Fukushima-what have we learned so far?

14 September 2011

Firstly, we have to accept that nuclear accidents do in fact happen. This is something that many people in the industry have always tried to deny. Arguably, we have suffered because we haven’t experienced enough nuclear accidents – they are such a rarity that they make everyone stand up and observe closely, without much understanding of what they are seeing. A greater number of accidents over the history of nuclear power, each without significant loss of life, would have made everyone more prepared for Fukushima. Even as we strive for impeccable management of nuclear facilities, we can never have confidence that we will succeed absolutely. Nor can we expect the public to really believe that we have. We must concede that human beings make mistakes, individually and collectively.

This in itself is not debilitating; most industries have accidents, in many cases involving significant loss of human life. The nuclear problem lies in how reality is construed by politicians and the public. Most people can accept that nuclear power carries a very low probability of a severe accident, but they assume that any such occurrence will be extremely lethal. While Fukushima may offer strong evidence to the contrary, few in the public perceive this and, in their minds, they wrap up the nuclear incident with the wider disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami. As long as people perceive nuclear energy to pose a high risk to human well-being, the future of nuclear energy will rest on fragile foundations. But, properly presented, Fukushima gives us a good opportunity to counter this mistaken impression. Our aim must be to explain to the public that even worst-case nuclear events are not only extremely improbable but also increasingly inconsequential as nuclear technology continues to advance. This is true and must be presented believably – certainly not an easy task, but surely not impossible. If we take the civil aviation sector, people recognise that accidents from time to time are almost inevitable, although the utmost is done to prevent them. There will be loss of life, but this is viewed as acceptable for the great social and economic benefits gained. People unfortunately have a poor understanding of the costs and benefits of different energy technologies and the nuclear sector needs to correct this.

Another important confirmation from Fukushima is that nuclear power is essentially safe. This may appear outrageous and is contrary to the impression that most people have gained, but it is important to highlight the consequences of even a worst-case nuclear event. Even with substantial releases of radiation off-site, Japan’s safety standards and evacuation policies have been very precautionary and arguably rather over the top in some cases. The effect of these is that it remains reasonable to hope that not a single radiation fatality will result from Fukushima, even amidst a natural disaster from the earthquake and tsunami that has claimed some 25,000 lives. There is no need for the nuclear sector to appear at all complacent or indifferent if we just speak about the facts, while expressing our sadness for the huge loss of life caused by something else. If Fukushima were sadly to produce a radiation fatality, it would be the first ever to occur in the nuclear power generation history of Japan, America, or France – industries that account for half the world’s power reactors. Indeed, apart from Chernobyl, there have been no radiation fatalities in the entire history of civil nuclear power generation. This truth remains completely unappreciated by the public and the media, but the industry needs to highlight it more strongly.

Meanwhile, we know that in the months since Fukushima, several hundreds of people have died worldwide from the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion. The only disastrous consequence of Fukushima relates to the disruption to people’s lives and to local industry from the evacuations, which will have a huge economic cost that is hard to quantity at this point. But to use the two words ‘nuclear’ and ‘disaster’ together is not really appropriate.

On the more technical side, Fukushima has reminded us that every nuclear reactor requires reliable post-shutdown cooling. Backup cooling systems are a critical non-nuclear aspect of a nuclear power plant, and the accident has imprinted on us indelibly how essential this function is to the safety and future of nuclear power. The failures of these systems under extreme and hard-to-predict conditions caused all the subsequent problems. While it is true that some of the advanced reactor designs will accomplish cooling using the natural physical principle of convection, post shut-down heat removal depends on external power for the world’s current reactor fleet. The lessons from Fukushima are already being applied and the retrofits required to some plants need not be very expensive. Our commitment to ensuring reliability in the future, at every reactor, wherever its location, must be absolute. Even extraordinary natural events must fully be taken into account.

Something else that has been confirmed by Fukushima is that present-day media coverage is more inclined to frenzy than to balance during any major event, particularly those involving nuclear energy. In a world of competitive, round-the-clock, televised news, there is clearly a compulsion to cover any major incident with a huge amount of unwarranted speculation and without correction of obvious inaccuracies. Since nuclear incidents don’t suddenly get solved, they offer a story that will run for a long time, as well as very emotive terminology such as ‘melt-down’ and ‘radiation leak’ to excite the audience. This tendency will persist so long as we fail to demythologize nuclear energy; doing this will not be at all easy. Creating much wider public understanding of radiation as a ubiquitous natural phenomenon would be a very good first step and the industry needs to examine how this can be achieved. The likely (limited) consequences of radioactive release resulting from even worst-case events needs to be highlighted, but the subject matter is full of confusing units and statistics whose meaning is hard to convey even to well-educated and sophisticated audiences.

