Summary and implications

Global confidence regarding the use of nuclear energy has been shaken by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan in March 2011, severely damaging the Daiichi nuclear facility in Fukushima as a result. Within the EU, as elsewhere, governments, industry insiders and the general public appear divided over whether the use of nuclear power should be encouraged or whether, ultimately, it is too volatile and unsafe a resource to rely on.

In an attempt to examine current attitudes towards nuclear energy in the light of the events in Fukushima, this review will consider the following issues:

  • The background to the disaster at the power plant and the current situation as regards attempts to contain the damage;
  • How Fukushima has coloured attitudes outside Japan towards the use of nuclear power, focusing particularly upon the UK and other parts of Europe; and
  • How industry commentators have reacted to the incidents in Japan in terms of their opinions on the use of nuclear power.

Fukushima: the background

On 11 March 2011, the north-east coast of Japan was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the country’s history. Measuring 8.9 in magnitude, the tremor triggered a tsunami strong enough to reach some 10km inland in places and completely sweep away large tracts of towns and villages in its path.

In the aftermath, particular concern was raised over the situation in the Fukushima prefecture, located some 140 miles north of the capital, Tokyo. The area houses the Daiichi nuclear power plant, a facility commissioned in the 1970s and run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. With six boiling water reactors being used to generate nuclear energy, the plant is one of the 15 largest in the world. However, between the two natural disasters and a series of hydrogen explosions inside the plant, two-thirds of its reactors were seriously damaged and radiation levels as high as 400 millisieverts were being released into the atmosphere every hour. The events have since been rated as Level 7 major incidents on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the highest level possible). 80,000 people have been evacuated from the area to date as emergency crews work to try and contain the damage, in the face of the danger of severe health risks, continued explosions at the plant and further aftershocks and tremors. The process promises to be extremely slow and painstaking. However; almost two months on from the initial earthquake, workers had only just now been able to start physically entering the site to begin work on clearing it and containing the radiation.

In brief: the Chernobyl disaster On 26 April 1986, one of the four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Ukraine exploded, causing what is widely regarded to be the worst nuclear accident in history. 25 years on, controversy still rages over the slow reaction of the authorities in its aftermath, the number of people physically affected, and the extent of the environmental contamination, with work due to begin imminently on a new long-term containment structure at the site.  

The international impact of Fukushima

In the days immediately following the earthquake, with many commentators minded to compare the events in Fukushima to the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, it is perhaps unsurprising that the international community began to think seriously about its use of nuclear power.

The UK’s response

The events in Fukushima prompted the UK Government to begin a review into their potential impact on existing and new nuclear facilities in the UK. Launched on 14 March by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, the review is currently being undertaken by the Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr Mike Weightman. Charged with looking into the implications of the Japanese disaster for the UK nuclear industry and considering the safety lessons that can be learnt. An interim report was published on the 18 May 2011 (click here). A full report is due later this year. The interim report gave a guarded “all clear”, citing a series of improvements required and concerns requiring further assessment.

Outside of this review, the Government has refrained from taking any concrete action in respect of its nuclear new build programme. Meanwhile there has been extensive debate within Parliament over whether nuclear power is still a credible energy source. In the immediate aftermath of the events in Japan, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying that he still believed that “nuclear power should be part of the mix in future as it is part of the mix right now”. This sentiment was later reinforced by Mr Huhne in departmental questions, where he confirmed that the coalition’s plans for new nuclear facilities will come into effect in 2018 and that the Government believes that there is “a role for new nuclear and we want to see new nuclear come on”.

For the time being at least, the situation remains unclear, with government assurances that Fukushima will not unduly delay the UK’s nuclear programme and the full report into UK nuclear safety yet to be completed.

The Government’s programme is not helped by press reports of question marks being raised over and delays occurring to particular nuclear projects, such as the reprocessing and disposal of plutonium waste at Sellafield and the building of the new Westinghouse AP1000 and EPR reactors.  

The European response

Reaction in the rest of Europe towards the disaster in Fukushima has ranged from caution as regards how to proceed with nuclear power to the postponement or total abandonment of nuclear initiatives.

In the days immediately following the Japanese earthquake, a committee of EU energy ministers met in Brussels on 15 March, headed by the Energy Commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, and decided to introduce “stress tests” to determine the safety of all European nuclear facilities. A day later, the Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, was quoted as confirming that EU decisions regarding the future use of nuclear energy are “very much likely to be influenced” by events in Japan. This sentiment has been reiterated in numerous EU body meetings in the subsequent weeks. At an EU Council meeting at the end of March, it was noted that “of the EU’s 27 states, 14 are now operating nuclear plants but, in the wake of events in Fukushima, voices opposing nuclear energy have gained strength in several countries”.

But how far has this anti-nuclear opposition really spread within Europe? The strongest backlash against nuclear was seen shortly after the Japanese earthquake in Germany, where the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, made a swift decision to suspend operations at seven of the country’s nuclear plants while an urgent safety review was carried out. Shortly after this announcement, Italy announced a one-year postponement of nuclear new build plans. Similarly, anti-nuclear feeling has been heard in Austria, which voiced demands for nuclear power to be phased out of Europe. Meanwhile, in April, European Parliament ministers reportedly raised questions over the future viability of the EU’s nuclear fusion project, ITER, an experimental thermonuclear reactor based in southern France, on the basis that it is set to be built in an earthquake zone like the plant in Fukushima. Perhaps more so than in the UK, the future of nuclear power in some parts of Europe looks uncertain and it remains to be seen how far individual EU nations will continue to develop nuclear resources in the years following the Fukushima incident.

Anti-nuclear advocates in the EU

Action or feeling against new or existing nuclear facilities has been seen most fervently in the following countries:

  • Germany  
  • Italy  
  • Austria

The future of nuclear: commentary and industry reaction

As within political circles, opinion is divided amongst industry commentators and analysts over whether nuclear power has a viable future following the events in Fukushima. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth have been quoted extensively as believing that the Japanese disaster will lead to “an urgent rethink” on the use of nuclear power and a move towards other, renewable energy sources. Other commentators have pointed to the need to use nuclear power as part of a wider strategy to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. This indicates financial analysts at the French bank, Societe Generale, and the head of the International Energy Agency. Both have been quoted as stressing that a complete abandonment of the use of nuclear power will harm efforts to control climate change. Therefore, attitudes towards nuclear energy remain mixed. Ultimately, much may depend on the final outcome of assessment of the Daiichi plant failure and any lessons that can be learned from the renewed focus on safety.