If you live in or around Durham, you will, even if you don’t know it, have a rather personal connection with nuclear power; when you turn on a light, most of the electricity that powers it will have come from the nuclear power station down the road in Hartlepool. You’ll be pleased to know that a tsunami like the one that caused the Fukushima disaster is extremely unlikely in the North East of England. Phew.
Nuclear power has always been something of a touchy subject; ask anyone over the age of thirty if they remember the Chernobyl disaster and you’ll soon find enough anti-nuclear sentiment to supply an entire CND campaign. The popularity of nuclear power tends to peak and trough rather dramatically in sync with the latest INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) category seven accidents; that is, the most severe accident possible, the latest of course being at Fukushima in 2011.
When it was first introduced in the late fifties, nuclear power was presented as the energy source of the future; it was clean, safe, and almost unlimited (aside from the problem of where to put all of the radioactive waste produced in nuclear power plants). The Magnox reactors used in the UK in those days were also conveniently capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, which came in handy for our growing nuclear arsenal.
Although many unreported accidents were believed to have occurred in the former USSR, the first sign that perhaps we in the West couldn’t quite rely on nuclear power came in 1979, when, due to operator error, a minor accident occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The resulting public backlash against nuclear power was responsible for the halt in construction of many new nuclear power plants that had been proposed in the 1970s.
Similarly, just before the disaster at Chernobyl, public support for nuclear power had been growing, if perhaps more warily than before. Following the Chernobyl disaster, many British nuclear reactors were redesigned with more failsafe protocols; however, of the eight reactors in Britain, one Magnox reactor, similar to the model at Chernobyl, remains in the Wylfa power station in Anglesey. Its decommissioning – now due in 2014 – has been postponed several times, mostly because the sheer quantity of power it produces would be difficult to replace, and the National Grid can only pick up so much slack before new power stations have to be built.
Now, with Fukushima still fresh in the public’s minds, it’s no surprise that many countries are reluctant to expand their use of nuclear power. France is one of the most heavily invested in its nuclear infrastructure, to the extent that three-quarters of its energy is produced by nuclear plants, and 7 out of Britain’s 8 nuclear power stations are owned by EDF (Électricité de France SA). However, some commentators suggest that France should follow Germany’s Energiewende (energy turnaround) and decrease its reliance on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Likewise, Britain’s proposed nuclear development program has also been scaled down; despite the fact that approximately 16% of British energy is still produced by nuclear power plants. America has continued on its path regardless. Significant funding was given by the US government to two new nuclear reactors in 2012, despite this being economically unfavourable.
The debate on nuclear power has been raging for decades. Although much of this is media scaremongering, there are grains of truth hidden in the hype. Ask any scientist and you’ll soon realise that despite our understanding of how it all works, we don’t quite know what we’re doing with nuclear power. On the one hand, it seems like a lot less effort than building hundreds of wind turbines, and until fairly recently it gave us an excuse to produce nuclear weapons. But there are other issues that disasters such as Fukushima have forced us to confront. Is it really as controllable as we think? And can we account for all the risk factors? For humans who have progressed from playing with fire to playing with radiation, perhaps this is a step too soon.