The last few weeks have been marked by earthquakes, especially if you live around the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. New Zealand and Japan, both countries well accustomed to these violent forces, have been hit by magnitude 7.8 and 7.4 shocks respectively. Whilst the media drew our attention to a couple of cows being stranded in New Zealand, the reaction in the Japanese case was markedly different. If one followed the live broadcasts, or tapped into social media, the spectre of nuclear catastrophe was making an appearance again.
Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, very few would ever take notice of the countless earthquakes that shake Japan, at least from a nuclear perspective. Yes, some would always argue that placing nuclear power plants in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions might not be such a good idea. However, in terms of engineering the Japanese nuclear power stations are shining examples of how to overcome obstacles. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was the most powerful earthquake to have struck Japan, but thanks to the engineering of the nuclear power stations, not a single one was damaged by the earthquake itself, and they were all shut down in a safe manner. Placing emergency cooling systems in basements – as was the case at Fukushima – was not a very good idea. It was this oversight in regards to a secondary system that made the Fukushima nuclear power plant vulnerable to tsunamis, and problems like this should no longer occur with stricter regulation.
The earthquake earlier this week only reaffirmed the strength of Japanese engineering, with no reports of damage at any of the nuclear power plants. The reactions, and direct attempts of trying to revitalise the memories of Fukushima, are, however, symptomatic of a wider fear of nuclear. It seems the very coupling of earthquake and Japan reawakens the imagery of Fukushima. Recycling images from the 2011 accident, especially the hydrogen explosions, was common.
The Japanese overreaction after Fukushima has seen the country’s greenhouse gas emissions increase extensively as it shut down all its nuclear power stations and replaced it with coal and gas. A few nuclear power stations has started to come back online, but the costs – both to the environment and in financial terms – has been considerable. At Weinberg Next Nuclear, we hope to see more of the Japanese nuclear power stations to come back online during 2017
However, the global fallout from this has been significant. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power stations out of fear that similar accidents could happen in there. The replacement was not just the renewables that propelled Germany into international fame and awe, but also lignite, the most polluting of coals. Germany is not alone in this anti-nuclear trend. In 2012 a replacement nuclear power plant in Lithuania was rejected in a referendum, and this weekend the Swiss people will decide the future of nuclear in Switzerland in a referendum. The fear of nuclear severely undermines efforts on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and reducing the detrimental impacts of coal (waste etc). The fear of nuclear and radiation are issues of very high importance, and necessitate changes in how nuclear power is being marketed. This is one of the key challenges moving forward for proponents of nuclear.