Can nuclear operators now breathe a sigh of relief?

Naoto KanWednesday has been an important day for the nuclear industry.

First of all, Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan (pictured) told reporters he wanted to remodel entirely his country’s energy supply around renewable technology. He said:

I have repeatedly said that we need to rethink our basic energy policy from scratch… The direction that it may take will likely be centered around wind, solar, and biomass energy.

This will be a big worry for nuclear operators, and not just in Japan. Anti-nuclear campaigners now have a perfect case study. Look at Japan, they can say: it invested heavily in nuclear power and now it has performed a U-turn after seeing the damage it can bring.

But there are some straws for the industry to hold on to. For all of Kan’s tough talk about nuclear he also said this:

Once a thorough implementation of safety can be determined, nuclear energy will continue to be utilised.

This thorough implementation of safety will focus both on technical issues and the perceived problem of a conflict of interest between regulators (the supervisory body and the administration advancing nuclear power work in the same office).

While nuclear power companies may worry that this will bring additional costs in Japan, they will also be relieved that Kan added that he would not stop reactors that are currently shut for maintenance being reopened. There is at least some desire to get back to normal.

But by far the best news coming from Japan is that the Japanese utility Tepco is sticking to its original forecast that the Fukushima reactors will be stable by January, despite reports that the damage there is worse than first calculated. Of course the company, which has been fiercely criticised for its lack of transparency during the crisis, might be over-optimistic in its assumptions. But if the estimate proves correct, it means the worst will have been avoided, and the fallout from the crisis will no longer dominate the news flow.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the UK government has published an interim report from its chief scientist about nuclear safety.

Dr Mike Weightman’s main finding is that there is no need to curtail the operations of nuclear power plants in the UK. He said:

The extreme natural events that preceded the accident at Fukushima – the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent huge tsunami – are not credible in the UK. We are 1,000 miles from the nearest fault line and we have safeguards in place that protect against even very remote hazards. Our operating and proposed future reactor designs and technology are different to the type at the Fukushima plant.

It couldn’t have been much better for the nuclear industry, and their response indicates this. EDF and Centrica issued a joint press release welcoming the report. EDF boss Vincent de Rivaz said:

As Dr Weightman promised, the report is transparent, comprehensive in scope and evidence based. While these are interim findings only, they provide a clear endorsement of the safety culture and performance of the UK nuclear industry.

EDF’s share price also reflects this optimism.

Obviously the situation in the rest of Europe and elsewhere is very different, but these developments offer a glimmer of hope to the pro-nuclear lobby that the worst may be behind it.

 

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