We have also rediscovered that nuclear is a strongly ideological issue in many countries, particularly in Europe. There has long been a weakness of support for nuclear power in a few technologically-advanced countries; as Europe’s leading economic power, Germany is particularly remarkable. There was always a risk that the new policy announced in late 2010 to extend the operating lives of the existing reactors by 8 or 14 years would eventually become a victim of further political change. Nevertheless, the response to shut down the eight oldest reactors immediately and set closure dates for the other nine newer units by 2022 is surely an overreaction. Acting in the name of environmentalism, Germans will now begin to burn more lignite, coal, and gas, while reverting when necessary to importing their nuclear power. This is clearly an attempt to retain power by the ruling coalition at a time of great electoral pressure, but at the same time this tactic discards all principle and logic. The no-to-nuclear vote in the recent Italian referendum was less surprising, as it always seemed to be a long shot to re-establish nuclear power there. The Swiss reaction, essentially removing the option of license extension for the five operating reactors, is rather milder; with the units staying open until the 2020s, it could yet be changed.

By way of contrast, we have seen a confirmation of the solidity of public policy support for nuclear power in most countries now using it, even in the face of a largely negative onslaught from the media. This is especially true in those countries planning major programmes of nuclear new-build, led by China, India, Russia, Britain, South Africa, and South Korea. Their energy needs remain precisely the same as pre-Fukushima and no new options have suddenly presented themselves. A sober calculation of the costs and benefits of nuclear leads to a positive result, and in other major nations too, including Brazil, France, Poland, Ukraine, Canada, and the USA, there is so far little evidence of lost momentum of the industry.

It is clear, however, that public understanding of nuclear power in many countries remains thin and readily susceptible to misimpression. Where we see constancy in policy support for nuclear power, it relies mainly on consensus among policymakers and on nuclear power not becoming a game of football in the country’s politics, as it has in Germany. Fukushima has plainly cast a long shadow which needs to be countered. In nations around the world, the common impression that Japan’s natural catastrophe was compounded by a manmade disaster has weakened public confidence in nuclear power. Once again we have learned that ‘radiation’ ranks as one of the most potent and evocative words in any language.

It also remains true that the Chernobyl accident retains a powerful hold on public consciousness; it also remains a main journalistic reference point with respect to the perceived dangers of nuclear power. Fukushima happened just before the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl. There remains a huge amount of uncertainty in most people’s minds about Chernobyl's true impact. Once Fukushima was re-rated to the same level (7) as Chernobyl in the INES scale, the connection was obvious. The failure of the industry to convince people of the limited nature of the consequences of Chernobyl has become a problem. Millions around the world concluded that they were witnessing a human catastrophe of immense proportions. We can try to get people to understand that the Chernobyl reactor that exploded and caught fire in 1986 bears little relevance to any reactor now operating, but this seems to help little. The main problem is that the scientific analysis of the consequences of Chernobyl differ so drastically from the public’s impression of them, created by ‘Children of Chernobyl’ and the huge area of barren, abandoned land nearby.

In truth, there is a strong scientific consensus that the radiation fatalities from Chernobyl are strictly limited to several dozen ‘liquidators’ severely irradiated while fighting the reactor fire, and to a small number of members of the public in the vicinity of Chernobyl, thought to number 16, who should be assumed to have died from thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine emitted by the burning reactor. The allegation of any other radiation fatalities depends solely on the so-called ‘collective dose’ theory, which is scientifically unfounded and also defies common sense.

Finally, as we contemplate the potential worldwide policy and regulatory response to Fukushima, we must recognise again that in addition to political and public perception, it is the economics of nuclear power that remain crucial to its future. It is well known that, compared to other major power technologies, nuclear is expensive to build and cheap to operate. In the past decade, even amidst growing confidence in nuclear power’s worldwide future prospects, we have seen the industry struggle to limit capital costs while venturing to build the next generation of reactors.

It is too early to assess what the full regulatory response will be and how costly it will be to implement. On the cooling side, the provisions may well be quite cheap to implement, but elsewhere the European stress tests may result in significant additional expense to keep reactors operating. Some of the units, particularly the older ones, may not be able to justify the expense, and so may close prematurely.

The various new reactor designs, which already have built-in enhanced and diverse safety systems, seem unlikely to require substantial changes. The problem facing new units may turn out to be one of delay in the regulatory process. We know from experience that such delays can be very expensive because nuclear projects tie up so much capital from the earliest stages, all of which can be subject to mounting interest payments. Delay, in itself, can cripple a nuclear project, just as much as escalating component or labour costs.

In this context, it is crucially important than regulatory actions taken in response to Fukushima can justify increased costs with demonstrable benefits. Despite all the fine words about international safety standards, national regulators will remain sovereign for many years to come. So far, the signs are that they are behaving in a very responsible way in those countries already contemplating new nuclear build.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is deputy director general of the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was still the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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