This morning, the German coalition government announced a change in policy to decommission all German nuclear power plants in the next ten years, which currently provide around a quarter of the power Germany’s 81 million residents require.
This comes in the ‘wake’ of the Fukushima nuclear incident, where a geological phenomenon of unprecedented magnitude and tragically unfortunate timing and location led to an earthquake and tsunami of a scale inconceivable to the designers of one of Japan’s oldest nuclear stations, resulting in the most comprehensive failure of not only primary cooling systems, but their backup generators, the backups of these backups in the form of three of the four seawater pumps available as a last resort, and destruction of the infrastructure around the plant to bring in yet more backups and repair equipment. The results of this cataclysmic chain of incredibly unlikely combined failures, apart from injuries to workers from the earthquake and conventional explosion itself, were a four-day check-up in hospital for two site workers, (who had been wading ankle deep in cooling water from the reactor), a death toll of zero, and, as of now, and a negligible environmental impact, with no risk to human health.
Nevertheless, the borderline-hysterical media coverage of the incident spread fear and ignorance far further than the radioactivity carried away from Japan, and today sees the announcement of a policy which can only lead to greater dependence on Russian gas oligarchs, less stable and secure supply of energy, higher prices and, I should venture, poorer safety performance than that of Germany’s fleet of relatively modern, well managed reactors.
However, this retrograde policy cuts much deeper than merely its direct, perverse effects on European energy.
By making this announcement, German politicians are pandering to the disastrous combination of a fearmongering anti-nuclear lobby and public ignorance about nuclear power, rather than governing in the national interest, using scientific, rational logic. Indeed, far from merely failing to improve the quality of life of its citizens, it is actively endangering it. This constitutes nothing short of a dereliction of the duty of the state to govern in the best interest of its people, using the best scientific information available, rather than following the prevailing public fervour.
This must not continue. Already British MPs have stood up in parliament with similar sentiments – one MP asked angrily; “What will the Prime Minister do to prevent a Welsh Fukushima?” …to prevent the nuclear industry from withstanding a geological catastrophe in Wales on the scale of Tōhoku without a single fatality? Seems like something we’d be aspiring to, not preventing, although only in a parallel universe where the statistical probability of a Tsunami in mid-wales was anything other than zero.
It’s important to recognise the situation in Britain is far, far bleaker with regards to energy than Germany, even now. Procrastination and indecision by previous governments ever since Thatcher leave Britain in the situation that if we do nothing, by 2016 the lights will go out. We are ever more dependent on the power imported under the channel from France to provide the actual electricity we need whilst our windmills; broadly decorative in terms of providing power; either sit idle or else draw power from the national grid. This ongoing bailout of our hopeless energy policy is of course only possible thanks to France’s extensive network of nuclear stations, providing 79% of its power cleanly, safely, and with negligible carbon emissions, allowing it to export more power than any other nation on earth. It is too late for new Nuclear power in the UK to fill this void now, but the tragedy in Germany underscores the importance that we are never, ever led astray by ignorance and over-zealous lobby groups, over science, reason, and pragmatism.
Owen WilliamsData Sources:
MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department – web.mit.edu/nse