Almost 70 days after the Fukushima incident, we are starting to see the initial results of the post-Fukushima nuclear safety reviews that have been ordered in most countries with operating nuclear power plants.

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Even so, it is far too soon to draw any just conclusions on how the lessons learned from Fukushima Daiichi might affect the safety and operating practices at other nuclear plants across the world.

The industry will glean information this month at post-Fukushima review meetings to be hosted by the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (7-8 June) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (20-24 June), among others. But, reviews, reports and analyses of the events at Fukushima will likely continue for years.

Taking this into consideration, surely it is far too early for countries make decisions on nuclear energy policy? And yet we have already seen political reactions in Germany and Italy, to name a couple.

Industry commentators have criticised German chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to temporarily close seven reactors as ‘hasty’ and ‘an overreaction’. The preliminary findings from authorities in Finland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and even Germany appear to agree. They all found no reason to shut down existing nuclear reactors as a result of the Fukushima incident.

The UK’s chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman concluded in his interim report that there was “no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants” here.

Finnish regulator STUK identified “no new threat factors or deficiencies that would require immediate safety improvements have appeared in Finnish nuclear power plants.”

Germany said its plants are ‘robust’, but warned that the seven oldest reactors offer little protection against aircraft impact. (Surely the German regulator must have advised the government of this point before the government decided to allow these older units to operate for an additional eight years in 2010.)

The Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI) also identified a number of ‘weaknesses’ in Switzerland’s nuclear power plants. It gave operators until the end of August to outline measures to address the weaknesses, which centre on instrumentation and control, seismic stability and emergency procedures. They all appear the be minor and ENSI says they pose no threat to public safety.

In the USA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said 12 May that it, too, is “likely to have findings and recommendations that will further enhance the safety of [US] nuclear plants.” But the task force, too, said it had not identified any issues that would undermine its confidence in the continued safety and emergency planning of nuclear plants.

The results of all these safety reviews need to be considered in context of the existing nuclear industry, with its culture of continuous safety improvements, especially in the cases where ‘weaknesses’ have been recognised. This latest round of safety reviews is just a new phase in this continually evolving safety culture. Now the focus is on nuclear power plant and spent fuel storage pond design, emergency procedures and accident management plans. Crucially, they will consider extreme, highly unlikely events such as the March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The domestic safety evaluations and international post-Fukushima safety reviews may delay some new nuclear projects, or may require additional safety upgrades to be carried out. This in turn may increase the cost of nuclear power. But these analyses will also improve the safety of nuclear power long-term, which is good.

The Fukushima disaster has not changed the fact that nuclear power will still have a role to play in the long-term energy plans for most countries. Unlike the years after Chernobyl, governments of today need to consider carbon in their energy generation plans. It is therefore vital that they act prudently in response to the Fukushima crisis. Fortunately, even if Germany did overreact, most other countries have had a proportional response to the tragedy in Japan.

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Editor’s note

This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of NEI magazine (and so was written in late April), when information about the state of spent fuel at Fukushima Daiichi was much less clear than it is now.