This is entry number 223, published on 15 March 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today's entry considers the effect of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on the British nuclear programme, and other news.

Japanese fallout

Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has sought to calm fears about the UK's nuclear energy programme following the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of eastern Japan on 11 March. At the Liberal Democrats' spring conference on Saturday he announced that an investigation would be carried out by the head of the Nuclear Directorate of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Dr Mike Weightman on the lessons that the UK can learn from Japan.

The situation is still developing, but at the time of writing, there have been losses of cooling and subsequent explosions at all three of the operating reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant (out of six in total), situated on the coast of Honshu nearest the earthquake epicentre. (Quiz question: Honshu is one of only two islands in the world with a population of more than 100m - what is the other one?). Even the three non-operational reactors are having cooling problems and a fire broke out at one of them.

Nuclear reactors need to be cooled even when they are not producing electricity and it is ironic that the very sea water that is used to cool these reactors caused them to fail by interrupting power supplies. At Fukushima, the backup diesel generators also failed, and the backup for those was batteries that last eight hours each. At least one of the reactor cores is now being cooled directly with sea water, whose impurity is likely to mean it will be unusable in the future.

Chris Huhne noted that the UK is not in an earthquake zone as Japan is, and that the proposed new nuclear power stations for the UK are to be of a different type (European pressurised water - EPR rather than boiling water - BWR). Those are both true, but lack of cooling would be just as much a problem for both types of reactor.

Oddly, Max Hastings in the Daily Mail suggests that Chris Huhne will use this to argue against nuclear power, just when he did the opposite at the weekend. I also note the reference in the article to the appropriately-named nuclear decommissioning expert Sue Ions.

It seems you can't have enough backup electricity and cooling systems (that aren't all affected by the same type of event) at a nuclear power station. There may also be questions about how close together reactors should be allowed to be to each other, if this turns out to be a factor in Japan.

Eight nuclear power stations are planned in the UK, all at sites of former or existing stations. Four have got as far as asking the IPC for an opinion on the scope of their environmental statements (Wylfa on Anglesey, Oldbury in Gloucestershire, Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley Point in Somerset); one is currently carrying out pre-application consultation (Hinkley Point); but no applications have actually been made yet.

Given that the safety case is not made to the IPC but to Nuclear Directorate, this may not affect the IPC timetable for nuclear power stations unduly. The government (the Department for Work and Pensions, bizarrely) announced last month that a new Office for Nuclear Regulation would be created outside the HSE, and the HSE would create a shadow body within it from April until then.

Commissioner resignation

Meanwhile, one of the 39 commissioners of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) has resigned, citing the proposed abolition of the IPC by merging it with the Planning Inspectorate as the reason. Iwan Richards was one of the 'on call' commissioners, and is a town planner and landscape architect. In a sort of rebuttal, the IPC told Planning magazine that Mr Richards had recently been fined by the Bar Standards Board for practising without a practising certificate and had been considering his position.