🔒 Nuclear hysteria and the Fukushima lesson – David Fickling

Explore the Fukushima incident’s impact on nuclear energy’s revival in “Nuclear Hysteria and the Fukushima Lesson” by David Fickling. Uncover the pivotal role of safety protocols, beyond regulatory compliance, in maintaining public trust. Gain insights into the nexus of nuclear potential, safety, and societal acceptance for a decarbonising world.

By David Fickling


Japan will today start discharging contaminated waste water from the abandoned Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. From the reaction across Asia, you’d think Tokyo was embarking on a program to poison the region’s water supplies.

Hong Kong will ban imports of seafood from 10 Japanese regions, and the city’s environment minister accused Japan of “dumping trash on its neighbors’ doorsteps.” China this week summoned Tokyo’s ambassador to “lodge solemn representations” opposing the plan, while the state-owned Global Times tabloid bizarrely invoked the prospect of a “real-life Godzilla,” the film monster which attacks Tokyo after being awakened by nuclear tests.

As we’ve argued before, this hysteria is unscientific nonsense. Drinking a glass of the cleaned-up water direct from Fukushima’s outflow pipe would expose you to about as much radiation as you’d get from eating a dozen bananas. The effect when diluted in the waters of the Pacific is infinitely smaller. A two-year study by the International Atomic Energy Agency, reviewed by external experts appointed by governments including those of China, the Marshall Islands, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam, concluded last month that the exposure for people in the region will be “undetectable and negligible.”

Despite this, there’s an important lesson here that nuclear advocates would do well to heed. The extensive safety protocols that the atomic power industry has built over the past 60 years aren’t just cosmetic —  “onerous burdens,” “regulatory overreach,” “ radiophobia” or “ safety theater,” in the words of some critics.

Instead, they’re fundamental to the social license that nuclear power requires if it’s to exist at all, let alone expand. People who are serious about giving atomic energy a role in the decarbonization of the world’s grids need to accept this and work with public and expert opinion, rather than seek to dismiss it.

The problem for nuclear power is the same as its promise. The vast amount of energy that can be unleashed by splitting atoms makes it astonishingly efficient in terms of land-use. But the potency of all those free neutrons raises vast and unique engineering challenges if you want to operate a generator and dispose of its waste products safely. No other power generation technology needs to reckon with evacuating hundreds of thousands of people if something goes wrong; consider how to create warning signs that will be comprehensible 10,000 years in the future; or run constant international monitoring of its power plants if one of them ends up in a war zone, as has happened at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia.

Most of these safety rules were developed not in response to environmental activism, but in the wake of disasters that damaged popular trust.

Source: Gupta et al., “Tracking the nuclear ‘mood’ in the United States: Introducing a long term measure of public opinion about nuclear energy using aggregate survey data”, Energy Policy 133, 110888 (2019)

In the US, for instance, Three Mile Island caused a precipitous decline in support that nuclear power has never really recovered from. Observance of stringent regulations is the way the industry bought back its social license to operate. The rules are refined and enforced not by anti-nuclear activists, who (as the Fukushima water situation indicates) rarely have much understanding of the facts, but by scientists and engineers who’ve spent their lives making nuclear energy work. 

In that, they’re similar to those in other safety-critical industries, such as aviation and surgery, which constantly update and tighten their protocols to eliminate risks and build public confidence. No one is suggesting that we should dismantle the world’s air traffic control systems or stop using disposable surgical equipment, although doing so would certainly lower the cost of city breaks and hip replacements. Nuclear energy shouldn’t expect to be treated any differently.

Atomic power will play a role in decarbonizing the world economy, but it’s a far smaller one than advocates would suggest — because, even if its high costs could be dealt with, it can’t be deployed soon enough to take a sufficient bite out of the world’s fast-shrinking carbon budget. NuScale Power Corp., which hopes to be one of the first to deploy next-generation small modular reactors, doesn’t plan to connect the first one until 2030. Wind and solar generation at that point will be 17,202 gigawatt-hours, compared to 221 gigawatt-hours for small modular and 4,349 gigawatt-hours for more conventional nuclear power, according to BloombergNEF.

As with autonomous driving, cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence, there’s significant sums of speculative money attached to new nuclear technologies. Backers are vocal about the world-changing potential of their investments, if only a few technocratic tweaks to rules and regulations could give them the chance.

Those visions are fun, but people who are serious about the challenges of building atomic power aren’t fantasizing about a future where there’s a profitable mini-reactor in every suburb and people regard radiological accidents as no more serious than a tanker spill on the highway.

Instead, they’re quietly getting on with building old-fashioned gigawatt-scale reactors, using government backing to offset their vast construction costs and multi-decade liabilities. That, rather than a libertarian bonfire of the regulations, is the viable vision of a nuclear future.

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