The Fukushima effect
The nuclear accident in Japan brought to the surface the Western world’s irrational fear of this most modern technology.
Britain breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday. The question on everyone’s lips had been answered. Following the Fukushima accident in Japan, was it safe to continue using nuclear power here in the UK? The answer from chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman and his team, who had spent months undertaking research, was ‘yes’.
Of course, that finding didn’t actually come as a shock to anyone. And not just because the interim report, published earlier in the year, had already made it clear that the UK nuclear-power industry could learn few new lessons from the accident in Japan - but also because you didn’t need a PhD in nuclear-reactor design to recognise the Fukushima disaster was a unique situation that arose in an area of the world prone to earthquakes and tsunamis with a different, older model of nuclear-power station than that used in the UK. A similar event would be highly unlikely here, or anywhere in Europe, and existing safety regulations are extremely tight. Furthermore, despite the full force of nature being thrown at the outdated Fukushima plant - an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale leading to tsunami waves up to 40.5 metres high - the disaster was largely contained and, to date, not a single individual has died from the radiation that leaked out.
To anti-nuclear critics, Weightman’s verdict also came as no surprise, as it was always – in the words of a Greenpeace spokesperson – going to be a cynical exercise, ‘designed with one objective: to give the green light to a new generation of nuclear-power stations, irrespective of the safety, environmental or rising financial costs of those nuclear stations’. Nothing in Weightman’s report would have convinced them otherwise.
Which raises a question: why did the government decide to undertake this post-Fukushima exercise in the first place? The answer is that it was born of a panic about nuclear power in the West that has nothing to do with Fukushima at all, except to the extent that the Fukushima accident triggered a mushroom cloud of already existing anti-nuclear beliefs across the Western world.
Nowhere did the Fukushima-exacerbated culture of fear set in more deeply than in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel bowed to pressure from greens and made the retrograde decision to abandon nuclear power altogether, shutting down eight nuclear-power plants immediately and approving plans that would phase out all nuclear-power plants in just over a decade. Switzerland decided to follow a similar path. In Italy, it was also decided that no new reactors would be built. In Britain, the Lib-Con energy secretary Chris Huhne said earlier in the year that he thought nuclear could become ‘unviable’ as part of the country’s energy strategy in the aftermath of Fukushima. The Guardian reported in March that ‘ministers acknowledge that, even if plants are declared safe, the public perception of nuclear power has been undermined’.
Except this proved not to be the case. Despite their best attempts to win over new recruits, the tiny handful of aging anti-nuclear protesters saw no swell in numbers, no matter how they tried to draw comparisons between the European situation and the disaster in Japan. Despite holding vigils and undertaking stunts, such as releasing balloons outside a nuclear-power plant symbolising how many days it had been since the disaster, hardly any of their planned ‘wave of protests’ were deemed newsworthy or interesting.
Actually, UK public opinion has shifted in favour of nuclear power. The results of a Populus poll published last month revealed that 41 per cent of the population believed the benefits outweigh the risks, a three per cent increase on the previous year; 54 per cent wanted more nuclear-power stations or at least the replacement of existing stations with new ones. There was, in fact, an eight per cent drop (to 28 per cent) in people opposing nuclear power, compared to 2010.
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However this did nothing to stop some greens using public concerns as a way of dismissing the Weightman report, with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas arguing: ‘This will do little to reassure the public that the nuclear industry can be trusted to power our energy future.’ She continued: ‘The status of our nuclear facilities is a crucial national-security issue, yet the government has concluded that nothing needs to change in the light of the Japanese disaster – the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl.’ Lucas raises the spectre of Chernobyl for the purposes of scaremongering alone, failing to point out that there has not been a second nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl in the past 25 years.
Others expressed concerns about Britain’s ‘gung ho’ approach to nuclear, suggesting that Fukushima was a ‘gift to terrorists’ who would have observed the vulnerability of the reactors and may be excitedly trying to plan an attack on one in the hope that mayhem will ensue.
Ultimately, no amount of safety measures will satisfy many of these critics, who have a fundamental objection to nuclear power itself, to the very idea and concept of nuclear. For many, the ‘gung ho’ attitude that they so dislike is not so much British ministers’ response to Fukushima, but rather what they perceive the more fundamental arrogance of man towards nature. And this, according to a prominent green commentator, ignores ‘Murphy’s law’ and the law of unintended consequences: ‘If something is possible to go wrong then it will, eventually. It may be possible to design out the technological weaknesses but it is impossible to allow for the unknown unknowns.’ It follows from this argument that we must remain perpetually humble in the face of natural forces; it is ‘sheer folly’ to do otherwise.
Far from it. Nuclear power symbolises the most extraordinary use yet of the natural world by mankind, unlocking vast quantities of energy from otherwise useless rocks. It is a symbol of man’s increasing mastery of nature and ability to wield it to our own ends. To be anti-nuclear is in many ways to be anti-human; the reason many misanthropic greens despise nuclear is because they can’t abide the idea of man exploiting nature and transforming his world, and thus they take a perverse pleasure in the ‘revenge of nature’ through accidents such as that at Fukushima.
While Fukushima may have been the trigger, attitudes towards humanity’s relationship with nature lie at the heart of debate around the future of nuclear power in the West, not the tragic event that took place in Japan.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He is producing the debate What is nature for? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 29 October.