TOPIC GUIDE: Nuclear Power

"After Fukushima, we should abandon nuclear power"

PUBLISHED: 31 Aug 2011

AUTHOR: Tony Gilland

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INTRODUCTION

On 11 March 2011, Japan was hit by a huge earthquake, measured at 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale [Ref: USGS]. The earthquake triggered massive tsunami waves of up to 40.5 metres, one of which crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s eastern coast. These devastating waves caused serious damage to the nuclear plant, including fires and explosions in the reactors, sending panic across the world and reigniting an age-old debate about the relative merits, or otherwise, of nuclear power. In the wake of the disaster, countries including Germany [Ref: Telegraph] and Italy [Ref: Wall Street Journal] have announced decisions to discontinue their nuclear-power programmes. Meanwhile, in the UK, the go-ahead has been given to start work on pre-construction of Britain’s first new nuclear-power station for 20 years [Ref: Guardian], leaving Europe divided over where best to source its energy from [Ref: Guardian]. So, should the disaster at Fukushima, and others like it over the years, force us to take a step back and consider whether such a potentially dangerous energy source is worth the risk for the clean energy it provides [Ref: BBC News]? Might other sources of energy, such as renewables or shale gas, be a better investment long term? Or would abandoning nuclear at this stage be an over-reaction to what is still a relatively minor accident? If we were to abandon nuclear, how would we meet demand for our ever-increasing energy needs?

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Nuclear Power DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Is nuclear worth the risk?
Many have long been concerned about the safety of nuclear power, and feel that the recent disaster in Japan once again highlights the dangers associated with this method of producing energy. As a consequence, there has been a backlash against nuclear power with many claiming that enough is enough, and that now is the time to end our relationship with nuclear power for good [Ref: New Statesman]. They argue that there are far less risky ways to produce energy given that we now have an increasing choice of new renewable energies at our fingertips, which supporters argue could produce plentiful clean and safe energy if the correct investments were made. Additionally, new advances in technologies such as shale gas could potentially produce a new source of abundant energy, so why continue to pursue nuclear when there are clearly other safer or more ‘progressive’ options [Ref: spiked]? But others are not convinced that it is possible to power the country on renewables alone and that nuclear, together with fossil fuels, has to be a part of the mix. In response to the calls for an end to nuclear power, some commentators argue that the reaction to the Fukushima disaster has been seriously overblown [Ref: New York Times], with cover-ups rampant, doom-ridden predictions rife and figures distorted to fuel anti-nuclear sentiments [Ref: The Times]. Comparatively speaking, nuclear still remains one of the safest forms of energy, with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima the only three major accidents to have occurred in over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries [Ref: World Nuclear Association]. Why abandon nuclear when it creates abundant, low-carbon energy with minimal risks simply because of the fear attached to this form of energy?

The response of Germany and Japan
The reaction to the Fukushima disaster has taken different forms around the world, and indeed highlighted how much the debate about the use of nuclear energy has changed in recent years. Where once, it was seen as ‘green’ to be anti-nuclear and ‘anti-green’ to be pro-nuclear, the debate about the use of nuclear energy can no longer simply be along these lines, reflecting the complexity of the need to balance world energy demands with the search for new forms of energy production for the future [Ref: Guardian]. Of particular surprise to many commentators was the reaction both of the Japanese government in the immediate aftermath, but also of one of Europe’s biggest producers of nuclear energy, Germany. Whilst Japan was still dealing with the disaster, amid increasing accusations of safety cover-ups and incompetence in its aftermath, its prime minister Naoto Kan announced that he wanted to pursue a programme of phasing out the nation’s nuclear-power stations and ending reliance on nuclear energy. Given the crisis Japan was dealing with this is perhaps less surprising than the swift reaction of the German government, which also announced plans to phase out the use of nuclear energy, an apparent reversal of its previously stated position [Ref: Telegraph]. Apparently fearful of a public backlash against nuclear energy and the sense that it’s fundamentally unsafe, both the German and Japanese governments appeared to lack the will to make the case for nuclear, and in turn led commentators to suggest both countries will be left with huge problems in the future regarding their energy production and consumption, and whilst new technologies are developed an increase in the use of coal-fired power stations would be the only way to meet current, never mind future levels, of energy use in those countries.

What’s the future for nuclear?
As the global population grows and developing countries become wealthier, our need for energy is increasing daily. Many argue that at present the only really viable option for meeting this demand is to exploit every energy source available to us, including nuclear [Ref: Guardian]. They see no reason why we can’t continue to explore renewable energy whilst at the same time pursuing nuclear to provide for our current energy needs. Some go further still, stating that nuclear power is essential for the UK’s future [Ref: Nuclear Industry Association] and argue that renewable energy is expensive, intermittent and unreliable [Ref: Telegraph]. However, some are sceptical as to whether nuclear power really does create abundant energy, and point to the fact that the UK currently only relies on nuclear for 20% of its energy, which could be replaced by renewable technologies like wind, solar, wave and geothermal power or slightly lower-carbon fuels like gas. Others feel that supporting nuclear goes against contemporary environmental concerns, and go as far as arguing that we should be cutting back our energy consumption altogether, rather than making compromises about how we produce it.  If the reaction to Fukushima shows that we are still fearful of nuclear technology, should we accept public fear or make the case for nuclear as a relatively safe, abundant and clean fuel that can meet the worlds needs? Or should we accept that the risk of a serious nuclear disaster, like Chernobyl or worse, is too great for us to contemplate as a society?

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Britain’s nuclear confidence goes into meltdown

Charles Clover The Sunday Times 20 March 2011

Uncertainty surrounds Japan’s nuclear picture

Richard Black BBC News 12 March 2011

FOR

Germany is right to opt out of nuclear

Ulrich Beck Guardian 20 June 2011

Germany can no longer pretend nuclear power is safe

Roland Nelles Guardian 14 March 2011

A few good reasons why we should abandon nuclear energy for good

Dr. Éric Notebaert David Suzuki Foundation 24 January 2011

KEY TERMS

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Nuclear Power in a post-Fukushima world

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2011

Germany’s trouble with abandoning nuclear power

Isabelle de Pommereau Christian Science Monitor 15 July 2011

Shale gas: a welcome energy shock

Rob Lyons spiked 5 May 2011

Costs of low-carbon generation technologies

Committee on Climate Change May 2011

Timeline: Nuclear plant accidents

BBC News 12 April 2011

The dangers of nuclear power in light of Fukushima

Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall Mark Lynas blog 30 March 2011

What we know, and don’t know, about Japan’s reactors

David L Chandler Massachusetts Institute of Technology 16 March 2011

Is Nuclear Power Safe?

How it Works 15 March 2011

Japan’s crisis and the anti-nuclear backlash

George Eaton New Statesman 15 March 2011

Why greens must learn to love nuclear power

Mark Lynas New Statesman 18 September 2008

ORGANISATIONS

Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.

IN THE NEWS

Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

AUDIO/VISUAL

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