April 18 2011
The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has prompted a worldwide debate about nuclear safety, with countries such as China, Germany and Switzerland taking steps to halt their nuclear power programmes. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne has formally instructed Dr Mike Weightman, the chief nuclear inspector, to review the implications of the events in Japan and the lessons for the UK nuclear industry.
On March 8 2011, before the disaster, the Department of Energy and Climate Change published the Carbon Plan, which sets out a timetable of action that the United Kingdom must take to meet the increasing demand for energy while reducing carbon emissions. Nuclear power is seen as playing a significant role in energy security and in helping to meet carbon emissions targets. Do safety concerns justify a review of nuclear policy and how important will nuclear power be in the future UK energy mix?
The events at Fukushima were caused by the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded and the tsunami that it triggered. The plant is close to the 'Ring of Fire' - a fault line extending around the Pacific, along which 90% of the world's earthquakes occur. The location of existing and future nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom simply does not carry the same risk.
Since nuclear power was first used in the United Kingdom, only one major incident has occurred: a disaster at Windscale in Cumberland in 1957 which was rated at Level 5 (out of seven) on the international nuclear events scale. The core in Britain's first nuclear reactor caught fire, releasing radioactive smoke into the atmosphere.
The United Kingdom has commissioned a review of the impact of the Fukushima disaster before making decisions about the future of nuclear power. Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons: "I do think that nuclear power should be part of the mix in future as it is part of the mix right now... [E]veryone watching the dreadful events in Japan will want to make sure we learn any lessons."
Weightman is due to publish an interim report by mid-May 2011 and a final report by September 2011. Both are eagerly awaited by those involved in the nuclear sector, particularly the energy companies involved in the next generation of nuclear power stations. The government must strike a balance between making necessary improvements to nuclear safety and maintaining the momentum of the newbuild programme.
The Carbon Plan states the need for sustainable, low-carbon sources of energy; from the government's perspective, nuclear power is a key ingredient of a low-carbon future. The United Kingdom relies on nuclear sources for around 20% of its power generation. Nuclear power provides a solution to the challenges of securing enough power generation for the country's future requirements and meeting the national carbon emissions target of a 34% reduction (from the 1990 benchmark) by 2020. With one-quarter of the existing UK power stations due to close by 2015, newbuild nuclear power stations will make a vital contribution to baseload power.
Until Weightman's report is published, the full impact of the incidents at Fukushima on the UK nuclear industry will remain uncertain. Although the lessons are still unclear, the government will doubtless be keen to reassure the public that it has undertaken a full review of the safety aspects of nuclear power.
If the events in Japan had not taken place, the safety debate - although vitally important - would not be so prominent and public. Instead, the focus would be on the importance of nuclear power as a low-carbon, sustainable source of energy and an answer to increasing demands.
However, the concerns surrounding nuclear safety must be reconciled with a realisation that there will soon be an urgent requirement for new power generation. If reviews and debates continue to delay nuclear newbuilds, a significant energy gap may open between supply and demand.
For further information on this topic please contact Peter Roberts or Edward Gardner at Ashurst by telephone (+44 20 7638 1111), fax (+44 20 7638 1112) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
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