The 60,000 people on the streets of Stuttgart this weekend protesting about Germany’s plans to extend the lives of ten nuclear power plants should leave the energy world in no doubt that events in Japan will have an impact on the nuclear industry everywhere.
Soon after the first explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant on Saturday, politicians have been hurriedly backtracking on their commitments to the nuclear industry.
In the US, Senator Joe Lieberman told CBS’ Face the Nation:
I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants. But I think we’ve got to kind of quietly put, quickly put, the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming online.
Such American fears make sense. Most of the country’s nuclear plants face some, if not all of the risks as those in Japan. Thirty one of them are the same design of plant as used at Fukushima.
In Europe, the concern seems more of an emotional reaction. But that’s not to say it is not triggering similar responses from politicians. Germany’s Angela Merkel has already ordered an emergency safety check at all Germany’s 17 nuclear power stations. The Swiss have taken evern stronger action, suspending the approvals process altogether for three nuclear power stations so safety standards can be revisited.
In the UK, energy secretary Chris Huhne has asked the chief nuclear inspector, Mike Weightman, to prepare a report on the implications of the situation in Japan and any lessons that can be learnt from the disaster.
Huhne’s words to Channel 4 over the weekend showed that this former nuclear sceptic is relaxed about the likelihood of new nuclear generation. He said:
Anything we can learn from the Japanese experience we will learn and we will apply to make sure that our existing nuclear reeactors and any new generation nuclear reactors are absolutely at the utmost safety.
Huhne was keen to stress that the UK will never face the sort of disaster seen in Japan, which is fair. But he might find his optimistic words about “learning lessons” pale into insignificance if public anxiety is fuelled by TV shots of plumes of smoke billowing from Japanese reactors.
The Guardian’s Julian Glover summed up this risk on Monday morning when he wrote:
When nuclear plants go bang on live television – however unrepeatable the causes and controllable the consequences – all the industry’s promises about safety and economic logic, and all the arguments for the necessity of building plants to mitigate climate change, are blown away in a scary cloud of caesium dust.
Update: Two countries that are distinctly less cautious about nuclear power, even in the wake of the Japan earthquake, are China and India. You can read about China’s response here, and that of India here.