Science

The nuclear reaction: one year on from the Fukushima disaster

Paul Wilkinson assesses the opinion on nuclear, one year on from Fukushima

A year has passed since Japan was hit by a devastating tsunami. You may remember that the disaster was caused by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded and that the death toll was massive. The “megaquake” and tsunami led to hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Luckily, nobody was killed as a direct result of the explosions but the radiation leak meant that thousands of people had to be evacuated. The long-term health effects of the Fukushima incident are hard to know; however, there has been a clear impact on the perception of nuclear power and its position as a long-term solution to fuel shortages.

Within weeks of the Fukushima incident, Germany and Switzerland announced the closure of all their nuclear reactors, Italy voted against nuclear power and China delayed all new nuclear projects. The public, as well as policy makers, seem to have been turned away from the idea of nuclear power becoming a dominant energy source. Before the incident, there was a great number of nuclear power plants proposed. Since then, only a handful have been built. With the fear that we have learnt nothing from Chernobyl, the Fukushima incident has encouraged concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants; no more so than in Japan, where only two of their 54 reactors are actually in operation.

Opinion is divided over whether this fall in demand represents the end of nuclear power, or whether it is nothing more than a temporary blip.

Critics of nuclear are urging that we turn our attention to renewable energy sources. They reject the image of nuclear being an environmentally friendly option.

After all, what is the use of replacing one harmful waste product with another?  They argue that nuclear energy is not cost effective, and more importantly poses too great a risk to human life.

A nuclear accident could cause unparalleled human disaster and leave the environment uninhabitable for generations.

Supporters of nuclear power, however, point out that the reason that the Fukushima incident occurred was that the Fukushima plant was dangerously below safety standards and that it is not representative of nuclear facilities as a whole.

Experts have criticised the Fukushima plant for not having a back-up cooling system (the component that meant the situation couldn’t be controlled), and that they had no tsunami protection measures, despite being in a very vulnerable area.

Supporters point out that many other nuclear plants in Japan did survive the tsunami and earthquake. Many withstood the magnitude 9.0 quake despite not being designed to survive such powerful shocks. In defence of nuclear power, they also point out that new designs for nuclear power plants are much safer.

This begs the question: why didn’t the Fukushima plant have these protective measures in place? And how many other plants are unnecessarily vulnerable to natural disasters?

People are unlikely to be comforted by the fact that the accident could have been prevented, and wasn’t.

Despite the progress of nuclear power being severely halted by the failures at Fukushima, it seems most likely that this isn’t the end of nuclear power. After 1987, when the Chernobyl reactor failed, nuclear power fell out of favour for a decade. In recent years, before Fukushima, there was a renewed interest.

There seems little evidence to suggest that this won’t happen again. Unless renewable energy source technology sees a significant leap forward, governments will return to nuclear power as a solution to reducing carbon emissions and solve potential fuel shortages.

However, there clearly needs to be greater regulations placed on nuclear power plants. There needs to be adequate earthquake and flood protection to ensure that this incident never happens again.

Also, there should be adequate back-up systems to ensure that if something fails, not matter how unlikely, then there is something ready to take its place. If Fukushima has taught us anything, it should be that nuclear power stations have to be forced to provide the highest level of safety precautions.

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