Last week Japan was hit by a an earthquake which has had devastating effects on the country and its residents – I think I speak for everyone on my team when I say our thoughts go out to all individuals that have been affected by this catastrophe.
Most of you will also know that the natural disaster affected the nuclear power stations in the country causing an added threat to residents. The event has sparked interesting conversations in the UK and globally about our dependency on nuclear power stations.
The Guardian has reported that as natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis are becoming more common, in their opinion owing to climate change, nuclear reactors are becoming even more vulnerable and therefore a riskier energy alternative. However, the Times have taken a different perspective on the matter at hand, with Matt Ridley reporting that nuclear energy is “pretty harmless and its environmental footprint is minuscule”. He suggests that the problem with nuclear power is not safety but rather the full cost of nuclear electricity, decommissioning, waste storage and insurance which makes nuclear power uncompetitive in any free market.
But actions speak louder than words as nations reconsider their position on nuclear energy. Germany’s Angela Merkel has temporarily shut down seven of the country’s nuclear power plants. Only a few months back, against much controversy, plans were made to extend the life of its older nuclear power plants to 2021, while it was agreed more recent ones should stay online for an additional 14 years. Moreover, the Chinese government announced on Wednesday that it too has suspended approval for nuclear power plants, putting the brakes on a nuclear development programme that accounts for almost 40% of the world’s planned reactors.
The revival of the debate about the safety of nuclear power has also affected nuclear operators’ shares, which have declined sharply as investors grow concerned over the industry’s prospects and governments’ decisions to halt plans for a new generation of nuclear plants. European markets were especially affected with Areva SA’s shares sinking 9.6%, as RWE and E.On AG fell 5.3%.
So, what now for the future of nuclear power in the UK? A report commissioned by Chris Huhne, which will be compiled by Dr. Mike Weightman, the chief nuclear inspector, will analyse whether Japan’s nuclear crisis will have repercussions on Britain’s investment into a new generation of reactors. As far as I’m concerned, the conclusions drawn in the report will greatly influence, if not dictate the future of nuclear energy.
However, one could question whether the decisions being made by governments in response to this catastrophe are led by lessons learnt from this event, a knee jerk reaction, or rather a response to the campaigns being led by the millions who have suddenly jumped on the environmental bandwagon. I am not sure that the events have really taught us anything that we didn’t already know about nuclear power, but they have certainly provided a platform to broadcast opinions on the state of our nuclear industry.