Nuclear safety in the spotlight
'I know you will agree with me that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has enormous implications for nuclear power and confronts all of us with a major challenge,' Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the participants. 'We cannot take a "business as usual" approach.'
has been clear for some time now that the 'business as usual' approach
is inadequate. A detailed assessment of nuclear accidents and malfunction
carried out by Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security
Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed a litany
of design faults in nuclear reactors that fail to protect the public
adequately against accidents and malfunction due to human error, mechanical
hitches, or external events such as tornadoes and earthquakes. In particular,
there is no protection against malevolent or terrorist attacks. This
applies to both existing nuclear reactors and 'Generation III' reactors
in the pipeline or under construction. So in many ways,
In particular, Thompson condemned the calculation of risk in risk assessment (which applies to everything from nuclear power to genetically modified organisms), in which risk = hazard x probability. However big the hazard, it can be reduced to a very small acceptable risk if the probability is close to zero - such as a magnitude 9 earthquake followed by a giant tsunami.
US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported 14 near-misses at US
nuclear plants in the past year alone. The serious lapses included engineers
accidentally switching off safety systems, electrical circuits failing
and workers not knowing how to activate the system to summon emergency
services. The UCS report released on 18 March came as President Barack
Obama ordered a comprehensive review of the
Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said
around the world are reviewing their nuclear options. German Chancellor
Angela Merkel announced a three-month review of plans to continue operating
her country's 17 nuclear power plants.
Japanese government has criticised Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO),
the owner of the
WikiLeaks website released recent
Japanese government has attempted to downplay the health hazard from
the radiation leaks, as have governments and regulators worldwide. They
have also been at pains to minimise the deaths from past nuclear disasters.
The official number of deaths attributed to
There are other repercussions.
TEPCO faces hefty costs for replacement power, construction of new generation capacity in place of damaged plants, and decommissioning at least four and possibly all six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. It is also liable for compensation to local businesses and residents affected by the radiation leaks, and lawsuits are likely. An analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated compensation charges of over œ74 billion if the crisis continues for more than two years.
TEPCO is being propped up by the Bank of Japan and other big Japanese banks, and three major financial institutions are lending 1.9 trillion yen to deal with the crisis. Nevertheless, TEPCO's credit rating has been downgraded by Moody's and Standard & Poor's. Moody's said: 'TEPCO will remain highly leveraged and unprofitable for an extended period of time and will face substantial risk regarding nuclear liability.'
TEPCO's financing is so intricately bound up with the big banks that its demise will definitely send shivers throughout the world's financial markets already knee-deep in national debts and recession.
There is talk of nationalisation to prevent loss of confidence in the world markets.
Financial markets have already responded with sharp falls. The stock prices of many energy companies reliant on nuclear sources dropped, while the one silver lining in this unmitigated disaster is that renewable energy companies rose in value dramatically by 15 to 20%. It reaffirms the conclusions of a report by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) and Third World Network, Green Energies: 100% Renewables by 2050, that a wide variety of affordable and truly green energies - renewable, environmentally friendly, healthy, safe, non-polluting and sustainable - are already available for all nations to become energy self-sufficient and 100% renewable within decades. Policies and legisation that promote innovations and internal markets for decentralised, distributed small to micro-generation are the key.
Mae-Wan Ho is Director and co-founder of the UK-based
1. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Emergies: 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009, Chapter 35. See also Ho MW. 'Transmutation, the alchemist dream come true', Science in Society, 36, 2007; and Larsen L. 'LENRs for nuclear waste disposal', Science in Society, 41, 2009.