The Fukushima blues come to the UK
In my last blog post I talked about how catastrophic the Fukushima nuclear accident was. Now, after two months, it is even more catastrophic than I first thought, as the latest information dribbling out about the accident indicates that there has been very severe nuclear core meltdown resulting in: at least one, and probably multiple, breaches of primary containment, and at least one, probably multiple, breaches of secondary containment, one massive spent fuel pool explosion due to the fuel going ‘recritical’, and there is still massive and continuing leakage of radioactive substances from the reactors into the groundwater, seawater, and air resulting in widespread and increasing accumulation of radioactivity over large areas of Japan, including the Tokyo metropolitan area. And the crisis is still not at an end: attempts to control the reactors are still badly hampered by massive radioactive contamination of the reactor sites, the inability to restore adequate cooling systems, the inaccuracy of the original monitoring equipment inside the reactors and control rooms due to earthquake and tsunami damage, and the lack of specialist equipment and personnel that the Japanese have had, for most of this time, for dealing with a nuclear disaster of this magnitude. The knock-on effects of the disaster for electric power generation generally has contributed significantly to the recent collapse in industrial production and in the subsequent negative growth in the Japanese economy, which just exacerbates the overall financial vulnerability of an economy mired in excessive sovereign debt.
Just about all that has happened at Fukushima was never regarded as possible according to most nuclear authorities. The nightmare scenario of four nuclear reactors, all next to each other, all going out of control, and leaking radioactivity continuously over many months was just considered impossible. But the impossible has happened, has not ended, and might even get worse if new explosions of incidents of ‘recriticality’ occur. And the radioactive contamination has not just affected Japan, but now also the entire northern hemisphere, which will lead to illness and deaths from such contamination wherever people have had the misfortune to ingest or come into contact with minute particles of radioactive dust in soils, food, water, etc. Fukushima is now far, far worse than Chernobyl because of its sheer scale, its longevity, and its continuing and accumulating effects in a much more densely populated part of the world, although as usual various nuclear and government authorities are doing their best to downplay the seriousness of the situation. For example, the Japanese authorities have allowed schoolchildren to go back to school even in areas that are still accumulating excessively high levels of radiation, and have been very slow to enlarge the evacuation zones around Fukushima and to evacuate them fully. And all of this need not have happened at all, as there were plenty of scientists and campaigners in Japan over the last few decades warning that building nuclear power stations in earthquake and tsunami prone areas was too dangerous, and the design standards were known, even by some of the engineers designing them, to be way below the standards required by the worse case scenarios that some experts realised needed to be taken into consideration in the design stage.
And yet the British government will continue to try to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, declaring them to be ultra safe and that the UK is an area where devastating natural phenomena like Japanese-style tsunamis are too unlikely to worry about! The UK government can be this confident partly because the HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Inspections has declared in his Interim Report on the implications of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami for the UK nuclear industry:
The direct causes of the nuclear accident, a magnitude 9 earthquake and the associated 14 metre high tsunami, are far beyond the most extreme natural events that the UK would be expected to experience. We are reassuringly some 1000 miles from the edge of a tectonic plate, where earthquake activity is more common and severe.
Yet a quick look at Wikipedia in the ‘Tsunamis in the UK’ entry confirms that tsunamis have hit the UK in the past, and in recent times too, in 1607 and 1755, and is at risk from future tsunamis, particularly from one triggered by fresh volcanic eruptions in the Canary Islands. Indeed a tsunami, that was 21 metres high, far bigger than the tsunami that hit Fukushima, hit the UK in 6100 BC caused by the Storegga Slide off Norway. We might be a long way from the edge of a tectonic plate, but we are on the edge of an ocean riven by tectonic plate edges and volcanic islands, and tsunamis can travel vast distances across oceans, even ones as big as the Pacific Ocean. And most of our nuclear power stations are situated at, or very near, the coast, at very low elevations. It is simply the height of hubris to claim that UK nuclear power stations are free from potential tsunami damage. It only takes one tsunami to create one nuclear accident of such severity that massive, catastrophic damage is done to people, homes, and livelihoods in an extremely densely populated country such as the UK is.
A devastating tsunami hitting the UK might be perceived by the UK authorities as impossibly remote to worry about, but a tsunami-damaged nuclear reactor is such a dangerous scenario, as Fukushima proves, that it is simply insane to even contemplate having nuclear reactors at all, let alone ones that are on the coast, close to sea level. Catastrophic consequences from very low-risk events means that even very low-risk events must be protected against, and certainly built into the design standards for nuclear reactors, if you are going to have the damned things. But then again, I just have an acute case of the Fukushima blues…