Wednesday, March 16, 2011...10:54 am

Nuclear power panic – why we need to protect UK nuclear plants from earthquakes. Or not

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In response to the containment breach at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a predictable flurry of panicky “safety” measures elsewhere. According to the Metro:

Tests will be carried out on Britain’s nuclear plants as part of a safety crackdown in the wake of the radioactivity leak in earthquake-hit Japan

Because, of course, a nuclear disaster caused by an enormous earthquake in a geologically unstable part of the world has immediately raised the risks of a disaster here. We must be shown to act quickly and decisively to ensure the safety of our own population from an earthquake-induced nuclear breach.

Ah – no. Here’s Greenpeace, making the key point:

It is important for Europeans to realise that you don’t need a big earthquake to cause a nuclear catastrophe

Uh – actually, it looks like you really do need to have a big earthquake to cause a nuclear disaster. Without the earthquake, the nuclear plant in Japan would have quite happily chugged along, producing electricity and not blowing up. In all likelihood.

This is just knee-jerk safety theatre – if our nuclear plants were not especially dangerous before, they’re not especially dangerous now. EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger is quoted as saying “There are high European safety standards already.” Well – then we don’t need this crowd-pleasing – but probably pointless –  series of tests.

And if we do need them – then logically our standards aren’t high enough. So what would have happened if Japan’s earthquake hadn’t hit? Do we only create safety standards in reaction to catastrophic natural events?

This is all nonsense – and the media should call it to account.


  • You’re right. There were 55 operating nuclear plants in Japan. A massive earthquake took out only 4, on one site – and that’s because a Tsunami followed the earthquake and disabled the generators that powered the pumps. The plants automatically powered down when the earthquake struck, exactly as they were supposed to.

    We should learn from the current problems in Japan, to produce even safer designs. That doesn’t mean though, that the existing ones aren’t safe.

  • Where nuclear’s concerned, human beings can’t ‘do’ calm, rational and analytical.

    In fact, we can’t really do these things at all. As countless studies, books and psychological experiments have shown, people are pathetically inept when it comes to evaluating risk and cost/benefit in the complex modern environment. Our stone-age brains aren’t up to it.

    There is already a highly (to most folks) counter-intuitive argument – it seems to me – that the Fukushima horror story is anything but a demonstration of nuclear power’s lethal fallibility. It goes like this:

    The Japanese built this power station to withstand an earthquake of an 8.5 magnitude… max. When it was hit by a size 9 quake AND a tsunami, it didn’t go immediately into meltdown.

    Yes, there’s a crisis. Yes, there’s radiation leakage. There may well be much larger radioactive emissions in days to come.

    But most analysts (even the most pessimistic) acknowledge that a disaster of Chernobyl scale ain’t gonna happen. The design of the Japanese reactors, albeit old by western standards, has still proven safer than Chernobyl’s. One can even paint this as, if not a triumph, then certainly a vindication of modern reactor design: Despite the very worst that Nature could throw at it, this power station didn’t provoke – and won’t provoke – a cataclysmic nuclear disaster. And the very latest passively-cooled nuclear reactors are an order of magnitude safer than Fukushima.

    I hate to call future events, but it’s only going with the majority expert view and provable historical fact to predict that any further radiation releases, even in the worst-case scenario, won’t cause death and/or disease on anything like as grand a scale as gloomy media pundits always predict. Even Chernobyl – the grandfather of nuclear disasters – ended up causing far less disease and ill-health than people feared at the time. According to an in-depth World Health Organisation report, total fatalities as a direct result of radiation from the day of the accident in 1986 until 50 years later will be approx 4,000. That’s 80 deaths per year, on average. As the manager of the WHO’s radiation programme points out: “The health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared.”

    In the UK, about 2,500 people die in road traffic every year (drivers and/or pedestrians). In 50 years, that’s 125,000 people – more than 30 times more than Chernobyl. We deplore and lament every one of those road deaths. We do everything we can to reduce their number – which, thankfully, has been on a downward trend for years. But nobody’s arguing that the internal combustion engine must be banned. Or that the maximum speed on all UK roads should be 10mph. Why? Because we accept – whether or not we’ve seriously thought about it – that some road deaths are the inevitable price to pay for motorised mobility. You can’t have one without the other.

    We are apparently unable to accept that some risk – and yes, some deaths – are an inevitable price to pay for keeping the lights on. And keeping ourselves fed, clothed, industrialised… and unsubmerged by rising seawater provoked by global warming.

    But hey, I should save my breath. This analysis will NEVER make it into pub discussions anywhere. It will NEVER be cited officially as a reason to support nuclear power. It will NEVER change anything.

    Because nuclear power is Always Bad. Get over it already.