March 11th will mark the sixth anniversary of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere in what was the biggest nuclear disaster since the explosion at Chernobyl twenty five years earlier.
The initial earthquake caused the reactors at the plant to shut down automatically, activating the emergency generators. But the tsunami which followed the earthquake flooded the rooms in which the emergency generator was housed, cutting power to the pumps which circulate cooling water to stop the reactors from over-heating. The explosions which followed released radioactive materials into the atmosphere. It is only the second incident ever to be classified as a Level 7, the highest possible, on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
At the time, a 12-mile compulsory evacuation zone was designated around the plant with 160,000 people ordered to move out of their homes. High rates of mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder have been observed within the displaced population and it has still not been deemed safe enough for tens of thousands of people to return to their homes. Whilst no one was killed in the immediate incident there are varying estimates as to the expected fatalities from longer term cancers caused by radiation exposure, with numbers varying from 100-650. Studies have also shown that a significant number of those evacuated have died prematurely due to the evacuation process and limited access to healthcare provisions after the incident.
A Japanese company tasked with cleaning up Fukushima has admitted that its attempts to probe the site are failing repeatedly due to incredibly high levels of radiation, which is even causing robots designed for the purpose to malfunction. The latest attempt to harvest data on Fukushima failed after a robot designed by Toshiba to withstand high radiation levels died five times faster than expected. During another mission in early February, the scorpion crawler stalled after its total radiation exposure reached its limit in just two hours. The robot was supposed to be able to cope with 73 sieverts of radiation, but the radiation level inside the reactor was recently recorded at 530 sieverts; a single dose of 10 sieverts would prove fatal to a human within weeks of exposure. In the wake of the disaster, an investigation found the accident could have been avoided and that basic safety requirements had not been met.
As people around the world commemorate the ongoing disaster, it highlights the dangers of nuclear power and why we should not be building new nuclear power stations in the UK.
Currently Britain has 16 nuclear reactors generating 19% of our electricity, which is 7% of the country’s total energy needs. But almost half of this capacity is due to shut down in the next decade or so.The government set out plans in 2013 to build at least 12 new nuclear reactors at five sites by 2030. These will be at Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Wylfa, Oldbury and Moorside. Since then process has been incredibly slow, the UK government did finally sign an agreement in 2016 to build a new power station at Hinkley, although it did have to agree to heavily subsidise the project.
The government will guarantee that the company operating Hinkley C will be paid a minimum price for electricity from new nuclear plants: if the market price falls lower than this “strike price” a surcharge will be added to customers’ bills. The guaranteed price has been agreed at a level much higher than today’s wholesale energy price, causing many financial experts to criticise the deal as ripping off the UK tax-payer.
Nuclear power stations have always been heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. Our nuclear power industry has cost us tens of billions of pounds over the last 50 years. Decommissioning old nuclear power stations has already cost us over £70 billion and the bill is going up fast, while any profit made by the nuclear companies is shared among their shareholders.
Cost is not the only concern with nuclear power, however small the probability, there is always the possibility of accidents occurring. Human error and mechanical failure can never be ruled out. Not only that nuclear power stations are permitted routinely to release low levels of radioactive emissions into the environment but there is a risk that even small amounts of radiation exposure
may be harmful. Research has shown evidence of increased rates of cancer around nuclear power stations.
Because countries like the UK are promoting the expansion of nuclear power, it is thought that this influences other countries who are beginning to plan for their own nuclear power programmes. There is always the danger that countries acquiring nuclear power technology may subvert its use – as we did in the past – to develop a nuclear weapons programme. Nuclear materials may also get into the wrong hands and be used to make a crude nuclear device or “dirty bomb.”
The government identified a “malicious release of radioactive or chemical substance” as a risk in its 2015 National Security Risk Assessment, meaning that it is taking the threat seriously. It was revealed in 2015 that a so-called Islamic State (ISIS) cell in Brussels had kept a senior Belgian nuclear scientist under video surveillance. There has been a series of security scares in relation to Belgium’s nuclear infrastructure over the past couple of years, including the discovery that staff at a nuclear power station had links to ISIS.
Whilst nuclear power remains the focus of government’s investment the majority of people in this country do not share the government’s belief in this dangerous power source, a 2016 survey by the Department of Energy and Climate Change showed only 38% of people support nuclear energy, with 81% in favour of renewables.
Renewable energy sources are already making a difference and, despite significantly less financing than nuclear power, the technology is rapidly advancing. Renewable energy sources made up nearly nine-tenths of new power added to Europe’s electricity grids in 2016 with wind farms accounting for more than half of the capacity installed. The UK has more than enough wind and tidal power potential to meet our energy needs.
It is the only sensible way forward as the cost of producing renewable energy continues to fall, and it also has popular support. We need a safe, genuinely sustainable, global and green solution to our energy needs, not a dangerous diversion like nuclear power. Commemorate the people of Fukushima over the next week and take the opportunity to reinforce our opposition to this deadly power.
March 10th: Fukushima Vigil Friday, 5.30pm-7.30pm
Outside Japanese Embassy, 101 Piccadilly, London
March 11th: Fukushima March Saturday, assemble 12 noon
Outside Japanese Embassy, 101 Piccadilly, London
Followed by a rally at Richmond Terrace
March 15th: Fukushima Parliamentary Public Meeting Wednesday, 7pm-9pm
Special thanks to CND for the information for this article.
Main pic from IAEA Imagebank, CC2.0