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Putting the Brakes on Nuclear Power for a New, Clearer Future

Posted on the 01 November 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Putting the brakes on nuclear power for a new, clearer future

Tsunami destruction in Sendai. Photo credit: Robert De Vido,

More than seven months have passed since the world witnessed with horror the devastating effects of an earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear melt-down that struck Japan in March this year. While the story itself has gradually faded from front page news, currently to be found meandering around the ‘rest of the world’ updates, the impact continues to reverberate in some international circles, sparking intense debate about the future of nuclear power.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole saga has been the variety of responses from world leaders, and also from renowned nuclear physicists, none of whom seem able to agree on either the impact the fall out will have on the environment and population or what the long term implications for the use of nuclear energy will be. Japanese officials are sticking to the agreed rhetoric of containment and non-harmful radiation levels, while visiting scientists from all corners of the globe are churning out data that is, worryingly, in direct contrast. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suspended their entire nuclear development programme pending a full investigation into Fukishima, while British PM David Cameron has just given the green light to the building of a new mixed oxide fuel plant in Britain, despite stiff opposition and the abject failure of the existing one.

Nuclear power has long been hailed as the future of clean and renewable energy, and since the former USSR constructed the world’s first plant in 1957, nearly 500 more have been built worldwide; between them, they account for nearly 7 percent of the world’s energy. However, these plants all utilise the process of nuclear fission, and until nuclear fusion can be achieved to a self-sustaining level there will continue to be concern, debate and, unfortunately, the likelihood of serious incidents occurring. Recent reports suggest that fusion is no longer a distant dream for scientists but in fact may be here within five years; the pause implemented in Germany has arrived at an ideal time and could position them at the front of nuclear fusion development. But for now, international powers need to think long and hard about their future direction on this matter.

The scientists and architects responsible for the design and construction of the Fukishima Power Station claim that it was built within regulation guidelines, and that the necessary modifications have been applied over the subsequent years to maintain its validity. This appears to be true (although there is some debate as to who thought back up generators should be placed above ground and adjacent to said plant), but there is one line of their defence which has been recurrent and which is also, to my mind, somewhat troubling. Apparently, the design is sufficient to withstand the effects of an earthquake measuring up to a magnitude of seven, while a magnitude nine quake such as happened in March was ‘unexpected’.

I have always tended to assume this was down to an innate aversion to risk, which I also assumed was a trait common amongst the species.

Now, I am not a nuclear physicist, or any kind of scientist, and I certainly would not claim to be an expert in these matters, but I am rather adept at staying alive. I have always tended to assume this was down to an innate aversion to risk, which I also assumed was a trait common amongst the species. Clearly not. It is true that my survival choices, such as whether to wait for the flashing green man in spite of an absence of traffic, are somewhat less complex than those faced by international energy providers. But where a substance known to pose potentially the most catastrophic threat mankind has ever faced is concerned, the term ’unexpected’ seems to be a little inadequate. Whether it is determined by historical records or scientific formula is of no relevance; the absence of certainty is a critical omission, particularly when Japan’s geographical location and tectonic frailty are added to the equation.

Until certainty can be applied to such theories, the building of nuclear power plants should be halted, and the phasing out of all those in existence should begin. With the recent discoveries of large scale natural gas fields in Britain and abroad, developments in wind, solar and hydro power, and the ever shortening advent of successful nuclear fusion, any finances ear-marked for nuclear fission developments would be better directed at ensuring a new generation of safe, clean and environmentally-friendly energy sources. Perhaps then our children and grandchildren can be spared the pain and misery of events such as Fukishima – although the price they will already have to pay for their predecessors’ miscalculations remains untold.

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