The Fukushima Disaster and the Future of Nuclear Energy

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It is easy to be concerned about the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis.  Although it was stated today by Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), that he had “no doubt that this crisis will be effectively overcome”, the consequences of the disaster have still been devastating.  With enough to be concerned about considering the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, 350,000 people are currently living in evacuation centres and the surrounding food and water supplies have been contaminated.

Data concerning the status of the reactors is complex and even the brave people working to avert the situation cannot be certain of what is going on inside. Also not encouraging is the track record of accidents at Japanese nuclear plants as well as the revelation that scheduled inspections had failed to have been carried out prior to the earthquake.  It has also been pointed out by Adam Curtis that warnings given by US nuclear authorities when the plant was originally being constructed were ignored.

However, the Japanese government’s assertions that the current disaster will not be another Chernobyl appear to be true. The opposite is at least highly unlikely.  As ranked by the IAEA’s scale of such events, Fukushima is currently a 5 (Accident with serious consequences), where the 1986 incident at Chernobyl was rated a 7 (Major Accident).

The differences between the two events extends beyond these ratings.  Chernobyl’s accident was caused by a power surge in which the excess energy levels caused the huge explosion and fires that exposed the radioactive material outside of the contained building.  By contrast Fukushima’s reactors were not active at the time of the incident, due to the design allowing for them to automatically shut down if they become overheated.

That isn’t to say that the resulting radiation fall out won’t have negative effects on the surrounding environment and it is impossible at this point to know exactly what these long term consequences will be.  Such is the concern of those who oppose the use of nuclear power as an energy source, and recent events has heightened these fears.  Last week in Germany, the decision to extend the lives of the countries’ power plants resulted in a anti-nuclear demonstration of an estimated 60,000 people.  Likewise our coalition government’s subsidiary on the issue has the potential to create similar riffs with the environmentally concerned members of the population in the near future, as Mary Ann Sieghart predicted in The Independent.

However, these fears may not be so founded.  Despite the resonance of previous disasters (not to mention the term’s association with weaponry) it has been argued that nuclear plants remain the best option to combat both climate change and our reliance on fossil fuels.  Although the expansion of renewable resources is preferable to environmentalists, they remain impractical in providing the levels of energy required by the world’s ever surging population.  If nuclear power is downplayed, reliance on coal and gas will only increase, and as a result, so will harmful emissions. In updating old reactors, there is the possibility of using thorium as the base metal as opposed to uranium, which if used would be far more efficient and cleaner.

It is important to remember that Fukushima  used technology that is primitive by today’s standards.  Considering this, it is incredible that it mostly managed to withstand the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, and the handling of the situation is to be praised.  Regardless, the most important aspect of building nuclear power stations is risk assessment.

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