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Learning the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima

Thirty five years after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986 it is now clear that the long term consequences have been very different from those expected at the time. The extraordinary environmental recovery at the site of the explosion and in the surrounding area has shown that it is the impact of human activity which threatens the natural world, not that of nuclear energy nor of the radiation associated with it.

Chernobyl left a deep and lasting mark on trust in the old Soviet regime. It also triggered a complete, much needed and very successful restructuring of Russia’s nuclear energy industry. At the same time the already extremely rigorous safety requirements in other countries were tightened at huge cost, possibly even to levels beyond what was scientifically necessary, and certainly far stricter than those applied to the rest of the energy industry. All these changes helped nuclear to remain part of the global energy mix.

The aftermath of Chernobyl contrasted sharply with the hasty ill judged reaction to the Fukushima accident ten years ago. Both these disasters took a heavy toll in terms of lives lost but while Chernobyl was a nuclear accident Fukushima was not. It was an industrial accident caused by a tsunami which happened to disrupt the workings of an ageing nuclear plant which had been designed in ways long since abandoned. Nevertheless Fukushima produced sudden and irrational changes in energy policy which did not occur after Chernobyl.

In 1986 the UK, under its powerful science trained Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, went ahead the following year with constructing a new nuclear plant, Sizewell B. By contrast in 2011 an equally impressive science trained leader, Germany’s Angela Merkel, faced acute domestic political pressures. Unfortunately these led to policies which needlessly raised consumer prices, weakened national security and damaged the fight against climate change.

Similarly in 2010 Japan was a world leader in nuclear energy with 54 reactors. These were shut down and today only 9 have been allowed to restart. Instead Japan has concentrated on building new coal powered electricity generation plants with the result that in 2019 fossil fuels provided 70% of its electricity. If Japan had switched its nuclear plants back on its current coal consumption would now be cut by half.

Populist anti-nuclear movements were not confined to Germany. They gathered support in Spain and other EU countries, ignoring the fact that if Germany had kept its nuclear plants running it would now be burning one third less coal and one quarter less gas. It would also save the lives of more than one thousand German citizens a year who die prematurely from the air pollution caused by coal burning power plants. Estimates suggest that coal kills almost four hundred times more deaths per unit of energy than nuclear.

Back in 1986 climate change had not even been heard of outside a tiny circle of scientists and academics. Long term energy anxieties focused on how far into the future oil reserves might last to meet the world’s insatiable ever increasing demand for oil. The notion that a replacement for fossil fuels might one day be urgently needed would, if suggested then, have been treated with bewilderment. As for renewables, at that time known as “alternative” energy, they were the preserve of a tiny minority of enthusiasts who never dreamed of the remarkable fall in their costs which began to emerge two decades later.

With the huge advantage of hindsight and a much clearer understanding of the existential threat posed to the human species by climate change, the world has a chance to learn the right lessons from the twin tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Encouragingly there are signs that this may be about to happen.

This month the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission published a Report expressing resounding support for nuclear energy. Given that the Commission’s attitude to nuclear has previously veered between scepticism and outright hostility this Report is very welcome and runs counter to recent efforts by some member states to extend Germany’s anti-nuclear stance across the whole of the EU.

The Report declared that Generation III nuclear plants have the lowest accident fatality rates of all electricity generation technologies. Its analysis “did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear does more harm to human health than other electricity production technologies already included in the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities” alongside low carbon renewable energy technologies.

Furthermore the JRC confirmed that the average life cycle GHG emissions for nuclear produced electricity are comparable to those from hydropower and wind, the Nox and Sox emissions from nuclear energy are very low, comparable to or better than those from solar PV and wind energy, and the land needed for nuclear energy is significantly less than for wind and solar.

After the unprecedented Covid driven 5.8% fall in global GHG emissions in 2020, the biggest drop since World War II according to the International Energy Agency, they have started rising again. In December 2020 emissions were higher than the same month of 2019.

This is the alarming backdrop to the all-important COP26 in November when the world’s leaders must take the decisions needed to avert dangerous irreversible climate change. The heavy system costs of increasing dependence on intermittent energy sources to very high levels are now recognised so the need for nuclear to complement renewables as a provider of low carbon electricity is clear.

With the EU’s unqualified confirmation that there are no health or environmental reasons to restrict new investment in nuclear the door is open, 35 and 10 years later, for the right lessons to be drawn from Chernobyl and Fukushima.

It is a happy chance that both President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping are supporters of nuclear power. Let 2021 be the year when, just in time, nuclear begins to resume its rightful place as an essential part of the global solution to climate change.

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