“If there is anything to be learnt we will learn it, because safety is our number one concern”, said energy secretary Chris Huhne on 14 March, after the horrendous nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
While this is being written, the worst has not happened, and hopefully it will not. It is highly likely that a partial meltdown of the reactor core is underway at one of the three reactors, and possibly at all three. But so far, the reactor vessels seem to be able to contain most of the radioactivity.
Still, more than 120,000 people have been evacuated from a 12-mile zone around the reactors, and many more in a 19-mile zone have been ordered to stay indoors. What the long-term consequences of this catastrophe will be, is at present totally unclear.
So what are the lessons to be learnt from the nuclear disasters at Harrisburg, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?
It has to be pointed out that the catastrophe of Fukushima was not directly caused by the earthquake or tsunami. The cause was a failure of the cooling system, including the backup cooling via emergency diesel generators, triggered by the effects of the earthquake and tsunami.
In Harrisburg in 1979, it was also a failure of the cooling system that led to a partial meltdown of the core – and there was no earthquake.
German nuclear expert Lothar Hahn said in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau: “We have seen in the last 30 years these three cases. This fits well with the probability calculations of existing reactor risk assessments. The next accident can happen tomorrow, but also only in 100 or 1000 years. But it cannot be excluded.”
Or, to put if more bluntly: if an accident can happen, it will happen. It is not a question of “if”, it is only a question of “when”.
The UK has an ageing fleet of nuclear power stations, and plans to build new reactors at up to eight sites – the first ones at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk, which both host existing reactors.
Many of the UK’s existing reactors are already beyond their predicted lifetimes – but while some have been shut down, others have their lives extended.
Last December, EDF, the owners of British Energy and with it of most UK nuclear power stations, announced lifetime extensions of all of its ageing AGR reactors such as Heysham and Hartlepool by five years (and possibly for a further five years after that), and of Sizewell B by 20 years. Older reactors are no longer safe, and certainly do not meet today’s safety standards. Rather than extending their lifetimes, we should be shutting them down.
Although the Lib Dems promised to not provide subsidies for nuclear energy, and even opposed nuclear before the elections, the coalition government has since been creating a framework to enable EDF, E.ON and RWE npower to build new nuclear power stations in the UK, and to offload the economic risk to the general public – either to the taxpayer or electricity consumers.
EDF has applied for permission to prepare the ground next to Hinkley Point for the construction of Hinkley Point C – a massive new nuclear power station consisting of two 1600MW EPR reactors. It wants to do so even before it receives planning permission for the power station itself – something which might well be delayed after the accident of Fukushima.
Next in line will then be Sizewell, where it is again EDF who are presently preparing the necessary consultations for a planning application.
Over the last few years, resistance has only grown slowly. However – it exists. In November 2009, some groups and individuals formed the Stop Nuclear Power Network, with a focus more on nonviolent direct action against nuclear new build in the UK.
Several small blockades of Sizewell took place, and in October 2010 Hinkley Point was for the first time hit by a small blockade. Especially around Hinkley, new anti-nuclear groups were formed to organise the resistance to Hinkley C.
Existing anti-nuclear groups at nuclear sites in the UK joined forces in December 2010 and formed CONNED (Communities Opposed to New Nuclear Energy Development), to coordinate their activities, especially their response to the government’s consultation on nuclear power. London anti-nuclear group Kick Nuclear launched a campaign to boycott EDF, the company that is most advanced in terms of nuclear new build in the UK, in October 2010.
Kick Nuclear encourages everyone who is a customer of EDF Energy – many in London and in the south-west of the UK – to switch energy provider, preferably to a green alternative, to hit EDF where they might feel it most: in their bank accounts. Similarly, customers of RWE npower and E.ON should consider switching provider, and let EDF, RWE npower or E.ON know why they are doing it.
Sizewell 23 April
Planned before the catastrophe of Fukushima, and already in its third year, is the anti-nuclear camp at Sizewell from 22-25 April, to mark the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe of Chernobyl. If there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima, it is that nuclear power cannot be controlled. It is high time to resist nuclear – and especially nuclear new build – in Britain.