Nuclear April 2012

N-Power Splits EU

Waseda symposium hosts parliamentary professor

• Fukushima “off the agenda” by 2020
• UK the “standard-bearer” for safe nuke use
• “Crusading” Germans pressuring poor nations

The impact of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant on the rest of the world’s acceptance of atomic energy will be relatively brief and the issue will be “off the agenda” in as little as eight years, according to Professor David Cope, director of the Houses of Parliament’s Office of Science and Technology.

However, it has polarised the European Union into two camps on the issue of nuclear energy, with Britain acting as the “standard-bearer” for the responsible and safe use of atomic power, he said.

“In terms of its influence on decision-making, the impact of Fukushima will be over very rapidly”, said Cope, who was in Japan in January to address a symposium at Waseda University organised by the Fukushima Project, an NGO that is compiling an independent report into the disaster.

“It will be much more rapid than after Chernobyl, which held back the development of nuclear power in Europe for 15 years”, he added. “A recent opinion poll in the UK showed that levels of support for nuclear power are already back to what they were before Fukushima”.

The British position is supported by Finland and France, but an alliance in Paris between the Socialists and the Greens was achieved with a promise of a roll-back of nuclear power. The anti-nuclear camp is vociferously headed by Germany and includes Austria, Switzerland and Denmark.

Cope, who was in Japan when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on 11 March last year and watched the disaster play out across the north-east of the country, said Germany is “proselytising” and trying to get the rest of Europe to fall into line with its new policy on nuclear energy.

“They are making it into a crusade and they want to convert everyone else”, Cope said. “It is actually quite sinister in some elements because they seem to be hinting about reviewing their international aid and development assistance, implying that any developing country that embraces nuclear energy can forget about development aid”.

He said his position is that Britain cannot afford to retreat from its commitment to nuclear power and that each country has the right to determine its own energy policy.

“Germany has the right to do what it wants, but it should not prevent other countries from taking their own path”, he said. “In eight years’ time, when all the information is in, we should compare notes and if Germany is proven to be right, then bully for them and they will be ahead of the rest of us in alternative energy sources.

“But if they are wrong, then perhaps Britain will have taken the lead in the nuclear industry and we will be in a position to exploit that”.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the British government set up its emergency response Cobra Committee and Mike Weightman, head of Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation, was charged with conducting an investigation into the implications for the UK. Cope had been a member of the team that prepared a report for the British government at the time of the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

Japan’s response to the biggest earthquake in living memory was very good, in terms of the resilience of structures, he said, but there appears to have been a failure to link a major undersea earthquake with the scale of the subsequent tsunami. Similarly, the reaction to the disasters among the Japanese public was excellent, but there were organisational failures in the authorities’ responses.

And, despite the fact that Europe’s nuclear plants are unlikely to face an identical set of circumstances, there are still lessons they must learn, Cope said.

“This was a unique set of circumstances and no nuclear plant in Europe would ever have such an insult delivered to it”, he said, estimating that each kilometre of the Tohoku coast was struck by some 200mn tonnes of water in four or more waves.

“The plant had a shock the likes of which we cannot conceive, short of an asteroid strike or a direct hit from a nuclear weapon”, Cope told BCCJ ACUMEN. “But there are other things to learn outside the plant, such as the characteristics of the dispersion of the radioactivity, and from the clean-up operation.

“There should also be a structured scientific programme under which, if possible, the Japanese government should leave some areas untouched and keep them as ‘contaminated exclusion zones’ where experiments can be carried out to determine how we might deal with another similar situation”, he said.

“That would be of great service to the international community”, he added. “We in Europe are watching the situation here in Japan, and the decisions that are taken—such as on restarting the shut-down reactors—are very important to the image of Japan”.