointed up in completely disparate ways here. While nuclear and aspiring nuclear countries rightly ponder long and hard about how to design the failsafe reactor and whether we should explore the purportedly safer Thorium cycle rather than just the Uranium cycle, we need to accelerate the process of deep geological disposal. Even, perhaps, speculate as to whether this should not be a country's own singular responsibility, if they end up with such significant tectonic events as to make nowhere appropriate for construction of a geological disposal facility.
People ask the question all of the time - surely it is not safe to put nuclear waste underground? It is certainly safer than storing it above ground on top of your reactor in a country where magnitude nine earthquakes and associated tsunamis occur. And where on earth do you think we get uranium from? We mine it from underground ore bodies and, in most cases, the ore we extract is much more radioactive than the greater part of the volume of waste we are trying to deal with – which is intermediate level waste.
If Australia, which despite being one of the principal exporters of uranium ores is vehemently anti-nuclear, had proceeded with the proposed Project Pangaea - we might have put some of the waste back down those very same mines. While Obama vacillates about how to deal with the US's spent fuel, Sweden has recently agreed to site its GDF at a site in Forsmark - agreed through a volunteer process. And the UK is participating in such a volunteer process now with the West Cumbria Partnership.
A little known fact is that, for a variety of reasons, the UK has the largest civil store of plutonium at more than 100 tons. Sir David King, the former UK government Chief Scientist, concurs with a previous Royal Society report on the fate of Plutonium and categorically recommends the formation of this into mixed oxide – or uranium and plutonium fuels. These can be burnt in some existing power stations and should be a feature of any new build reactors, to remove the threat of rogue states and terrorists acquiring any of this most potent material in terms of nuclear weapons proliferation.
It is facile to believe that there any easy answers to providing secure energy supplies for an exponentially growing global population and it is very likely that nuclear energy will play a major part, but there are two major truths which emerge. Firstly, do not start a nuclear reactor programme without a clear picture of what natural processes might impinge on its safety and security - the two are not the same. And do not progress without a very clear "whole life cycle" plan as to what you will do in terms of decommissioning and disposal of fuel and associated radioactive wastes. Secondly, it is perhaps impossible that every nuclear aspirant country can support the technological processes of uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication and reprocessing - which will be required to build and operate a new nuclear programme. To say nothing of the construction of a secure safe geological disposal facility for the far end of the cycle.
The political implications of this internationalisation of the whole nuclear fuel cycle are, of course, enormous. But this nettle must now be firmly grasped as anthropogenic climate change certainly knows no boundaries and it might be appropriate if Europe were to lead the way.
Peter Styles is professor of environmental geophysics at Keele University, in the UK