Tag Archive: nuclear


I write this following news of the many-layered disaster in Japan. At the point I am writing, the literal dust has settled but the metaphorical dust remains hovering in the air in the confusion. The literal fallout from the nuclear reactor has been gauged and thankfully found under control, but the metaphorical fallout is just beginning. In trying to write about the situation it is striking how many clichéd metaphors have to be avoided because of their literal relevance. It is perhaps a sign of the scale of the tragedy when what is usually the language of exaggeration (“open the floodgates”, “go nuclear”) fits the facts.

When disaster strikes there is always a pregnant pause while the world watches and the commentariat suspends their rational brains as they engage with the situation. Radical intellectual Naomi Klein is eloquent on the risks of governments using that pause of reason to push though radical agendas before the bloggers, the columnists and the public intellectuals have processed the situation. She warns us to be wary of big changes made while nations are reeling. That period is now ending and the thought process beginning. It is not known as I sit at my computer now what the big discussions will be about in the coming weeks, let alone what conclusions will be drawn, what changes made.

There are two areas to follow closely from a climate change perspective. The most obvious is the future of nuclear power. With the British government pushing the nuclear option hard in recent months, the events at Fukushima may radically shift both public and expert opinion.

Fukushima No.1 plant exploded twice more today. Radiation has risen to dangerous levels

At the point of writing there has just been a third blast at the No. 2 reactor and concerns about radiation are now at the front of everyone’s mind. Michael White on the Guardian website is arguing that if “the underlying lesson of Fukushima will turn out to be that, even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, nuclear plants – 40-year-old nuclear plants – can be built that survive, more or less in tact. Touch wood.” One suspects this will not be the only side of the argument to emerge in the next few days. Germany is one of several countries to be already seriously rethinking its approach to nuclear power.

Perhaps the less obvious conversation this may shift is the conversation about hazard management. Let me first clarify some terms: a hazard is a potentially risky event, like an earthquake in a crowded area. A disaster is what happens if this turns into a humanitarian catastrophe. This need not be the case: where Hurricane Katrina is widely considered to have been disastrously managed, Cuba survived the onslaught of a Hurricane Ivan (which, like Katrina, reached category 5 status but struck while at category 3 size), relatively unscathed the year before. In the area of climate change adaptation, good disaster management practice is understood as key to reducing the impacts of the increased likelihood of hurricanes, floods and heatwaves that we can expect as a result.

What happened in Japan, however, was unusual: in fact Japan has often been seen as excellent at earthquake management. This BBC news story from back in 2003 praises that ability effusively. The problem here was that two disasters struck in rapid succession. A plan for one, or even both, falls apart when hit by two in combination. The best example of this is the nuclear power station’s unit 1, where disaster struck first. When the earthquake hit, the plants all shut down, leaving hot fuel (uranium) needing to be cooled. This should have been happened using an electric water pump. The power-cut, however, knocked out this option. The backup system was a diesel pump that would have taken over successfully had it not been for the Tsunami shortly afterwards, which is thought to have disabled it. The second backup system, the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling system is battery-powered, and continues to supply water for as long as its batteries last: eight hours. Normally this would be enough to get power back up. In this situation things are more complicated. (See the reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists for detail.)

It is difficult to know what kinds of multiple-layered hazards may strike as the impacts of climate change become more serious. Some, like agricultural failure, may be more gradual. Imagine, however, a scenario let’s say in the U.S.A. where heat-waves damage food supplies in the country and heat the towns, rising sea-levels drive people from coastal cities and together lead to overcrowding and civil unrest in inland cities. If a hurricane, or a non-climate related hazard like an earthquake then strikes, the potential for disaster is huge, and the need for complex, well-funded and well-integrated disaster planning becomes key.

The detailed lessons for disaster management will be one of many areas to watch as the aftermath of the crisis plays out. This combination of earthquake and tsunami was, sadly, fairly predictable: geologists know where the fault lines are and know that earthquakes cause tsunamis. If this situation was not adequately accounted for, what about stranger combinations of hazards?

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In the news today was a proposal to make companies operating nuclear energy in the UK liable for clean-up costs of up to £1.01 billon in the event of a accident, up from only £140 million at the moment. Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne also proposes to allow more types of claim to be made in such circumstances. It is absolutely right for the government to make this change and stop distorting the market as it does now.

Huhne: In favour of building more nuclear plants, but raising the insurance costs

I will come clean here: I am a fence-sitter on the issue of nuclear power. The more I look into it the more complicated and unclear it becomes. I tend to conclude that it is not a power source to be dismissed completely, but mostly is not worth the cost. This may, however, change with technological improvements.

It is, however, unhelpful for nuclear power to be given an unfair market advantage. When its maximum liability level is low it has a huge implicit subsidy: government is then effectively agreeing to clear up the mess from any nuclear disaster. If nuclear energy becomes a bigger part of the UK’s (or the world’s) energy supply because its real costs are being covered by the government, then that is due to a misjudgement on the part of policymakers.

This is not to say all energy subsidies should be opposed, quite the opposite. The cards should be stacked heavily in favour of giving renewable energy an advantage, so the technology is developed swiftly. Subsidies to renewable energy sources are essential to develop areas like wind and solar power to a competitive market position. At present they have an unfair disadvantage simply because however good the fundamental ideas are, they haven’t had the years of development that fossil fuel and nuclear industries have. Adopting the most effective and efficient renewable generation is key to developing a sustainable economy in the long-term.

There is another key way of making the energy market better reflect energy production costs, and that is smart grids. At present less predictable sources of energy like wind are effectively discriminated against by a grid that is designed to move energy in a fairly unsubtle way. High-quality smart grids can allow power companies to monitor the electricity going through all of its power lines in real-time and have much greater control of where the power goes. Electricity inefficiency costs the world dearly: according to IBM the world’s current grids “lose enough electricity annually to power India, Germany and Canada for an entire year” This control makes the reliability challenges of renewable energy much easier to overcome: if there isn’t enough power generation in one area, it can be moved from elsewhere. Smart grids would still have benefits for other energy companies, but would level the playing field still further.