Who’s really fibbing about Fukushima?
The way greens tried to play up the accident was far more shocking than ministers’ attempts to ‘play it down’.
Last week’s revelation that UK government departments were in touch with nuclear energy companies about how to handle public discussion of the accident at Fukushima has been greeted with loud cries of ‘collusion’ by sections of the media and critics of nuclear power. In truth, the really dodgy spin in the aftermath of Fukushima emanated from anti-nuclear campaigners. The problem is not that the government has been defending nuclear, but that it hasn’t defended nuclear nearly enough.
Last Thursday, the Guardian reported that 80 emails between British government officials and the nuclear industry had been released under Freedom of Information requests. The emails revealed that just two days after the tsunami-caused accident at the Japanese nuclear power plant, an official at the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) wrote an email with the subject ‘Nuclear Lines Safety of Nuclear’: ‘This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally’, the email said. ‘We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear.’ The only shocking thing about this email is the public-school prose, chaps.
Later, there were discussions about a ‘joint communications and engagement strategy aimed at ensuring we maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations and nuclear new-build policy in light of recent events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant’.
Tory MP and leading green Zac Goldsmith has condemned the exposed communications, saying the government had ‘no business doing PR for the industry’. A Greenpeace spokesperson described them as ‘scandalous collusion’.
Guardian environment editor John Vidal provided a suitably conspiratorial summary: ‘What the emails show is a weak government, captured by a powerful industry colluding to at least misinform and very probably lie to the public and the media. When the emails were sent, no one, least of all the industry and its friends in and out of government, had any idea how serious the situation at Fukushima was or might become.’ Vidal argues that ‘an area of around 966 square kilometres near the power station is now probably uninhabitable for generations; there is a strong likelihood that children living in or near Fukushima were exposed to radiation internally; the costs run possibly to hundreds of billions of dollars’.
Vidal is as wrong as it is possible to be. Government and industry haven’t tried to ‘spin one of the biggest industrial catastrophes of the last 50 years’ because there has been no disaster at Fukushima. There has been a serious and messy accident that has left a mess, which is now stable if not exactly under control and which will take many years to clean up. Nobody has died as a result of radiation leaks and, given the level of leaks involved, few, if any, are likely to. Compare that to the natural disaster of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which left well over 20,000 people dead, flattened whole towns and left many homeless.
As for a large area around the plant being ‘uninhabitable’, it is worth noting that many thousands of people have worked at Chernobyl since the accident there in 1986 and continue to do so. The idea that the area around Fukushima will be ‘uninhabitable’ is almost certainly alarmist nonsense. Given that radiation has been released into the environment, it would be highly surprising if children had not ingested at least some. But, as an expert at the Dalton Institute in Manchester told the Guardian: ‘What we’re seeing here is residual caesium that will be around for quite a while. But, given the circumstances, the levels quoted in the survey are not particularly alarming.’
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Since the accident at Fukushima in March, alarmist nonsense has been the order of the day, best epitomised by the rapid retreat from nuclear in some countries. Germany, Switzerland and Italy have all decided to end nuclear programmes or chosen not to start one. Yet the Fukushima plant offers few lessons for how to move forward. The plant was opened in 1971, based on a 1960s American design. Modern nuclear designs are much safer, designed to shut down automatically even if electricity supplies were to be cut in the manner that happened in Japan. While some in Europe have got cold feet about nuclear, there are 65 nuclear power plants under construction in other parts of the world.
There are lessons to be learned, of course, about nuclear plant siting and safety, but there is nothing about Fukushima that should stop us from pressing ahead with new nuclear plants. A motorcar built today is very much safer than one built in 1971 - thanks to seatbelts, airbags, windscreens with safety glass, safety ‘cages’ to protect passengers in collisions, better brakes, and so on. Likewise, nuclear power stations are much safer, too. Decisions about nuclear should be made on the same basis as any other energy technology: cost, reliability, security of supply, and so on. Taking these factors into account, nuclear seems a good choice as part of a mixture of energy sources.
The problem in Britain has been the mealy-mouthed approach of politicians. Britain’s current stock of nuclear power stations is on its last legs. The stations at Hunterston and Hinkley Point, for example, are almost as old as the one at Fukushima, although they are of a different design. But successive governments have procrastinated about giving the go-ahead for new nuclear for so long now that even if the plants are built, there will be a considerable timelag between the closure of the oldest plants and the opening of new ones. That energy gap will be filled by coal and gas or imported electricity from, ironically, French nuclear power stations.
While going hell-for-leather to support wind power - which is expensive and unreliable at present, even if that might change in the future - UK governments have failed to back nuclear, something which is clean, safe and much more reliable than renewables, at least for now. Ultimately, we’re going to need lots more energy, generated in a variety of ways. So isn’t it about time ministers and government officials stopped sneaking around like they were up to no good and made a bold, positive case for nuclear - and put the anti-nuclear lobby’s dodgy spindoctors in their place?
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.